Joe Louis

The Famous Boxer

World Heavyweight Champion Boxer Joe Louis
A portrait of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (1914 - 1981) holding his gloved hands in fighting position. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Joe Louis?

Joe Louis, a professional American boxer, was regarded as the most famous black person in his day after he became the World Heavyweight Champion in 1937. Louis kept the title for an astounding 12 years, only giving it up when he retired in 1949. Joe Louis was also considered the first black to achieve national hero status; a status he earned when he defeated German boxer Max Schemling in the famous 1938 rematch.

Dates:  May 13, 1914 -- April 12, 1981

Also Known As: Joe Louis Barrow (born as), Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber 

Humble Beginnings

Joe Louis Barrow, the seventh of eight children, was born on May 13, 1914, to rural Lafayette, Alabama sharecroppers Munroe and Lillie Barrow. Joe, who was one-quarter Cherokee from his mother's side, weighed a whopping 11 pounds at birth.

Life was very hard for Joe's family. When Joe was only two years old, his father was committed to the Searcy State Hospital for the Colored Insane. Soon thereafter, Joe's mother received word that her husband had died. In truth, he had not. Munroe lived another 24 years, confined to an insane asylum and oblivious of his famous son’s successes.

Lillie, who believed herself a widow, embarked on a lonely life of working hard in the fields to support her large family. Four years later, in 1920, Lillie remarried. The Barrow family’s life improved a bit when Lillie married Pat Brooks, a local construction worker, who was a widower with five children.

As a young boy, Joe suffered from a slight stammer, which made him quiet and shy. He spent a lot of time outside, climbing trees and playing. On Sundays, he would attend a small Baptist church with his family. During weekdays, Joe would try to skip school as often as he could.

In 1926, 12-year-old Joe and his family joined the Great Migration and moved to Detroit, Michigan, where factory work was abundant.

 

Reluctant Schoolboy

Due to his rural upbringing and very little formal education, Joe was painfully unprepared for Detroit's public school system. After being placed in classes with much younger and smaller children, Joe was humiliated and began to hate school. 

When Joe Louis was 16, a teacher recommended that a trade school might be a better choice for Joe; thus, Louis was enrolled in the Bronson Vocational School to learn cabinet making. Joe had a good start at the trade school, but the Great Depression changed everything. When Joe’s stepfather lost his job, the family was once again thrown into poverty. To help his family, Joe began to skip school and work odd jobs around town.

At a time when many were desperate, it was easy to fall into the wrong crowd to earn a little cash. And Joe had started to do just that. He had been hanging around the local Catherine Street Gang, using his fists when needed.  Lillie was understandably worried. Surprisingly, her answer was violin lessons.

Somehow, each week, Lillie managed to give Joe 50 cents for violin lessons. Despite her best efforts, a violin was not exactly the right fit for a young boy that was large for his age and had strong hands.

After only a handful of violin lessons, an amateur boxer friend, Thurston McKinney, urged Joe to skip violin lessons and, instead, use that money to rent a locker at Brewster's East Side Gymnasium. Joe did, carrying his violin with him. It was at this gym that Joe Louis was fortuitously introduced to boxing.  

Becoming Joe Louis

Joe attempted to hide from his mother how his violin lesson money was being spent by dropping his last name -- answering to Joe Louis at the gym. He would also hide his boxing gloves in the violin case when he went home.

However, as all mothers do, Lillie eventually discovered the deception. To Joe’s surprise, she was not mad at him; she was happy that Joe had finally found something he enjoyed.

From the start, Louis showed tremendous promise as a boxer. In 1932, at age 17, Joe had his first amateur bout, fighting against the well-trained, Olympic boxing team member Johnny Miler.

Louis took a real beating. He was knocked down a total of seven times in the first two rounds and the match was ended. Louis was mortified. He decided to take his stepfather's advice and work at keeping full-time employment rather than boxing. 

Louis was lucky enough to be hired full-time at the Ford Rouge auto plant for $25 a week. That was good money at the time.  The job at the auto plant was physical in nature too, but not something he enjoyed. After spending several months working at Ford, Joe Louis decided to leave his well-paying job and try his hand at being a real boxer – a very risky move during the Great Depression.

