Joseph Louis Barrow (May 13, 1914 – April 12, 1981),
better known as Joe Louis, was the world heavyweight
boxing champion from 1937 to 1949. Nicknamed the Brown Bomber,
Louis helped elevate boxing from a nadir in popularity in the
post-Jack Dempsey era by establishing a reputation as an honest,
hardworking fighter at a time when the sport was dominated by
Joe Louis vs Tony "Two Ton" Galento 1939
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Louis's championship reign lasted 140 consecutive months,
during which he participated in 27 championship fights,
including 25 successful title defenses – all records for the
heavyweight division. In 2005, Louis was named the greatest
heavyweight of all time by the International Boxing Research
and was ranked number one on Ring Magazine's list of 100
Greatest Punchers of All Time.
Louis's cultural impact was felt well outside the ring. He is
widely regarded as the first African American to achieve the
status of a nationwide hero within the United States, and was
also a focal point of anti-Nazi sentiment leading up to and
during World War II.
He also was instrumental in integrating the game of golf,
breaking the sport's color barrier in America by appearing under
a sponsor's exemption in a PGA event in 1952.
Comment " Joe Louis is my favourite boxer. I say that
the best boxers were Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman,
Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Ernie Shavers and last but not least at the moment
Amir Khan "
Have your say
Louis was born on May 13, 1914 in a ramshackle dwelling about
six miles northwest of La Fayette, in rural Chambers County,
Alabama. Louis was the son of Munroe Barrow and Lillie (Reese)
Barrow, and seventh of eight children.
He weighed 11 pounds at birth.
Both Louis's parents were the children of former slaves,
alternating between sharecropping and rental farming.
Munroe was predominantly African American with some white
ancestry, while Lillie was half Cherokee.
Louis spent twelve years growing up in rural Alabama, where
little is known of his childhood. He suffered from a speech
impediment, and spoke very little until about the age of six.
Munroe Barrow was committed to a mental institution in 1916, and
as a result Joe knew very little of his biological father.
Around 1920, Louis's mother married Pat Brooks, a local
construction contractor, having received word that Munroe Barrow
had died while institutionalized (in reality, Munroe Barrow
lived until 1938, unaware of his son's fame).
In 1926, shaken by an altercation with the Ku Klux Klan,
Louis's family moved to Detroit, Michigan, forming part of the
post-World War I Great Migration.
Joe's brother worked for Ford Motor Company (where Joe would
himself work for a time at the River Rouge Plant)
and the family settled into a home at 2700 Catherine (now
Madison) Street in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood.
Louis attended Bronson Vocational School for a time to learn
and his mother attempted to get Joe interested in playing the
The Depression hit the Louis family hard, but as an
alternative to gang activity, Joe began to spend time at a local
youth recreation center at 637 Brewster Street in Detroit.
Legend has it that he tried to hide his pugilistic ambitions
from his mother by carrying his boxing gloves inside his violin
Louis's amateur debut, probably in early 1932,
came as a light-heavyweight at age 17. A legend exists that
before the fight Louis, only barely literate, wrote his name so
large that there was no room for his last name "Barrow" – as a
result becoming known as "Joe Louis" for the remainder of his
More likely, Louis simply omitted his last name to keep his
boxing pursuits a secret from his mother.
After this debut (a loss to future Olympian Johnny Miller),
Louis compiled numerous amateur victories – eventually winning
the club championship of his Brewster Street recreation center,
the home of many aspiring Golden Gloves fighters.
In 1933, Louis won the Detroit-area Golden Gloves Novice
Division championship for the light heavyweight classification
against Joe Biskey, later losing in the Chicago Golden Gloves
Tournament of Champions.
The next year, competing in the Golden Gloves' Open Division, he
won the light heavyweight classification, this time also winning
the Chicago Tournament of Champions. Although a hand injury
forced Louis to miss the New York/Chicago Champions' cross-town
bout for the ultimate Golden Gloves championship in 1934, he
followed up his Chicago performance by winning the National AAU
tournament in St. Louis, Missouri in April of that year.
By the end of his amateur career, Louis's record was 50 wins
against 4 losses, with 43 knockouts.
Louis's impressive amateur performances attracted the
interest of professional promoters. Rather than sign with an
established promoter, Louis agreed to be represented by a black
Detroit-area bookmaker named John Roxborough. As Louis explained
it in his autobiography, Roxborough convinced Louis that white
managers would have no real interest in seeing a black boxer
work his way up to title contention:
[Roxborough] told me about the fate of most black
fighters, ones with white managers, who wound up burned-out
and broke before they reached their prime. The white
managers were not interested in the men they were handling
but in the money they could make from them. They didn't take
the proper time to see that their fighters had a proper
training, that they lived comfortably, or ate well, or had
some pocket change. Mr. Roxborough was talking about Black
Power before it became popular.
Roxborough knew a Chicago-area boxing promoter named Julian
Black, who already had a stable of mediocre boxers against which
Louis could hone his craft – this time in the more lucrative
Once he was part of the management team, Black solicited Jack "Chappie"
Blackburn, another Chicago native, as Louis's trainer.
