Joe Louis

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Name: Joe Louis
Alias: The Brown Bomber
Birth Name: Joseph Louis Barrow
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan, USA
Birthplace: LaFayette, Alabama, USA
Died: 1981-04-12 (Age:66)
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 187cm
Reach: 193cm
Referee: Record
Pro Boxer: Record
Amateur Boxer: Record

Career Overview

Joe Louis in 1935

Twenty-five consecutive title defenses. A world record. Twelve consecutive years as World Heavyweight Champion. Another world record. Three consecutive first-round knockouts in title defenses. Ten victories over world champions. Only one loss in his first sixty-two fights. Any way one looks at it, Joe Louis is an all-time great in the sport of boxing and a deserving Hall of Fame inductee. But the legacy and importance of Louis exists beyond the realm of statistics. In an era when blacks were shut out of most opportunities for social equality or upward mobility, Louis succeeded in gaining the richest prize in sports, opening doors and minds like no other athlete before him. His overwhelming abilities and skills inside the ropes got him to the championship, but his sportsmanship and soft-spoken dignity made him an idol to millions. Louis was far from a role model in his private life, but to the public, he was a symbol of values larger than himself. Americans of all colors, sexes, and creeds saw in him the ideals of freedom, competition, and patriotism that made him the perfect symbol of national pride during the troubled years of the Great Depression and then World War II. He may have been the greatest heavyweight in history, but much more importantly, he was a hero to an entire generation.

The Detroit Bomber

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Joseph Louis Barrow moved to Detroit, Michigan, with his large family at the age of ten. To help his family financially, the boy found a job delivering ice in his neighborhood. He would later credit the hours of carrying heavy ice blocks from his wagon up several flights of stairs in tenement buildings for helping him develop his well muscled frame and fighting endurance. Meanwhile, he entered trade school to study cabinetmaking.

He had no intentions of pursuing a boxing career until he boxed a few friendly rounds with a friend, Thurston McKinney, who was a successful amateur boxer in the Detroit area. McKinney encouraged Louis to secretly spend the money his mother had given him for violin lessons on boxing lessons instead. Fighting under the name "Joe Louis," he lost his first amateur bout to recent 1932 Olympian Johnny Miler (after being knocked down 7 times in 2 rounds), but within a few years, he was regarded as one of the standout amateurs in the Midwest.

In 1934, Louis outpointed Joe Bauer to win the light heavyweight championship at the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. He then knocked out Ario Soldati to win the National AAU light heavyweight championship. With an amateur record that included 54 wins in 58 bouts, he turned professional later that year.

Preceded by:
Max Marek
Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions
Light Heavyweight Champion

Succeeded by:
Joe Bauer
Preceded by:
Max Marek
National AAU
Light Heavyweight Champion

Succeeded by:
Joe Bauer

In 1934, Julian Black and John Roxborough, two African American racketeers from Detroit, became Louis's financial backers and managers. They immediately sought to groom him as the future World Heavyweight Champion and hooking him up with veteran trainer and former lightweight contender Jack Blackburn, whom Louis would affectionately come to know as "Chappie." Additionally, Black and Roxborough placed certain restrictions upon Louis's behavior in and out of the ring. These rules were instituted in order to cast Louis as non-threatening to the white establishment and fans, who had been so severely offended by the only black man to win the World Heavyweight Championship previously, Jack Johnson. Black and Roxborough forbade Louis to appear in photographs with white women or alcohol. He was not allowed to gloat over beaten opponents, especially white opponents. As he progressed in the sport, he was not to flaunt his cars, suits, houses, and other evidence of his growing wealth. As his managers trained him in behavior, trainer Blackburn prepared Louis for the professional ranks. On July 4, 1934, Louis made his pro debut in Chicago, Illinois, knocking out experienced Jack Kracken in just a few seconds of the opening round.

Before the close of the year, having won eleven consecutive bouts (nine by knockout), Louis was already in the ring with his first ranked contender. The opponent was California's Lee Ramage, a veteran of more than thirty bouts who had already been in with some of the best in the world. Though bookmakers made Ramage the favorite, Louis made his first major impact on the national boxing scene with an eighth-round demolition of his opponent, whose handlers stopped the fight when Ramage hit the canvas for the fourth time in that round. After just six months of professional competition, The Ring magazine rated Louis as a top-ten heavyweight contender.