In the Beginning

After Louis quit his job and focused on training for a boxing career, he immediately compiled a long list of victories. Out of 54 amateur tournaments, Louis won 50 -- 43 by knockouts. In April 1934, Louis won the United States Amateur National Champion tournament in St. Louis.

His record attracted the attention of John Roxborough, well known in Detroit's black community as a numbers runner. Roxborough was also a civic leader, who enabled many Detroit youths to realize their dreams. Roxborough decided to mentor young Louis -- moving him into his home. Roxborough placed Louis on a strict, proper diet, bought adequate training equipment, and made sure Louis had "pocket change" so he and his family could live comfortably.

Getting Down to Business

Grooming Louis for heavyweight contests, Roxborough took Louis to Chicago to meet colleague Julian Black and train under Jack "Chappy" Blackburn, who had made two white boxers into world champions.

Blackburn was hesitant to train a black boxer. Particularly because Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915), had shamelessly insulted white America by pulverizing white opponents and marrying outside his race. After Johnson's defeat, promoters vowed never to allow another black man to win the heavyweight title.

But Blackburn liked Louis' promise and started him on a stringent training regimen -- introducing him to a style of boxing that combined balanced footwork, strong jabs, and lightning fast punches.

Seeking to distance Louis' image from Jack Johnson, the management team drew up strict rules. Louis was never to throw a fight nor be seen publicly exulting in an opponent's defeat. He was to appear God-fearing, clean-living, and gracious in public. Above all else, Louis was never to be seen with a white woman -- not even in a picture. 

The hope was that training and enhancing his image would catapult Joe Louis all the way to the top.

Going Pro

Joe Louis' professional debut came on July 4, 1934, when he was pitted against Jack Kracken in Chicago. Louis made $59 for knocking Kracken out in the first round. 

Roxborough received heavy pressure in September 1934 from the Michigan State Boxing Commission to have Louis sign with white management to contend for the championship. But Roxborough refused; he and Black continued to manage Louis.

In October 1934, Louis knocked out Jack O'Dowd in the second round and received $62. By the end of the year, Louis had won 12 pro fights -- 10 by knockout. 

Even though his managers had carefully selected legitimate heavyweight contenders, it was obvious that Louis had outgrown his opponents. Roxborough and Black began searching out tougher competition and found Charley Massera, who was the eighth-ranked top heavyweight contender. On November 30, 1934, Louis knocked out Massera in the third round.

In early December 1934, Louis fought Lee Ramage, considered to be a real threat. Ramage proved to be a challenge to Louis because of his defense measures and fast footwork. He was able to block Louis' strong jabs until the eighth round, when he was knocked out.

Roxborough decided Louis was ready for New York and Madison Square Garden.

Hitting the Big Time

While training for a match against Lee Ramage, a beautiful, young secretary for the local newspaper, Marva Trotter, came into the gym to interview Louis. After Ramage's defeat, Louis invited Marva to the victory celebration at Chicago's Grand Hotel. The couple married a year later on September 24, 1935.  

As his image grew, so did Louis' professional purses. By the end of 1935, he had earned a whopping $371,645 -- in the midst of the Great Depression. While all of America was struggling, Louis was making 300 times the average yearly salary.

Louis consistently sent money to his family back home, but he had also acquired a lavish lifestyle. In private, Joe Louis' life was filled with excesses of every kind, forming habits that plagued him until he died. He loved Buicks, fancy suits, and consorting with women of all races -- including stars Lena Horne and Lana Turner. 

The Brown Bomber

The championship was in view, but Louis had to first prove himself a worthy adversary by defeating a list of "great white hopes" for the world title. Only then would he be given a chance against Heavyweight Champion James "The Cinderella Man" Braddock.