As a result, Louis' initial professional fights were all located
in the Chicago area. His professional debut came on July 4, 1934
against Jack Kracken in the Bacon Casino on Chicago's south
earned $59 for knocking out Kracken in the first round.
Louis won all 12 professional fights that year, 10 by way of
In September 1934, while promoting a Detroit-area "coming
home" bout for Louis against Canadian Alex Borchuk, Roxborough
was pressured by members of the Michigan State Boxing
Commisision to have Louis sign with white management.
Roxborough refused, and continued advancing Louis's career with
bouts against heavyweight contenders Art Sykes and Stanley
When training for a fight against Lee Ramage, Louis noticed a
young female secretary for the black newspaper Chicago
Defender at the gym. After defeating Ramage, the secretary,
Marva Trotter, was invited to the celebration party at Chicago's
Trotter would later become Louis's first wife in 1935.
During this time, Louis also met a longtime associate who
would eventually become his personal lawyer, Truman Gibson. As a
young associate at a law firm hired by Julian Black, Gibson was
charged with personally entertaining Louis during the pendency
of business deals.
Although Louis' management was finding him bouts against
legitimate heavyweight contenders, no path to the title was
forthcoming. Although boxing was not officially segregated,
white Americans had become wary of the prospect of another black
champion in the wake of Jack Johnson's highly unpopular "reign
of terror" atop the heavyweight division,
and an informal barrier existed that kept black boxers out of
Biographer Gerald Astor stated that "Joe Louis' early boxing
career was stalked by the spectre of Jack Johnson."
A change in management was inevitable. In 1935, boxing
promoter Mike Jacobs sought out Louis' handlers. After Louis'
narrow defeat of Natie Brown on March 29, 1935, Jacobs and the
Louis team met at the Frog Club, a colored nightclub, and
negotiated a three-year exclusive boxing promotion deal.
The contract, however, did not keep Roxborough and Black from
attempting to cash in as Louis' managers; when Louis turned 21
on May 13, 1935, Roxborough and Black each signed Louis to an
onerous long-term contract that collectively dedicated half of
Louis' future income to the pair.
Black and Roxborough, however, did serve to carefully shape
Louis' media image. Seeking to ensure that Louis did not meet
the same fate as Johnson, who suffered tremendous public
backlash for his flamboyant lifestyle, they drafted seven
"commandments" for Louis' personal conduct. These included:
- Never have his picture taken with a white woman
(though he once was photographed with a white teenaged
girl for a local paper in Michigan who was doing a story
on Louis for her high school newspaper).
- Never gloat over a fallen opponent
- Never engage in fixed fights
- Live and fight clean
As a result, Louis was generally portrayed in the white media
as a clean-living, modest person, which facilitated his
burgeoning celebrity status.
With the backing of major promotion, Louis fought 13 times in
1935. The bout that helped put him in the media spotlight
occurred on June 25, when Louis knocked out a former world
heavyweight champion, the 6'6", 265-pound Primo Carnera, in six
rounds. Foreshadowing the Louis-Schmeling rivalry to come, the
Carnera bout featured a political dimension. Louis' defeat of
Carnera, who symbolized Benito Mussolini's regime in the popular
eye, was seen as a victory for the international community,
particularly among African Americans, who were sympathetic to
Ethiopia during its occupation by Italy.
America's white press began promoting Louis' image in as
positive a manner as was possible for the times; nicknames
created for Louis included the "mahogany mauler," "chocolate
chopper," "coffee-colored KO king," "saffra sandman," and one
that stuck, "The Brown Bomber."
Helping the white press to overcome any reluctance to feature a
black contender was the fact that boxing, in the mid-1930s, was
in desperate need of a marketable hero. Since the retirement of
Jack Dempsey in 1929, boxing had devolved into a sordid mixture
of poor athletes, gambling, fixed fights, thrown matches, and
control of the sport by organized crime.
New York Times columnist Edward VanNess wrote, "Louis ...
is a boon to boxing. Just as Dempsey led the sport out of the
doldrums ... so is Louis leading the boxing game out of a
Likewise, biographer Bill Libby asserted that "The sports world
was hungry for a great champion when Louis arrived in New York
Although the mainstream press was beginning to embrace Louis,
there remained some fear at the prospect of another black
heavyweight champion. In September 1935, on the eve of Louis'
fight with the former title holder Max Baer, Washington Post
sportswriter Shirley Povich expressed American hopes for the
white contender; "They say Baer will surpass himself in the
knowledge that he is the lone white hope for the defense of
Nordic superiority in the prize ring."
It was not to be. Although Baer had been knocked down only once
before in his professional career (by Frankie Campbell), Louis
dominated Baer, knocking him out in four rounds. Unknowingly,
Baer suffered from a unique disadvantage in the fight; earlier
that evening, Louis had married Marva Trotter at a friend's
apartment, and was eager to end the fight in order to consummate
Later that year, Louis also knocked out Paolino Uzcudun, who had
never been knocked down or out before.