After seven more consecutive knockout wins (including a second-round knockout in a rematch with Ramage), Louis was in the ring with Primo Carnera, the former Heavyweight Champion of the World. Carnera stood over six and one-half feet tall and outweighed Louis by nearly sixty-five pounds. Because of the political turmoil created from Italy's recent invasion of Ethiopia, the fight took on a meaning that spread beyond the realm of sports. Ethnic tensions within New York City grew so dangerous in fact that many powerful people in the city pushed for the fight to be canceled. Despite—or possibly because of—the controversy, 62,000 paying customers showed up at Yankee Stadium. After the first round, Carnera's face dripped with blood, some of his lower teeth having been pierced through his upper lip. The remaining rounds only prolonged the inevitable, as Carnera proved easy target practice for the sensational "Brown Bomber." A right hand in the sixth round sent the ex-champion "down slowly, like a great chimney that had been dymanited," wrote journalist John Kiernan. Though Carnera showed heart in rising, he was sent tumbling down yet again just moments later. He bravely stood up yet again, just in time to be battered to the floor a third time. Amazingly, the Italian made it to his feet, but referee Arthur Donovan stopped the fight.

"Black Hope"

Having secured the most impressive victory yet in his career, Louis was now regarded as the standout young fighter in the division and was instantly adopted by African Americans as their most beloved athlete of the era. Next up on Louis's boxing schedule was King Levinsky, another experienced ring veteran who had faced some of the division's best. Though regarded as a hard puncher himself, Levinsky appeared obviously frightened of this young marauder from Detroit. He had to be practically shoved out of his corner to fight and was annihilated in less than a round. This dominance of yet another quality opponent only served to strengthen Louis's status as the "great black hope" in the imaginations of many.

He was a full-fledged celebrity now and, to further enhance his image, Black and Roxborough arranged his marriage with a teenaged secretary named Marva Trotter. Though Louis remained an insatiable ladies man behind the scenes, the union with Trotter was created to solidify his image of humility and integrity. The marriage was so manufactured, in fact, that it fit right in as part of the publicity for Joe's bout with former World Heavyweight Champion Max Baer. Louis was married just moments before his arrival at Yankee Stadium for the fight on September 24, 1935.

The wild-swinging, hard-hitting, fast-living, and fun-loving Baer, having lost the championship in an upset to Jim Braddock only three months earlier, was still regarded as a serious threat to any man in the ring. Many speculated that Louis's handlers were rushing him too quickly into a fight with a man of Baer's caliber. Yet it was not Louis who was intimidated. Later, when asked in an interview to define the feeling of fear in the ring, "Madcap Max" responded, "Standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early." Some 88,150 people paid $1,000,832—the largest gate in nearly a decade and a considerable achievement in the midst of the Great Depression—to see the two power punchers clash. Though both men threw bombs as expected, Louis's punches were shorter, faster, and more accurate. Baer's punches were looping and amateurish and at no point did Louis show the effects of Baer's fabled power. Both men traded punches for three rounds, Louis clearly getting the better of the action. In the fourth round, looking exhausted and resigned to defeat after taking a hurricane of punishment from Louis, Baer dropped voluntarily to his knees. It was the first time he had gone down in forty-eight professional fights. He rose to fight on, but was quickly flattened to the floor by a left-right combination.

Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling I

Though Baer made it up to his knee, he could not rise in time and suffered his first knockout defeat. "I could have struggled up once more," he told reporters after the fight, "but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch it."

Now deservedly regarded as the number one contender for the World Heavyweight Championship (after just over one year of professional activity), Louis was matched with Germany's Max Schmeling, the winner to face champion Braddock with the title on the line. Just to stay active, he knocked out veteran contenders Paolino Uzcudun and Charley Retzlaff while the politics of the Schmeling matchup played out. Schmeling, another former World Heavyweight Champion, had put together some decent victories of late, but was overall regarded as past his prime and due for a beating at the hands of the sport's newest sensation. Schmeling was an adept student of boxing science, however. Prior to the match, he carefully studied films of Louis's fight with Max Baer, dissecting apparent flaws in the Detroit fighter's technique. Among the weaknesses he noticed was the fact that Louis lowered his left hand after throwing a left jab. In the ring, Schmeling exploited this subtle flaw to his own advantage, countering nearly every Louis jab with his best punch, the right cross. The fight proved to be a competitive, hard-hitting affair for the first three rounds, but, in the fourth, a counter right from the German dropped Louis for the first time in his career. Though Louis rose, he was badly dazed for the remainder of the fight, and Schmeling subsequently delivered the finest performance of his career. He battered Louis for the next eight rounds, often standing toe-to-toe with the vaunted puncher and landing that same right hand to the jaw repeatedly. In the twelfth, he sent Joe tumbling to the floor once more, and this time Louis could not recover. Louis was counted out while still sitting on the canvas, shaking his head confusedly.