It is said that 197-pound Louis went through the heavyweight contenders like Sherman went through Georgia -- the first being 6' 6", 270-pound, Italian Primo Carnera. The match's timing was perfect since sentiments were running high worldwide -- particularly among blacks -- at news of an invasion of Ethiopia by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. In pre-match hype, Joe Louis was portrayed as an ambassador for his race and country. On June 25, 1935, in front of 60,000 fans in New York's Yankee Stadium, Louis defeated Carnera in six rounds.

Louis had become an overnight headline maker. The media focused on Louis' race, with some sportswriters exaggerating his lack of education to convey the image of an ignorant savage unable to do anything but sleep, eat, and fight. Nicknames such as “Mahogany Mauler,” “Saffra Sandman,” and the “Chocolate Chopper” were thrown around. One name stuck: “The Brown Bomber.”  

Going for the Championship

The highly-sensationalized bout between Louis and Max Baer (who had lost his heavyweight title to James Braddock) took place on September 24, 1935. Baer's reluctance to fight Louis was prescient. Louis' brutal punches knocked Baer to one knee in four rounds, where he stayed. Legend states that Louis made quick work of Baer to be with new bride, Marva, whom he'd married earlier that day. Joe and Marva were to have two children together, Jacqueline (1943) and Joe Jr. (1947).

Max Schmeling, a German-born former heavyweight champion was on the comeback trail, looking to regain the title. However, with Baer's defeat, Louis was now the top heavyweight contender. For a title shot, the boxing commission informed Schmeling he would have to fight Louis first. The two management teams agreed to a match in 1936.

First Bout With Joe Louis and Max Schmeling

Joe Louis had won all 27 of his professional fights, 23 by knockout, and was now deemed "an American idol." Unfortunately, Louis was too busy enjoying his wealth and idol status to seriously train for the upcoming Schmeling fight; instead, he took up golf. 

On June 11, 1936, a confident Louis was stunned when a well-conditioned Schmeling handed him his first professional defeat with a 12th-round knockout. The loss was likened to a funeral and proved especially devastating to blacks who had invested an irrational hope in Louis. 

Louis later admitted to complacency, having cut his training short. But what Louis did not publicly admit was that while training for the Schmeling bout, he had ended an affair with Sonjia Henie, a Norwegian athlete-turned-star. 

Renewed Motivation

After his embarrassing defeat, Louis trained with one intent -- to defeat Schmeling. However, first he was to fight James Braddock, the current World Heavyweight Champion. The much-hyped fight took place the night of June 22, 1937, with 45,000 spectators in Chicago's Comiskey Park Stadium.

Louis was knocked down in the first round by the heavyweight champion, but Louis rendered a weary, bloodied Braddock an 8th-round knockout blow.

With his defeat of Braddock, Joe Louis had become the World Heavyweight Champion and the most famous black man in the country. Louis, however, did not have time to revel. He was too busy planning his defeat of Max Schmeling in a 1938 rematch.

Fight of the Century

Joe Louis' rematch with Max Schmeling has been called “the fight of the century” because it was much more than just two fighters competing for a championship -- it was a battle of two ideologies. Most Americans deemed the fight against Max Schmeling, Hitler's poster boy for his much-touted Nazi and Aryan superiority philosophy, an opportunity to crush Hitler and avert war.

Louis felt the whole country was depending on his victory. President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House to tell him as much. It is reported that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler called Schmeling before the bout -- first warning him he'd better win for the glory of the Third Reich, and then to remind him of his superior manhood.

On June 22, 1938, in New York's Yankee Stadium, the fight of the century took place. When the two boxers left their dressing rooms to head to the ring, they knew there was no choice but to play the role assigned to them in history. 

In front of 70,000 witnesses, Louis pounded the unwilling Aryan avatar into the mat. It took Louis only 124 seconds to obtain vindication for himself and his country -- finally feeling like an undisputed heavyweight champion.

American Hero

After the Schmeling match, Louis continued to defend his title. The first 15 times were against opponents so unworthy they were called "Bums of the Month.”

After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, 27-year-old Louis enlisted in the Army. He fought nearly 100 exhibition matches to raise money for America's armed forces and boost morale among troops.

Twice, Louis donated the purses from two title bouts to the Navy Relief Fund -- further cementing his good reputation in white America. Louis also participated in interracial causes, working quietly to desegregate the military.