By this time, Louis was ranked as the No. 1 contender in the
and had won the Associated Press' "Athlete of the Year" award
What was considered to be a final tune-up bout before an
eventual title shot was scheduled for June 1936 against former
world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling. Although a former
champion, Schmeling was not considered a threat to Louis, then
with an undefeated professional record of 27-0.
Schmeling had won his title on a technicality when Jack Sharkey
was disqualified after giving Schmeling a low blow in 1930.
Schmeling was also 30 years old at the time of the Louis bout,
and allegedly past his prime.
Perhaps as a result, Louis took his training for the Schmeling
fight less than seriously. Louis's training retreat was located
at Lakewood, New Jersey, where Louis was first able to practice
the game of golf, which later became a lifelong passion.
Noted entertainer Ed Sullivan had initially sparked Louis's
interest in the sport by giving an instructional book to Joe's
Louis spent significant time on the golf course rather than
training for the Schmeling match.
Conversely, Schmeling prepared intently for the bout.
Schmeling had thoroughly studied Louis's style, and believed he
had found a weakness.
By exploiting Louis's habit of dropping his left hand low after
a jab, Schmeling handed Louis his first professional loss by
knocking him out in Round 12 at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936.
After defeating Louis, Schmeling expected a title shot
against James J. Braddock, who had unexpectedly defeated Max
Baer for the heavyweight title the previous June. Madison Square
Garden (MSG) had a contract with Braddock for the title defense
and also sought a Braddock-Schmeling title bout. But Jacobs and
Braddock's manager Joe Gould had been planning a Braddock-Louis
matchup for months.
Schmeling's victory gave Gould tremendous leverage, however; if
he were to offer Schmeling the title chance instead of Louis,
there was a very real possibility that Nazi authorities would
never allow Louis a shot at the title.
Gould's demands were therefore onerous: Jacobs would have to pay
10% of all future boxing promotion profits (including any future
profits from Louis's future bouts) for ten years.
Braddock and Gould would eventually receive more than $150,000
from this arrangement.
Well before the actual fight, Jacobs and Gould publicly
announced that their fighters would face for the heavyweight
title on June 22, 1937.
Figuring that the New York State Athletic Commission would not
sanction the fight in deference to MSG and Schmeling, Jacobs
scheduled the fight for Chicago.
Each of the parties involved worked to facilitate the
controversial Braddock-Louis matchup. Louis did his part by
knocking out former champion Jack Sharkey on August 18, 1936.
Meanwhile, Gould trumped up anti-Nazi sentiment against
and Jacobs defended a lawsuit by MSG to halt the Braddock-Louis
fight. A federal court in Newark, New Jersey eventually ruled
that Braddock's contractual obligation to stage his title
defense at MSG was unenforceable for lack of mutual
The stage was set for Louis's title shot. On the night of the
fight, June 22, 1937, Braddock was able to knock Louis down in
Round 1, but afterward could accomplish little. After inflicting
constant punishment, Louis defeated the "Cinderella Man" by
knockout in Round 8. Louis's ascent to the world heavyweight
title was complete.
Louis's victory was a seminal moment in African American
history. Thousands of African Americans stayed up all night
across the country in celebration.
Noted author and member of the Harlem Renaissance Langston
Hughes described Louis's effect in these terms:
Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression
years, even before he became champion, thousands of colored
Americans on relief or W.P.A., and poor, would throng out
into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and
yell and cry because of Joe's one-man triumphs. No one else
in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro
emotions – or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and
Initial title defenses
Despite now being heavyweight champion, Louis was haunted by
the earlier defeat to Schmeling. Shortly after winning the
title, he was quoted as saying: "I don't want to be called champ
until I whip Max Schmeling."
Louis's manager Mike Jacobs attempted to arrange a rematch with
Schmeling in 1937, but negotiations broke down when Schmeling
demanded 30% of the gate.
When Schmeling instead attempted to arrange for a fight against
British Empire Champion Tommy Farr, known as "the Tonypandy
Terror," – ostensibly for a world championship to rival the
claims of American boxing authorities – Jacobs outmaneuvered
him, offering Farr a guaranteed $60,000 to fight Louis instead.
The offer was too lucrative for Farr to turn down.
On 30 August 1937, after a postponement of four days due to
rain, Louis and Farr finally touched gloves at New York's Yankee
Stadium before a crowd of approximately 32,000.
Louis fought one of the hardest battles of his life. The bout
was closely contested and went the entire 15 rounds, with Louis
being unable to knock Farr down. Referee Arthur Donovan was even
seen shaking Farr's hand after the bout, in apparent
Nevertheless, after the score was announced, Louis had won a
controversial unanimous decision.
Time Magazine described the scene thus: "After collecting the
judges' votes, referee Arthur Donovan announced that Louis had
won the fight on points. The crowd of 50,000...amazed that Farr
had not been knocked out or even knocked down, booed the
decision... Speaking over the radio after the fight, Louis
admitted that he had been hurt twice."
In preparation for the inevitable rematch with Schmeling,
Louis tuned up with bouts against Nathan Mann and Harry Thomas.
v. Schmeling II
The rematch between Louis and Schmeling is one of the most
famous boxing matches of all time, and is remembered as one of
the major sports events of the 20th century.
Following his defeat of Louis in 1936, Schmeling became a
national hero in Germany. Schmeling's victory over an African
American was touted by Nazi officials as proof of their doctrine
of Aryan superiority. When the rematch was scheduled, Louis
retreated to his boxing camp in New Jersey and trained
incessantly for the fight. A few weeks before the bout, Louis
visited the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt
told him, "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany."
Louis later admitted: "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had
my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was
depending on me."
When Schmeling arrived in New York in June, 1938 for the
rematch, he was accompanied by a Nazi party publicist who issued
statements that a black man could not defeat Schmeling, and that
when Schmeling won, his prize money would be used to build tanks
in Germany. Schmeling's hotel was picketed by anti-Nazi
protesters in the days before the fight.
On the night of June 22, 1938, Louis and Schmeling met for
the second time in the boxing ring. The fight was held in Yankee
Stadium before a crowd of 70,043. It was broadcast by radio to
millions of listeners throughout the world, with radio
announcers reporting on the fight in English, German, Spanish,
and Portuguese. Before the bout, Schmeling weighed in at
193 pounds; Louis weighed in at 198¾ pounds.
The fight lasted two minutes and four seconds.
Louis battered Schmeling with a series of swift attacks, forcing
Schmeling against the ropes and giving him a paralyzing body
blow (Schmeling later claimed it was an illegal kidney punch).
Schmeling was knocked down three times, and only managed to
throw two punches in the entire bout. On the third knockdown,
Schmeling's trainer threw in the towel and referee Arthur
Donovan stopped the fight.
The "Bum of the Month Club"
In the 29 months from January 1939 through May 1941, Louis
defended his title thirteen times, a frequency unmatched by any
heavyweight champion since the end of the bare-knuckle era. The
pace of his title defenses, combined with his convincing wins,
earned Louis' opponents from this era the collective nickname
"Bum of the Month Club."
Notables of this lambasted pantheon include:
- World light-heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis who,
attempting to move up a weight class, was knocked out in the
first round by Louis on January 25, 1939.
- "Two Ton" Tony Galento, who was able to push Louis to
the canvas in the third round of their bout on June 28,
1939, before letting his guard down and being knocked out in
- Chilean Arturo Godoy, who Louis fought twice in 1940, on
February 9 and June 20. Louis won the first bout by a
decision, and the rematch by a knockout in the eighth round.
- Al McCoy, putative New England heavyweight champion,
whose fight against Louis is probably best known for being
the first heavyweight title bout held in Boston,
Massachusetts (at the Boston Garden on December 16, 1940).
The popular local challenger dodged his way around Louis
before being unable to respond to the sixth-round bell.
- Clarence "Red" Burman, who pressed Louis for nearly five
rounds at Madison Square Garden on January 31, 1941 before
succumbing to a series of body blows.
- Gus Dorazio, of whom Louis remarked, "At least he
tried," after being leveled by a short right hand in the
second round at Philadelphia's Convention Hall on February
- Abe Simon, who endured thirteen rounds of punishment
before 18,908 at Olympia Stadium in Detroit on March 21
before referee Sam Hennessy declared a TKO.
- Tony Musto, who, at 5'71/2" and 198 pounds, was known as
the "baby tank." Despite a unique crouching style, Musto was
slowly worn down over eight and a half rounds in St. Louis
on April 8.
- Buddy Baer (brother of former champion Max), who was
leading the May 23, 1941 bout in Washington, D.C. until an
eventual barrage by Louis, capped by a late hit after the
sixth round bell. Despite the late hit, referee Arthur
Donovan disqualified Baer before the beginning of the
seventh round as a result of stalling by Baer's manager.
Despite its derogatory nickname, most of the group were
top-ten heavyweights. Of the twelve fighters Louis faced during
this period, five were rated by The Ring magazine as
top-ten heavyweights in the year they fought Louis – Galento
(overall #2 heavyweight in 1939), Bob Pastor (#3, 1939), Godoy
(#3, 1940), Simon (#6, 1941), and Baer (#8, 1941); four others (Musto,
Dorazio, Burman, and Johnny Paycheck) were ranked in the top ten
in a different year.
Joe Louis' gravestone - Arlington National Cemetery
Louis' string of lightly-regarded competition ended with his
bout against Billy Conn, the light-heavyweight champion and a
highly-regarded contender. The fighters met on June 18, 1941, in
front of a crowd of 54,487 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York
The fight turned out to be one of the greatest heavyweight
boxing fights of all time.
Conn would not gain weight for the challenge against Louis,
saying instead that he would rely on a "hit and run" strategy.
Louis's famous response: "He can run, but he can't hide."
However, Louis had clearly underestimated Conn's threat. In
his autobiography, Joe Louis said, "I made a mistake going into
that fight. I knew Conn was kinda small and I didn't want them
to say in the papers that I beat up on some little guy so the
day before the fight I did a little roadwork to break a sweat
and drank as little water as possible so I could weigh in under
200 pounds. Chappie was as mad as hell. But Conn was a clever
fighter, he was like a mosquito, he'd sting and move."
Conn had the better of the fight through twelve rounds,
although Louis was able to stun Conn with a left hook in the
fifth, cutting his eye and nose. By the eighth round, Louis
began suffering from dehydration. By the twelfth round, Louis
was exhausted, with Conn ahead on two of three boxing
scorecards. But against the advice of his corner, Conn continued
to closely engage Louis in the later stages of the fight. Louis
made the most of the opportunity, knocking Conn out with two
seconds left in the thirteenth round.
The contest created an instant rivalry that Louis's career
had lacked since the Schmeling era, and a rematch with Conn was
planned for late 1942. The rematch had to be abruptly canceled,
however, after Conn broke his hand in a much-publicized fight
with his father-in-law, major league ballplayer "Greenfield"
By the time Conn was ready for the rematch, the Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor had taken place, detouring Louis's heavyweight
World War II
Louis fought a charity bout for the Navy Relief Society
against his former opponent Buddy Baer on January 9, 1942, which
generated $47,000 for the fund.
The next day, he volunteered to enlist as a private in the
United States Army at Camp Upton, Long Island.
Newsreel cameras recorded his induction, including a staged
scene in which a soldier-clerk asked, "What's your occupation?"
and Louis replied in a nervous rush, "Fighting and let us at
Another military charity bout on March 27, 1942 (against
another former opponent, Abe Simon) netted $36,146.
Before the fight, Louis had spoken at a Relief Fund dinner,
saying of the war effort: "We'll win, 'cause we're on God's
The media widely reported the comment, instigating a surge of
popularity for Louis. Slowly, the press would begin to eliminate
its stereotypical racial references when covering Louis, and
instead treat him as an unqualified sports hero.
Despite the public relations boon, Louis's charitable fights
would prove financially costly. Although Louis saw none of the
roughly $90,000 raised by these and other charitable fights, the
IRS would later credit these amounts as taxable income paid to
the war, the IRS would pursue the issue.
For basic training, Louis was assigned to a segregated
cavalry unit based in Fort Riley, Kansas. The assignment was at
the suggestion of his friend and lawyer Truman Gibson, who knew
of Louis's love for horsemanship.
Gibson had previously become a civilian advisor to the War
Department, in charge of investigating claims of harassment
against black soldiers. Accordingly, Louis used this personal
connection to help the cause of various black soldiers with whom
he came in to contact. In one noted episode, Louis contacted
Gibson in order to facilitate the Officer Candidate School (OCS)
applications of a group of African Americans at Fort Riley,
which had been inexplicably delayed for several months.
Among the OCS applications Louis facilitated turned out to be
that of a young Jackie Robinson, later to break the baseball
The episode would spawn a personal friendship between the two
Realizing Louis's potential for elevating esprit de corps
among the troops, the Army placed him in its Special Services
Division rather than deploying him into combat.
Louis would go on a celebrity tour with other notables including
fellow boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Louis traveled more than 21,000 miles and staged 96 boxing
exhibitions before two million soldiers.
In England during 1944, he was reported to have enlisted as a
player for Liverpool Football Club as a publicity stunt.
In addition to his travels, Louis was the focus of a media
recruitment campaign encouraging African-American men to enlist
in the Armed Services, despite the military's racial
segregation. When asked about his decision to enter the
racially-segregated U.S. Army, Louis' explanation was simple:
"Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain't going to
fix them." In 1943, Louis made an appearance in the wartime
Hollywood musical This Is the Army, directed by Michael
Curtiz. Louis appears as himself in a musical number, "The
Well-Dressed Man In Harlem," which emphasizes the importance of
African-American soldiers and promotes their enlistment.
Louis's celebrity power was not, however, merely directed
toward African Americans. In a famous wartime recruitment
slogan, Louis echoed his prior comments of 1942: "We'll win,
because we're on God's side." The publicity of the campaign made
Louis widely popular stateside, even outside the world of
Never before had white Americans embraced a black man as their
representative to the world.
Although Louis never saw combat, his military service would
see challenges of its own. During his travels he would often
experience blatant racism. On one occasion, a military policeman
(MP) ordered Louis and Ray Robinson to move their seats to a
bench in the rear of an Alabama Army camp bus depot. "We ain't
moving," said Louis. The MP tried to arrest them, but Louis
forcefully argued the pair out of the situation.
In another incident, Louis allegedly had to resort to bribery to
persuade a commanding officer to drop charges against Jackie
Robinson for punching a Captain who had called Robinson a
Louis was eventually promoted to the rank of Sergeant, and
was awarded the Legion of Merit medal for "incalculable
contribution to the general morale."
Receipt of the honor qualified Louis for immediate release from
military service on October 1, 1945.
Quotes Attributed to Joe Louis
- Every man's got to figure to get beat sometime.
- Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
- I don't like money, actually, but it quiets my nerves.
- I hope they're still making women like my momma. She always told me to do
the right thing. She always told me to have pride in myself; she said a good
name is better than money.
- I made the most of my ability and I did my best with my title.
- Let me tell you, that was a thrill. Now, even more, I knew I had to get
- Once that bell rings you're on your own. It's just you and the other guy…
- Yeah, I'm scared. I'm scared I might kill Schmeling.
- He can run, but he can't hide. (regarding Billy Conn, who planned to "hit
and run" in their upcoming match)
- You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.
Quotes about Joe Louis
- Every time I hear the name Joe Louis my nose starts to bleed.
- He hit me 18 times while I was in the act of falling.
- He was a credit to his race – the human race…
- Jimmy Cannon, sportswriter
- (I define fear as) standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he
wants to go home early.
- I just give lip service to being the greatest. He was the greatest. (Note:
this quote is sometimes said to be about fellow boxer Sugar Ray Robinson)
- Joe Louis is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Rocky Marciano
is second only to Louis. Where do I rate Ali? Somewhere below me. I beat him,
and if I could beat him, no doubt Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano could have beaten
- Joe Louis, to me, was the finest human being God put on this earth in every
- There's never been a boxer better than Joe Louis. You'd take one shot from
him and you were sure he'd have seven or eight more coming for you. Certainly
Muhammad Ali was the greatest man ever to fight, but not the greatest boxer.
- When you're a great finisher, you’ll become popular. Joe Louis was a great
Later career and retirement
Louis emerged from his wartime service significantly in debt.
In addition to his looming tax bill – which had not been finally
determined at the time, but was estimated at greater than
– Jacobs claimed that Louis owed him $250,000.
Despite the financial pressure on Louis to resume boxing, his
long-awaited rematch against Billy Conn had to be postponed to
the summer of 1946, when weather conditions could accommodate a
large outdoor audience. On June 19, a disappointing 40,000 saw
the rematch at Yankee Stadium,
in which Louis was not seriously tested. Conn, whose skills had
deteriorated during the long layoff, largely avoided contact
until being dispatched by knockout in the eighth round. Although
the attendance did not meet expectations, the fight was still
the most profitable of Louis's career to date. His share of the
purse was $600,000 – of which Louis' managers got $140,000, his
ex-wife $66,000 and the state of New York $30,000.
After trouble finding another suitable opponent, on December
5, 1947 Louis met Jersey Joe Walcott, a 33-year-old veteran with
a 44-11-2 record. Walcott entered the fight as a 10-to-1
underdog. Nevertheless, Walcott downed Louis twice in the first
four rounds. Most observers in Madison Square Garden felt
Walcott dominated the 15-round fight; when Louis was declared
the winner in a split decision, the crowd booed.
Louis was under no delusion about the state of his boxing
skills, yet he was too embarrassed to quit after the Walcott
fight. Determined to win and retire with his title intact, Louis
signed on for a rematch. On June 25, 1948, about 42,000 people
came to Yankee Stadium to see the aging champion, who weighed
213½ – the heaviest of his career to date. Walcott downed Louis
in the third round, but Louis survived to knock Walcott out in
Louis would not defend his title again before announcing his
retirement from boxing on March 1, 1949.
In his bouts with Conn and Walcott, it had become apparent that
Louis was no longer the fighter he once had been. As he had done
earlier in his career, however, Louis would continue to appear
in numerous exhibition matches worldwide.
At the time of Louis's initial retirement, the IRS was still
completing its investigation of his prior tax returns, which had
always been handled by Mike Jacobs's personal accountant.
In May 1950, the IRS finished a full audit of Louis's past
returns and announced that, with interest and penalties, he owed
the government more than $500,000.
Louis had no choice but to return to the ring.
After asking Gibson to take over his personal finances and
switching his management from Jacobs and Roxborough to Marshall
the Louis camp negotiated a deal with the IRS under which Louis
would come out of retirement, with all Louis's net proceeds
going to the IRS. A match with Ezzard Charles – who had acquired
the vacant heavyweight title in June 1949 by outpointing Walcott
– was set for September 27, 1950. By then, Louis was 36 years
old, and had been away from competitive boxing for two years.
Weighing in at 218, Louis was still strong, but his reflexes
were gone. Charles repeatedly beat him to the punch. By the end
of the fight, Louis was cut above both eyes, one of which was
shut tight by swelling.
He knew he had lost even before Charles was declared the winner.
The result was not the only disappointing aspect of the fight
for Louis; only 22,357 spectators paid to witness the event at
Yankee Stadium, and his share of the purse was a mere $100,458.
Louis had to continue fighting.
After facing several club-level opponents, the International
Boxing Club guaranteed Louis $300,000 to face undefeated
heavyweight contender Rocky Marciano on October 26, 1951.
Despite his being a 6-to-5 favorite, few boxing insiders
believed Louis had a chance.
Marciano himself was reluctant to participate in the bout, but
was understanding of Louis's position: "This is the last guy on
earth I want to fight."
It was feared, particularly among those who had witnessed
Marciano's punching power first hand, that Louis's unwillingness
to quit would result in serious injury. Fighting back tears,
Ferdie Pacheco said in the SportsCentury documentary about his
bout with Marciano, "He [Louis] wasn't just going to lose. He
was going to take a vicious, savage beating. Before the eyes of
the nation, Joe Louis, an American hero if ever there was one,
was going to get beaten up." Louis was dropped in the eighth
round by a Marciano left, and knocked out of the ring less than
thirty seconds later.
In the dressing room after the fight, Louis's Army touring
companion, Sugar Ray Robinson, wept. Marciano also attempted to
console Louis, saying, "I'm sorry, Joe."
"What's the use of crying?" Louis said. "The better man won. I
guess everything happens for the best."
After facing Marciano, with the prospect of another
significant payday all but gone, Louis retired for good from
professional boxing. He would, as before, continue to tour on
the exhibition circuit, with his last contest taking place on
December 16, 1951, in Taipei, Taiwan against Corporal Buford J.
Taxes and financial troubles
Despite Louis's lucrative purses over the years, most of the
proceeds went to his handlers. Of the over $4.6 million earned
during his boxing career, Louis himself received only about
Louis was nevertheless extremely generous to his family, paying
for homes, cars and education for his parents and siblings,
often with money fronted by Jacobs.
He invested in a number of businesses, all of which eventually
including the Joe Louis Restaurant, the Joe Louis Insurance
Company, a softball team called the Brown Bombers, Joe Louis
Milk Company, Joe Louis Punch (a drink), the Louis-Rower P.R.
firm, a horse farm, and the Rhumboogie Café in Chicago.
He gave liberally to the government as well, paying back the
city of Detroit for any welfare money his family had received.
A combination of this largesse and government intervention
eventually put Louis in severe financial straits. His entrusting
of his finances to former manager Mike Jacobs haunted him. After
the $500,000 IRS tax bill was assessed, with interest
accumulating every year, the need for cash precipitated Louis's
Even though his comeback earned him significant purses, the
incremental tax rate in place at the time (90%) meant that these
boxing proceeds did not even keep pace with interest on Louis's
tax debt. As a result, by the end of the 1950s, he owed over $1
million in taxes and interest.
In 1953, when Louis's mother died, the IRS appropriated the $667
she had willed to Louis.
To bring in money, Louis engaged in numerous activities outside
the ring. He appeared on various quiz shows,
and an old army buddy, Ash Resnick, gave Louis a job welcoming
tourists to the Caesar's Palace hotel in Las Vegas, where
Resnick was an executive.
For income, Louis even became a professional wrestler in the
1950s and 60s, and again as late as 1972.
Louis remained a popular celebrity in his twilight years. His
friends included former rival Max Schmeling – who provided Louis
with financial assistance during his retirement
– and reputed mobster Frank Lucas – who, disgusted with the
government's treatment of Louis, once paid off a $50,000 tax
lien held against him.
These payments – along with an eventual agreement in the early
1960s by the IRS to limit its collections to an amount based on
Louis's current income
– allowed Louis to live comfortably toward the end of his life.
Desegregation of professional golf
One of Louis's other passions was the game of golf, in which
he also played an historic role. He was a long-time devotee of
the sport since being introduced to the game before the first
Schmeling fight in 1936. Similar to subsequent black athletes
such as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, Louis was also known
to mix gambling with his golf game.
In 1952, Louis was invited to play in the San Diego Open on a
sponsor's exemption, becoming the first African American to play
a PGA Tour event.
Initially, the PGA of America was reluctant to allow Louis to
enter the event, having a bylaw at the time limiting PGA
participation to Caucasians.
However, Louis's celebrity eventually pushed the PGA toward
removing the bylaw, paving the way for the first generation of
African American professional golfers such as Calvin Peete.
Louis himself financially supported the careers of several other
early black professional golfers, such as Bill Spiller, Ted
Rhodes, Howard Wheeler, Clyde Martin and Charlie Sifford.
He was also instrumental in founding The First Tee, a charity
helping underprivileged children become acquainted with the game
His son, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., currently oversees the
In 2009, the PGA of America granted posthumous membership to
Ted Rhodes, John Shippen and Bill Spiller, who were denied the
opportunity to become PGA members during their professional
careers. The PGA also has granted posthumous honorary membership
Personal life and death
Louis had two children by wife Marva Trotter (daughter
Jacqueline in 1943 and son Joseph Louis Barrow, Jr. in 1947) and
adopted three others. They divorced in March 1945 only to
remarry a year later, but were again divorced in February 1949.
Marva moved on to an acting and modeling career.
On Christmas Day 1955, Louis married Rose Morgan, a successful
Harlem businesswoman; their marriage was annulled in 1958.
Louis's final marriage – to Martha Jefferson, a lawyer from Los
Angeles, on St. Patrick's Day 1959 – lasted until his death.
They had a child and also named him Joe, Jr. The younger Joe
Louis Barrow, Jr lives in New York city and is involved in
Though married four times, Louis discreetly enjoyed the
company of both African-American and white women, including Lena
Horne, Sonja Henie, and Lana Turner.