Road to the Title

The unexpected loss proved devastating to Louis and his fans. The press dismissed his prior accomplishments as a hoax, and his previously clear path to the championship now appeared to be closed. Louis was distraught and ashamed, but his handlers, not wanting depression to set in, wisely threw him right back into competition. Less than two months after the Schmeling fight, he was back in the ring with yet another former champ, Jack Sharkey. The man who had taken the championship from Schmeling back in 1932, Sharkey had also been in the ring with the likes of Harry Wills and Jack Dempsey. At this point, though, he was well beyond his prime and proved the perfect name opponent against whom Louis could rebuild his confidence. Sharkey showed heart in surviving three knockdowns before being floored for a fourth and final time in the third frame.

Undefeated in his next six fights, winning five of those by knockout, Louis was back in contention for the World Heavyweight Championship still held by Jim Braddock. Max Schmeling, however, by virtue of his knockout win over Louis, remained the number one contender, and a Braddock-Schmeling showdown was scheduled for 1937. There were rumors that the fight's organizers were stalling, however, afraid of the negative publicity that would be generated over Schmeling (wrongly perceived by most Americans as a Nazi) getting a shot at the world's title. When it was confirmed that Braddock's managers were in talks with the Louis camp instead, the New York State Athletic Commission officially released an order for Braddock to fight Schmeling for the title. Any other fight, with Louis or otherwise, would not be recognized by New York as being for the championship. The Madison Square Garden Corporation, the largest promotional company in the sport at the time, even attempted to get a legal injunction against a Braddock-Louis fight (Louis was not on the Garden's promotional roster). Nonetheless, in February 1937, Braddock's people confirmed that he had signed to defend his championship against Louis.

Joe Louis's title belt from The Ring

The fight, held at Chicago's Comiskey Park on June 22, 1937, was Braddock's first in two years, since winning the title in a tremendous upset from Max Baer. With 25 losses on his record, he was considered a fluke champion, whose title was ready for the taking. In a rare case of the challenger being the favorite over the champion, Louis was made the 10-to-1 favorite. In the first round, it appeared that the champ would pull off yet another stirring upset. He fired a short right hand that put Louis on the seat of his pants and stunned the audience to its feet. Surprised but not hurt, Louis rose at the count of two and dealt a brutal beating to the champion. Braddock did well to last into the eighth round, when a right hand caught him directly on the chin. Braddock's knees sagged and then, with a delayed reaction, he crumbled to the floor, blood spilling out of his nose onto the floor. The famous "Cinderella Man" was counted out and the title transferred to Louis.

The "Fight of the Century"

From the start, Louis was expected to be a stellar champion, and he lived up to his promise. For his first defense, he took on Tommy Farr—the Welshman who held the British Championship. Despite his national title and his considerable boxing skills, Farr was thought to be a pushover opponent. Instead, Farr put up a spirited fight and lasted the full fifteen rounds, but lost by a unanimous decision. This was followed by knockouts of Nathan Mann and Harry Thomas.

Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II

On June 22, 1938, Louis received the opportunity to avenge his only loss against Max Schmeling, still rated the world's number one contender. The social and political furor surrounding this bout was tremendous. Because of the increasingly aggressive military, political, and social agendas of the Nazi Party that now governed Schmeling's native Germany, many across the world were afraid of Schmeling winning the World Heavyweight Championship and handing it over to German dictator Adolf Hitler. Schmeling was not a Nazi, but was perceived to be. The public outside of Germany put a lot of pressure on the Louis to defend his title successfully and give the world a symbolic victory. American President Franklin Roosevelt personally visited Louis's training camp, while Hitler openly socialized with Schmeling.