When he returned home from service in October 1945, Louis was highly popular. The press now used words like "integrity" and "all-American hero" when covering stories about Louis. 

Louis broke the color barrier in boxing for all time, successfully defending his world championship 25 times -- earning enormous purses.

Joe Louis retired undefeated in 1949, holding his title for 12 years -- longer than anyone before or since. 

Down and Out

While things appeared rosy on the surface, Louis' private life was spiraling out of control. His discreet but constant womanizing broke up his marriage to Marva in 1945. Even though they remarried in 1946, the couple divorced for good in 1949.

Despite having made $5 million, Louis’ financial situation was a complete mess. Part of the problem was Louis’ extreme generosity, to family, friends, strangers, and every black cause. He even paid the city of Detroit back for welfare money his family received during the Great Depression.

Another part of the problem was that Louis made a number of bad business decisions -- acquiring several businesses that failed and trusting in people that deceived him.

However, the most devastating blow to Joe Louis’ finances came from the IRS. Louis owed $500,000 in back taxes (this eventually grew to over $1.2 million with added fines). Shoddy bookkeeping, an incredibly high tax rate of nearly 90%, and expensive living all led Louis to this fate.

Since Joe Louis did not have the money to pay his back taxes, he reentered the ring to try to earn some money. Just a year after retiring, Louis fought new heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles, but lost by call in the 15th round. (The purse for this bout was only $100,000, leaving Louis with very little after taxes.)

Joe Louis tried again. In a bout with Rocky Marciano on October 26, 1951, Louis showed his age. Louis was getting old and tired, while his opponent was neither. Louis was utterly defeated in an 8th-round knockout by Marciano.

Joe Louis was done with boxing. The IRS, however, was not done with Joe Louis.

Hero's Life in Decline

With the IRS constantly hounding him, Joe Louis tried just about everything to earn money. He lectured, made personal appearances, and endorsed products. He also suffered humiliation through a brief stint as a pro wrestler, but had to stop after a serious injury.  

On December 25, 1955, Louis married Rose Morgan, a successful black woman who owned a beautician business in Harlem. She tried desperately to help Louis get out from under his IRS mess, but he just kept spending his money. Louis’ late nights and womanizing eventually took their toll and the marriage was annulled in 1958.

In 1959, Louis married Los Angeles criminal attorney Martha Malone Jefferson, who catered to Louis' every whim. She believed Louis had been terribly used, and despite his philandering, money woes, and irrational behaviors, Martha stayed with him until his death. 

Also in 1959, the IRS finally realized that Louis would never be able to pay off the full amount that he owed to the government. Thus, they made an arrangement with Louis to pay a still unaffordable $20,000 annually on his tax debt.

In 1967, a prostitute (given the pseudonym “Marie” in Louis’ autobiography) introduced a baby boy to Louis, claiming it was his son. When Martha found out about the baby, she decided the couple should adopt it. In addition to Joseph, as the baby was named, Louis and Martha later adopted three more of Marie's children whose paternity was unknown.

Louis spent much of the 60s golfing, womanizing, and doing drugs, especially cocaine. It was about this time that he also began showing signs of mental illness. At one point, Louis was committed to a mental institution in Colorado for several months. 

With Martha's help, Louis eventually kicked his cocaine habit, but he continued to have paranoid delusions.

The Last Years

Things started shaping up towards the end of Louis' life. In 1970, he became a greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, signing autographs and using house money to bet with the casino's special guests. Louis was paid $50,000 a year by the casino and provided housing.

But years of boxing, excess, and abuse had taken a toll on Louis' health. He suffered from a heart ailment and underwent surgery in 1977 to correct an aortic aneurysm. A series of strokes confined Louis to a wheelchair during the last four years of his life. 

Louis made his last public appearance on April 12, 1981, at a heavyweight championship bout between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. A few hours later, after suffering a massive heart attack, 66-year-old Louis died at Desert Springs Hospital near his Las Vegas home.

At the request of President Ronald Reagan, Joe Louis Barrow was interred into Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors.