Before Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. became Muhammad Ali, the United States held in high esteem the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis who was a household name and a hero to all races despite being black.
Born Joseph Louis Barrow in 1914, Joe Louis reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 and was victorious in 26 title defenses, a feat that has gained him the best heavyweight of all time rank by the International Boxing Research Organization in 2005.
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Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis has won 52 fights by knockout and suffered three losses in his entire boxing career which spanned from 1934 to 1951. He did not have an easy start in life.
Seventh of eight children, the grandson of slaves was born in a shack outside of Lafayette, Alabama to sharecropper father, Munroe Barrow, and laundress mother Lillie (Reese) Barrow. Both of his parents were children of former slaves.
Louis was a stutterer after suffering from a speech impediment during his childhood. His father was committed to a mental institution in 1916 and in 1920, his mother married Patrick Brooks, a local construction contractor.
The family migrated north to Detroit where Louis attended the Bronson Trade School and trained as a cabinet maker. He and his family had to also work odd jobs after his stepfather and brother lost their jobs at the Ford Motor Company where Louis had also worked later in life.
After an association with a local gang, Louis’s mother got him to take violin lessons to stay out of trouble. He was also introduced to boxing by a friend and he started training at the Brewster Recreation Center in Detroit.
It is believed that Joe Louis truncated his name when he made his debut at 17 to hide his new career from his mother. Others say because he was barely literate, Louis wrote his name so large that there was no room for his last name.
He lost his debut fight to future Olympian Johnny Miller and then won subsequent fights as an amateur boxer. In 1934, he won the United States Amateur Champion National AAU tournament in St. Louis, Missouri.
His professional debut started in 1934 against Jack Kracken in the Bacon Casino on Chicago’s south side. He won all 12 of his professional fights that year, 10 by knockout. In 1935 he fought thirteen times gained media spotlight after knocking out former world heavyweight champion Primo Carnera in six rounds.
This victory gave him a shot at the title held by former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling of Germany. He had already defeated former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer.
He reportedly did not train hard for his title fight against Schmeling in 1936 which cost him a 12th-round knockout, his first professional defeat. He rather spent time on golf which was his other passion.
In 1938, a rematch made Louis a hero after knocking out Schmeling in a first-round knockout. He was hailed by both black and white Americans for the victory which had a nationalistic bearing due to Hitler’s display of superiority ahead of the second world war.
Joe Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and donated the prize money to military relief funds. He retired in 1949 when Muhammad Ali was just seven years old, but returned in 1950 due to financial problems due to unpaid taxes.
Louis won a few fights but lost in 1951 to top contender Rocky Marciano who defeated him by a brutal eighth-round TKO. Louis retired 68-3 career record including 54 knockouts.
In 1952, Louis was invited to play as an amateur in the San Diego Open on a sponsor’s exemption. This made him the first African American to play a PGA Tour event. He helped found The First Tee charity that helps underprivileged children become acquainted with golf.
Louis later served as a referee for both wrestling and boxing matches and then worked as a greeter at the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas. He battled cocaine addiction and was committed to psychiatric care in 1970. After a heart surgery in 1977, he was confined to a wheelchair.
He suffered some condemnation from the black community since he endorsed and campaigned for Republican Wendell Willkie for president in 1940. Even Muhammad Ali once called him an “Uncle Tom.” He later named him as one of his biggest influences in boxing.
Louis was married four times, twice to Marva Trotter, with whom he had two children: Jacqueline and Joseph Louis Jr. His second wife was Rose Morgan and they divorced after less than three years. He adopted four more children: Joe Jr., John, Joyce and Janet with his third wife, Martha Jefferson.
He created a legacy before his death which was caused by a cardiac arrest on April 12, 1981. Louis was inducted into The Ring Magazine Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 2007, he was ranked #4 on ESPN.com’s 50 Greatest Boxers of all-time list. In 2002 The Ring ranked Louis #4 on their 80 best fighters of the last 80 years list. Louis was also ranked #1 on The Ring’s list of 100 Greatest Punchers of All Time.
He was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 1982, and in 1993 he was the first boxer to appear on a commemorative postage stamp. Several sports facilities have been named after him.
There is a memorial to Louis in Detroit, a 24-foot-long (7.3 m) arm with a fisted hand suspended by a 24-foot-high (7.3 m) pyramidal framework to represent the power of his punch. There is also a bronze statue of Louis in his Alabama hometown outside the Chambers County Courthouse.
Joe Louis has appeared in films including the 1938 movie Spirit of Youth, in which he played a boxer, and the 1953 Robert Gordon-directed movie about his life, The Joe Louis Story.