The international implications were obvious, and when the fight got started, Joe Louis's improvements over the past two years became were obvious. He came out blazing in the first round, and the German tried to counterpunch as he had in the first bout, but to no avail. Louis was going to give him no time to wait and pick his punches. The American swarmed all over his challenger, smothering him with punches from all angles. Driven into the ropes and battered with a fusillade of short, crisp blows, Schmeling turned his back to his opponent and let out a scream that, years later, many of the 75,000 spectators could still recall vividly. Schmeling's knees buckled under the punishment, and referee Arthur Donovan pushed Louis away, beginning a count. Schmeling reluctantly stepped away from the ropes, and Donovan allowed him to continue. A few punches later, the German was lying on the canvas. From then on, he was helpless. He rose but fell moments later, and Donovan stopped the fight. It would be the crowning performance of Louis's career and the defining moment in boxing for a generation.

The "Bum of the Month" Club

Basking in the glory and riches that were his after the defeat of Schmeling, Louis stayed out of the ring for five months before defending his championship next against John Henry Lewis, the reigning Light Heavyweight Champion of the World. One of Louis's good friends, Lewis had long kept secret the fact that he was going blind. Knowing that his vision problems spelled an early end to his career, Lewis approached Louis about a lucrative title shot, which the champion was happy to grant. Knowing of his friend's ailment, Louis devised a strategy that he knew would do Lewis the least amount of long-term damage: take him out quickly so as not to prolong the punishment. In the first World Heavyweight Championship bout between two black fighters in more than twenty years, the champion destroyed his challenger in less than a round. It was Lewis's last fight, and it was Louis's second consecutive first-round knockout of a future Hall-of-Famer. Less than three months later he flattened the overmatched Jack Roper in the same round.

Joe Louis & Tony Galento

Over the next several months, Louis cleaned out the division of all credible opposition. In a thrilling slugfest with tough-talking, hard-hitting, beer-swilling "Two Ton" Tony Galento, Louis survived an early knockdown to stop the ex-bouncer from New Jersey in the fourth round. Then, in a rematch with New York's Bob Pastor, who had previously lasted the ten-round distance against Louis, the champion scored an eleventh-round knockout. With the results of these four fights, Louis was selected as The Ring Fighter of the Year for 1939.

Louis's first fight in 1940 was a somewhat controversial bout with Argentina's Arturo Godoy, a mauling fighter who lasted the full fifteen rounds but lost a split decision. After doing away with aptly named Johnny Paychek in two rounds, Louis gave Godoy a rematch and scored two knockdowns in the eighth round before the referee stopped the fight.

When their man had finally brushed aside every worthwhile challenger available, Louis's handlers began matching him with what became known in the press as the "Bum of the Month" club, journeymen and fringe contenders who were no match for the champion. Between December 1940 and April 1941, the champion dispatched five men (Al McCoy, Red Burman, Gus Dorazio, Abe Simon, and Tony Musto) with relative ease.

A more credible opponent, Buddy Baer, Max's younger brother, posed a bigger threat than the previous five combined. At 250 pounds, Buddy Baer was both taller and heavier than his more famous brother. He had beaten such notable foes as Tony Galento, Nathan Mann, and Abe Simon, and was ranked among the top contenders. In an exciting fight, Baer put the champion through the ropes in the opening round of their bout on May 23, 1941. Louis retaliated furiously, however, and had obviously taken back the lead when the referee disqualified the challenger at the start of the seventh round because Baer's trainer refused to leave the ring. Baer's men claimed that the champion had fouled their fighter by throwing a punch (that had knocked the Californian out cold) after the bell ending the sixth round. When referee Arthur Donovan refused to listen to their protests, they remained in the ring, and Donovan disqualified the bunch of them. Baer, still sitting dazedly on his stool, was in no condition to continue anyway.

The Billy Conn Fight

If the first round of Louis's bout with Buddy Baer proved to be a close call for the champion, his next fight would be even more dangerous. On June 18, 1941, he squared off with the former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Billy Conn, at the Polo Grounds in New York. Known as the "Pittsburgh Kid," Conn was a popular fighter and one of the pound-for-pound best of the era. Slick and elusive, yet with a cocky attitude and a solid punch to boot, he had cleaned out both the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions in the same period that Louis had done the same with the heavyweights.

In 1940, he jumped up into the heavyweight division and, while besting some of the best men in the ranks, established himself as the only remaining valid contender for the champion's crown. Their highly anticipated match is still regarded by many today as the greatest heavyweight championship battle of all time. Certainly, despite Conn's highly respected skills, the drama of the match was not expected. The official results of the weigh-in revealed a twenty-five pound weight advantage for the champion (199 for Louis and 174 for Conn). However, promoter Mike Jacobs had tweaked those numbers just to make the bout seem like less of a mismatch; the actual weights were 200 for Louis and 169 for Conn, a thirty-one pound advantage for the former.

Leave it to the clever Pittsburgh Kid to turn his disadvantage into an advantage. Conn's lighter weight allowed him to constantly dance around the ring, not allowing Louis to plant his feet to land his famous bombs. In the opening few rounds, Conn neglected offense, content to circle his opponent and stay out of range. By round three, however, the challenger's advantage in hand speed became obvious. Louis was being repeatedly pelted with jabs and straight rights, followed by fusillades of solid hooks from both hands. By the time the champion offered anything in return, Conn had skipped around behind him. There was little else Louis could do but plod after his tricky opponent and take punches. "You've got a fight on your hands," the ever plucky challenger boasted to the champion at one point during the fight, to which Louis replied, "I know it."

By the opening of the eleventh round, despite having opened up two cuts on Conn's face, Louis seemed to have lost all of his energy. He simply plodded after his foe with the sagging body language of exhaustion. Yet he kept his famous "poker face" and never showed signs of panic or discouragement.

Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn I

During the closing seconds of the twelfth, a series of left hooks and right crosses from Conn stunned the "Brown Bomber," whose knees sagged. The staggered champ stumbled backward into the ropes. When the challenger charged in to finish him off, however, Louis's remaining instincts allowed him to hold, allowing him to make it to the bell.

As the fighters returned to their corners after the end of the twelfth, Conn was leading on two out of three judges scorecards. The third had the fight a draw. Though he did not know the scores, the challenger was also confident that he was winning, but resisted the idea of carefully boxing his way through the final rounds. "This is easy," he told his trainer, Johnny Ray. "I can take this son of a bitch out this round." Ray adamantly advised his charge against the idea, but Conn charged out for the fourteenth intent to war with the most feared puncher on the planet. He settled down on his feet and stood toe-to-toe with the champ, and both fighters exchanged hard punches. Still Conn's hand speed kept him in front, but Louis was clearly landing now and the crowd erupted in excitement. As the round reached its final minute, Louis landed a hard right hand that seemed to double Conn over. Seeing his chance, the always dangerous champion let loose with a volley of combinations, the final one tipping the frozen challenger over onto his right side. By the time a dazed Conn staggered to his feet, the referee had counted to ten.

Billy Conn's impetuousness, combined with the awesome punching power of Joe Louis, had given the boxing world one of its most thrilling moments in history. It was certainly Louis's most inspiring victory since his one-round annihilation of Schmeling, the most intense heavyweight title fight of the decade, and immediately sparked interest in a rematch.

"We're On God's Side"

While negotiations were being made for a second bout with Conn, Louis next defended his title against the overmatched Lou Nova from California. Before a crowd of more than 56,000 fans, he fought a lackluster bout that was nonetheless described by boxing historian Nat Fleischer as a "massacre" because the champion completely dominated, and the referee was forced to stop the fight in the final second of round six.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan that December changed the course of world history, prompting America's involvement into the second World War, a fight which Americans had already identified Louis with because of his two bouts with Germany's Max Schmeling. Thus the U.S. Army sought out Louis as a representative for the "patriotic cause." Louis enlisted on January 8, 1942. A day later, he was in the ring for a rematch with Buddy Baer, scoring a sensational first-round knockout that laid to rest all controversy surrounding their prior match.

On March 10, he appeared at Madison Square Garden as a speaker at a large dinner given by the Navy Relief Society. "I have only done what any red-blooded American would do," he told his fellow guests. "We gonna do our part, and we will win, because we are on God's side," would become one of the great inspirational quotes for the "American cause." A little over two weeks later, he returned to the Garden to knock out overmatched Abe Simon in the sixth round. The majority of Louis's winnings for both the Baer rematch and the Simon bout were donated to the Army Relief Fund.