In 1953, Robert Gordon directed a movie about Louis's life,
The Joe Louis Story. The movie, filmed in Hollywood,
starred Golden Gloves fighter Coley Wallace in the role of
Starting in the sixties Louis was frequently mocked by
segments of the African American community (including Muhammad
Ali) for being an Uncle Tom. Before Louis died Ali visited him
in Vegas and personally apologized for having ever said such
Drugs took a toll on Louis in his later years. In 1969, he
was hospitalized after collapsing on a New York City street.
While the incident was at first credited to "physical
underlying problems would soon surface. In 1970, he spent five
months at the Colorado Psychiatric Hospital and the Veterans
Administration Hospital in Denver – hospitalized by his wife,
Martha, and his son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., for paranoia.
In a 1971 book, Brown Bomber, by Barney Nagler, Louis
disclosed the truth about these incidents, stating that his
collapse in 1969 had been caused by cocaine, and that his
subsequent hospitalization had been prompted by his fear of a
plot to destroy him.
Strokes and heart ailments caused Louis's condition to
deteriorate further later in the decade. He had surgery to
correct an aortic aneurysm in 1977 and thereafter used an Amigo
POV/scooter for a mobility aid.
Louis died of a heart attack in Desert Springs Hospital on
April 12, 1981, just hours after his last public appearance
viewing the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick heavyweight
championship. Ronald Reagan waived the eligibility rules for
burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and Louis was buried
there with full military honours on April 21, 1981.
His funeral was paid for in part by former competitor and
friend, Max Schmeling,,
who also acted as a pallbearer.
In all, Louis made 25 defences of his heavyweight title from
1937 to 1948, and was a world champion for 11 years and 10
months. Both are still records in the heavyweight division, the
former in any division.
His most remarkable record is that he knocked out 23 opponents
in 27 title fights, including 5 world champions.
In addition to his accomplishments inside the ring, Louis
uttered two of boxings most famous observations: "He can run,
but he can't hide" and "Everyone has a plan until they've been
Louis is also remembered in sports outside of boxing. An
indoor sports venue is named after him in Detroit, the Joe Louis
Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings play their NHL games.
In 1936, a beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune used Joe Louis's
nickname to refer to the Winnipeg Football Club after a game.
From that point, the team became known popularly as the Winnipeg
His recognition also transcends the sporting world. In 2002,
scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Joe Louis on his list of 100
Greatest African Americans.
On August 26, 1982, Louis was posthumously approved for the
Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given to civilians
by the U.S. legislative branch.
Congress stated that he "did so much to bolster the spirit of
the American people during one of the most crucial times in
American history and which have endured throughout the years as
a symbol of strength for the nation."
A memorial to Louis was dedicated in Detroit (at Jefferson
Avenue & Woodward) on October 16, 1986. The sculpture,
commissioned by Time, Inc. and executed by Robert Graham, is a
24-foot long arm with a fisted hand suspended by a 24-foot high
pyramidal framework. It represents the power of his punch both
inside and outside the ring. Because of his efforts to fight Jim
Crow laws, the fist was symbolically aimed toward the south.
On February 27, 2010 an 8 foot bronze statue of Louis was
unveiled in his Alabama hometown. The statue sits on a base of
red granite outside the Chambers County Courthouse.
In 1993, he became the first boxer to be honored on a postage
stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.
Various other facilities have been named after Joe Louis. A
street near Madison Square Garden is named in his honour. The
former Pipe O' Peace Golf Course in Riverdale, Illinois (a
Chicago suburb) was in 1986 renamed "Joe Louis The Champ Golf
American Legion Post 375 in Detroit is also named after Joe
In one of the most widely-quoted tributes to Louis, New
York Post sportswriter Jimmy Cannon was known for the
following statement (interjecting to another person's
characterization of Louis as "a credit to his race"); "Yes, Joe
Louis is a credit to his race – the human race."
In 2009, the band Yeasayer came out with a song titled
"Ambling Alp" which imagines what advice Joe Louis's father
might have given him prior to becoming a prizefighter. The song
references adversities and opponents, including Max Schmeling
and Primo Carnera, Louis had to overcome in his career.
(51 knockouts, 13 decisions, 1 disqualification),
(2 knockouts, 1 decision) Source: BoxRec.com
- In his heyday, Louis was the subject of many musical
tributes, including a number of blues songs.
- Louis played a boxer in the 1938 race film Spirit of
- In the 1988 movie Coming to America, Eddie
Murphy's character Clarence states that Frank Sinatra once
told him that Joe Louis was 137 years old, supposedly his
age when he lost to Rocky Marciano.
- Louis is also mentioned in the song "Save me Joe Louis"
by Curtis Eller's American Circus from the album
Wirewalkers and Assassins.
- Louis is played by actor Bari K. Willerford in the film
- In 2009, the Brooklyn band Yeasayer debuted the single
"Ambling Alp" from their forthcoming album Odd Blood.
The song makes reference to Louis' boxing career and his
famous rivalry with Schmeling in the first person, with the
lyrics such as "Oh, Max Schmeling was a formidable foe / The
Ambling Alp was too, at least that’s what I’m told / But if
you learn one thing, you’ve learned it well / It’s true, you
must give fascists hell."