How Joe Louis Became World Heavyweight Boxing Champion for a Record 12 Years

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Joe Louis, nicknamed the Brown Bomber, achieved hero status after he defeated German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938 at the height of the Nazi ideology. His boxing career was one of the most successful, having dominated the sport for 12 years. 

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Despite this, Louis suffered from financial struggles after his high-hitting career. He started several businesses which failed and he went too far with his generosity. We look back on his career.

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Joe Louis’ Early Life

How Joe Louis Became World Heavyweight Boxing Champion for a Record 12 Years
Joe Louis at Greenwood Lake, N.Y. Source: Wikimedia licensed by Public domain

 Joseph Louis Barrow, commonly known as Joe Louis, was born on 13 May 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama as the seventh of eight children. His parents were former slaves and did menial jobs. His mother Lillie Barrow was a laundress and his father Mun Barrow was a sharecropper. 

Life didn’t start smoothly for Louis, who had a speech impediment and didn’t speak until he was six years old. His father was locked in a mental asylum, so he didn’t get a chance to know his biological father and his mother got remarried to a widower called Pat Brooks.

The youngster and his family moved to Michigan, Detroit where he attended the Bronson Vocational School and learnt cabinet-making. Louis’ stepfather worked at the Ford Motor Company but lost his job during the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939. As a result, Louis took on odd jobs to help out.

It was around this time that Louis got into boxing, although he hid his interest as his mother wanted him to take violin lessons. 

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Amateur Career

How Joe Louis Became World Heavyweight Boxing Champion for a Record 12 Years
Heavyweight boxer Joe Louis and Times columnist Harry Carr arm wrestling. Source: Wikimedia licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

He made his boxing debut in 1932, fighting under the name Joe Louis, purposefully leaving his surname out so that his mother wouldn’t realize he was boxing. After losing his first bout, Louis raked up victories and was the Brewster Street Recreation Center champion. Other titles he won include:

  • Detroit-area Golden Gloves Novice Division championship 
  • light heavyweight classification
  • the Chicago Tournament of Champions 
  • light heavyweight US Amateur Champion National Competition 

All these victories gave Joe Louis a 50-4 record and 43 knockouts.

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Professional Career

The Impossible Greatness of Joe Louis. Video Credit: Joseph Vincent

Although it took a while before Joe Louis landed fights against the big boxers, he experienced a meteoric rise in his professional career. He changed management a few times, to find a team that would care for his interests and wouldn’t sabotage the attempts of a young black man from becoming a boxing champion. 

He caught the attention of John Roxborough who was keen on helping African American boxers become successful and landed into his management. Promoter Julian Black and respected trainer Jack Blackburn were tasked with transforming him into a champion.

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Primo Carnera & Max Schemling

Once that was settled, he fought and won against former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer. His next fight against German boxer Max Schemling was his first professional defeat. 

By this time, it seemed that Louis didn’t have any weakness but after carefully studying him, the German realized that he often dropped his hand after a jab. He capitalized on this, knocking him out in 12 rounds at the Yankee Stadium.  

Despite his defeat to Schemling, Louis got an opportunity to fight for the World Championship. The German thought that he would be the one to fight James J. Braddock, but Braddock’s manager had been working to get a fight against Louis.

Joe Louis vs James Braddock 

Unfortunately, they had a difficult time getting a venue to host the bout. Initially, the fight was scheduled for Madison Square Gardens but couldn’t agree with the managers to get a booking. 

Even so, the fight went on in 22 June 1937. Braddock started strongly, winning the first round but Louis staged a comeback, winning the bout in eight rounds to clinch the World Heavyweight title.

Schemling Rematch

How Joe Louis Became World Heavyweight Boxing Champion for a Record 12 Years
Joe Louis looks for an opening during boxing match with Max Schmeling. Source: Wikimedia licensed by Public domain

This led to a rematch against Schemling in 1938. This was regarded as one of the biggest sporting moments of the 20th century, due to its nationalistic and racial interest. 

Schemling was propped up by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and Louis was viewed as the man who can “bring down” this ideology. He took it personally and when the two met, Louis made light work of Schemling, winning the fight in two minutes and four seconds. 

His victory was symbolic to African Americans, who were oppressed at the time and was akin to then defeating Nazi Germany.

Early Retirement

This was just the beginning of his record 12-year run as the heavyweight champion. Between 1938 and 1949, the boxer went undefeated and announced his early retirement at the top of his game. 

He was much-loved as he never lauded his achievements over his opponents and was a symbol of black success. The fighter took time out of his boxing career and served in the U.S. Army, raising money through fights, to support the country’s war efforts.

Return to the Boxing Ring

However, the fighter was forced to return to the ring due to financial problems. He owed the government and his managers also claimed he owed them money. Despite him winning some bouts, Louis couldn’t keep up with the rise in tax. His final fight came against Rocky Marciano who defeated him in eight rounds.

Later, he worked as a referee, professional wrestler and a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in a Las Vegas casino but eventually, the IRS forgave his debt. With the accumulated stress and ageing, the former boxing champion suffered from several illnesses. He dealt with cocaine addiction and surgery confined him to a wheelchair. 

The boxer died from cardiac arrest in 1981 and received full military honors at his burial. Former American President Ronald Reagan eulogized him as “more than a sports legend” as he stood up for black people and the minority. 

The former heavyweight champion of the world was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 1982 and inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1993, appeared on a commemorative postage stamp. 

Despite his troubles after retirement, Joe Louis was a cultural icon in his own right. Coming from a poor background and rising to the top of the boxing world was a testament to his determination. 

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