After twenty-one consecutive title defenses, already a record, Louis abandoned boxing to enter the service. The boxing community then put his title on "freeze" until his return (Other divisional champions also had their titles frozen "for the duration").

Though he was one of the most popular symbols of American virtues and a great source of pride for his countrymen, Joe Louis never saw action during his time in the military. He did mostly public relations and training work in between dozens of unpaid exhibition bouts during his years in the service, but managed to attain the rank of sergeant before his honorable discharge in October 1945.

It was also during his Army tenure that his finances fell into complete disarray. Already somewhat in debt at the time of his enlistment thanks to his irresponsible spending and borrowing, Louis did not fight professionally for several years and thus continued to borrow heavily from his promoters and managers. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service taxed Louis for his income from the 1941 bouts, most of which he donated to the U.S. government. By the end of World War II, Louis would owe the IRS more than $100,000.

The Comeback

Louis's first comeback fight, a rematch with Billy Conn on June 19, 1946, at Yankee Stadium in New York, promised to help his finances. The second fight had been in the making since the conclusion of the first, but, because of the war, was postponed indefinitely. As a result, public demand for the bout continued to grow. The end of the war, resulting in the return of servicemen stateside, the increased popularity of both Louis and Conn, and a growing economy, produced nearly two million dollars in gate receipts—the largest figure in almost two decades. Louis's share of the purse was $625,916, the largest any fighter had made in a single night before. Nearly all of it went to paying off his enormous debts. But now he owed taxes on this purse.

Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn II

The fight itself was a dud. Conn was past his prime and Louis was rusty. The challenger simply ran the entire night, neglecting to exchange punches until the champion caught up with him and knocked him out in the eighth round, proving his now famous prediction before the fight: "He can run, but he can't hide."

The money problems led Louis back into the ring three months later to face number one contender Tami Mauriello. Despite his high ranking, Mauriello had achieved his status mostly against mid-level competition. He was felt to be an easy mark for the champ, and few outside of Mauriello's native New York were interested in the match. Thus promoter Mike Jacobs put the fight at Yankee Stadium and reduced the ticket prices, prompting a turn out of nearly 40,000 fans to watch the "Bronx Barkeep" take on the "Brown Bomber." The opening (and only) round of the fight was one of the most exciting of Louis's long career. The challenger caught an unsuspecting Louis with a solid right hand in the early going, sending the champ careening into the ropes. The crowd reflexively shuddered to its feet. As Mauriello charged in with dreams of glory pushing him on, Louis bought time to regain his senses by clinching. After the referee broke them, the pair exchanged a wicked series of blows, Louis seeming to get the better of the action. Less than a minute after he had been nearly out on his feet against the ropes, Louis sent home a left hook that dropped the New Yorker to the mat. Though he made it to his feet, the challenger was finished. Another left hook nearly knocked him out of the ring, and the fight was finished. In his autobiography, Louis would refer to this as the last great performance of his career.

The Walcott Fights

Regardless of the quick knockout of Mauriello, it was clear that Louis had entered the twilight of his illustrious boxing career by 1946. Nevertheless, he remained a champion and the most popular boxer in the world. However, upon hearing news that Louis's next challenger was to be former sparring partner Jersey Joe Walcott, a former middleweight with eleven losses and twelve draws on his record, the New York State Athletic Commission initially refused to sanction the bout, although it eventually relented and allowed the pair to fight for the championship. Ignoring warnings from his doctors about the obvious signs of long-term nervous damage to his body and concerned about losing weight rather than getting training properly to fight Walcott, Louis entered the ring unprepared for the determined challenger before him.

Joe Louis vs. Jersey Joe Walcott I

Walcott, on the other hand, fought nothing like the twenty-to-one underdog he was supposed to be. Known for his tricky footwork and veteran's skills, the challenger danced circles around the champion and used his left jab to keep Louis at bay. Occasionally, he let loose with a stinging right hand, the first of which sent Louis down in the opening round. Although Louis scrambled to his feet and continued to stalk Walcott, he seemed slow, clumsy, and disheartened. In the fourth, Walcott scored another knockdown. Louis rose to fight on, but did little else but defend himself, shuffle forward, and lazily counterpunch. Confident of a victory, Walcott spent the final three rounds practically running away from Louis, not wanting to endanger what he perceived to be a comfortable points lead. When the verdict was announced, however, with Louis as the split decision victor and still World Heavyweight Champion, both Walcott's corner and the crowd erupted in outrage. The decision of the two judges who scored the bout for Louis are still puzzled over by many today.

Privately, it had been Louis's intention to retire after the Walcott bout, but the disputed decision rankled his ego and left him wanting to settle the score. Always one to give a worthy challenger a rematch, especially one necessary to redeem his public image, Louis granted Walcott a rematch on June 25, 1948. "There ain't gonna be no argument when we meets again," he told one reporter. Despite the boast, Louis came in heavier than any time previous in his career, weighing 213 pounds, and looked every bit of it. Again he appeared slow and clumsy, even hitting the deck in the third round, thanks to a combination from the evasive challenger. Rising to his feet before the referee could even begin his count, Louis fought on. Aside from that brief moment of excitement, the fight proved a bore for the fans through most of the going, as Walcott did little but dance out of harm's way while Louis failed to put any harm on his fleet-footed challenger. In the tenth, Referee Frank Fullam commanded the fighters to "get the lead out of your ass" and finally the pair started battling, Louis seeming to having the edge on the action. When another lull in action occurred in the eleventh round, the referee again told the fighters to start throwing punches. Louis hurt Walcott with a right, and soon afterwards, dropped him with a devastating five-punch combination. Referee Fullam counted him out.


On March 1, 1949, the longtime champion announced his retirement from boxing, stating he intended to spend the rest of his days relaxing and playing golf. He had held the title for nearly a dozen years (still a world-record reign to this day) and had made more title defenses (twenty-five) than any other champion in any weight class in boxing history. His professional record was sixty-one wins (fifty-three by knockout) with one loss. His status as an all-time great was secure, but, unfortunately, the status of his personal life and finances could not boast the same security. In the middle of a well-publicized divorce, hit with multiple law suits stemming from his womanizing ways, overcome with millions of dollars in debt to both the government and lenders, and witnessing the failures of several business ventures, Louis quickly realized the necessity of a comeback.

Shortly before announcing his retirement, Louis had gotten involved in the formation of the International Boxing Club—a promotional company that quickly came under the control of organized crime figures. The IBC, with Louis as a partner, bought up the contracts of the top heavyweight contenders and organized a box-off to determine a new champion. At the end of the tournament, Ezzard Charles became Louis's successor as champion (officially recognized by the National Boxing Association), having beaten Jersey Joe Walcott by decision.

Charles was a skillful, experienced, and dangerous fighter, but not one with the eye-catching qualities that made Louis such an icon for his generation. The IBC and the public were hungry for a Charles-Louis title fight; Charles was hungry to gain his due respect from the public, and Louis was hungry for cash. The fight was announced in August 1950.

Ezzard Charles & Rocky Marciano

Joe Louis vs. Ezzard Charles
Joe Louis vs. Rocky Marciano

The IBC scheduled the bout for September 27, 1950, giving the fighters just six weeks to prepare. Louis had boxed in several four-round exhibitions since announcing his retirement, but had not fought professionally in more than two years. He neglected taking a tune-up and jumped right into the title fight with Charles. Nevertheless, he was installed as a two-to-one favorite. The fight itself was aired live on the CBS television network, resulting in a poor live turnout at Yankee Stadium and a dismal $205,370 payday for Louis. The fight itself proved equally humiliating for the ex-champion. Charles used his advantages in youth and speed to keep the challenger off-kilter. Louis remained determined in the early going and did manage to land some telling blows, but it was clear that Charles was pulling ahead in the bout. Though he won the tenth by hurting the champ with a left hook, Charles survived and returned the favor by staggering Louis with a right hand in the fourteenth round. As the bell rung to open the final round, the bruised old "Brown Bomber" had to be lifted off his stool by his seconds and shoved into center ring. He was helpless throughout the final round, a sitting duck for Charles's constant flow of combinations. The easy decision went unanimously to Charles, dealing the first loss to Joe Louis in fourteen years.

Against the wishes of those close to him and against the advice of doctors, Louis fought on. He managed to hold onto his status as a major draw and a ranked contender by stringing together eight consecutive victories in less than a year's time, including a sixth-round knockout of contender Lee Savold and a ten-round decision over future Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Bivins.

On October 26, 1951, he took on the undefeated up-and-comer from Brockton, Massachusetts, Rocky Marciano. Although Marciano's punching power and toughness was not in question, Louis was the slight betting favorite. The fight proved a competitive slugfest, as two of history's greatest punchers gave the crowd several thrills during the night. Still, Louis's stamina waned as the fight went on, and Marciano's youth and determination wore him down. A crisp left hook to the jaw sent Louis down in the eighth. The wise old fighter stayed down on one knee until the count of nine and then bravely rose to take more punishment. Maricano poured in with haymakers from all directions, missing plenty but landing two more left hooks that crippled his prey against the ropes. Dazed and exhausted, Louis caught a hard right hand—Marciano's signature punch—clean on the jaw, and fell over backward through the ropes, his body lying senseless on the ring apron. "I saw the right hand coming," he told reporters afterward, "but I couldn't do anything about it." Louis never fought again.

In his post-ring life, Louis continued to be a visible public figure, especially in boxing circles, for the next couple of decades. He held official positions as a boxing promoter (at the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood in 1962 and 1963), commentator, cornerman, referee, and adviser, but at no point made near enough money to pay off the massive debts he had accrued during his days as a boxer and soldier. He lived mainly off of the charity of family and friends.

During the 1960s, Louis fell prey to several health issues, including dementia pugilistica, high blood pressure, and various addictions to narcotics. His health suffered greatly, and he was hospitalized for various drug-related issues—both physical and mental. After overcoming his addictions, he worked as a greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ill-health continued to plague him, however, and he died on April 12, 1981, of a cardiac arrest.

In 1990, Louis was among the inaugural class inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.


  • Ten-And Out! - The Complete Story Of The Prize Ring In America By Alexander Johnston, Washburn, 1947
  • The Heavyweight Championship By Nat Fleischer, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1949
  • "... And a Credit to His Race" The Hard Life and Times of Joseph Louis Barrow, A.K.A. Joe Louis By Gerald Astor, Saturday Review Press, 1974
  • Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope By Richard Bak, Taylor Publishing Company, 1995
  • Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times By Russell Sullivan, University of Illinois Press, 2002

Professional Record


Prior to his June 25, 1935, fight with Primo Carnera, Louis engaged in a series of six-round exhibitions, the results of which were:

  • 1935-04-22 Louis (198) KO 1 Biff Bennett (200), Memorial Hall, Dayton, Ohio, United States
  • 1935-04-25 Louis (200) KO 6 Roscoe Toles (193), IMA Auditorium, Flint, Michigan, United States
  • 1935-05-03 Louis (199) KO 2 Willie Davies (193), Majestic Theatre, Peoria, Illinois, United States
  • 1935-05-07 Louis (202) KO 3 Gene Stanton (215), Armory, Kalamazoo, Michigan, United States


Joe Louis in 1973
  • Louis was a client of the Charles Atlas "Dynamic Tension" training program.
  • Named The Ring Fighter of the Year for 1936, 1938, 1939, and 1941.
  • Became the first active World Heavyweight Champion to serve in the U.S. Military.
  • The longest reigning World Heavyweight Champion in the history of boxing (11 years, 8 months and 7 days).
  • Never had a draw decision during his pro career of 69 bouts.
  • Held notable esteem for American jazz alto saxophonist and bandleader Jimmie Lunceford.
  • Contributed to the career of American blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree.
  • Acted in the 1938 movie Spirit of Youth and in the debut episode of the television series It Takes A Thief in 1968.
  • Seated in the audience next to Sonny Liston during The Beatles' second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in Miami Beach, Florida, on February 16, 1964. Both Louis and Liston were introduced.
  • The night before he died, Louis attended the Larry Holmes vs. Trevor Berbick championship fight at Caesars Palace.
  • Buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. He did not technically qualify for burial in Arlington National Cemtery, but American President Ronald Reagan waived the requirements for Louis.
  • In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Joe Louis stamp—the first American stamp to honor a boxer.
  • In 2003, The Ring named Louis the Greatest Puncher of All-Time.
  • In 2005, the IBRO named Louis the greatest World Heavyweight Champion of all-time.

External Links

Preceded by:
Jim Braddock
World Heavyweight Champion
NBA World Heavyweight Champion
NYSAC World Heavyweight Champion

1937 Jun 22 – 1949 Mar 1
Succeeded by:
Ezzard Charles