Joe Louis - An American Hero

Talk the Talk

When Joe Louis first became known to America’s White press they gave him a series of nicknames, many of which would seem racist to the more enlightened modern eye. 

They included: The Mahogany Mauler, The Chocolate Chopper, The Coffee-Colored KO King, The Safari Sandman, and the one that stuck, The Brown Bomber.

Walk the Walk

In a professional career that spanned from 1934 to 1951, Joe Louis’ record shows why he is considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. 

He fought 71 bouts in total with 68 wins, of which 54 were by way of knockout with 5 of them coming in the first round. 

The other three fights were defeats, the first against Max Schmeling who Louis demolished in just two minutes, four seconds in a rematch two years later. 

His other two losses came at the end of his career when he was way passed his best and only still fighting in an attempt to ease his growing debts.

Boxing History Facts

Up to the mid-1930s the White press of America had been reluctant to praise the virtues of Black boxers, however since the retirement of Jack Dempsey in 1929 there had not been many options for a marketable heavyweight champion. 

The popularity of the sport in general had taken a nosedive due to a shortage of top fighters along with a growing reputation for fight fixing, illegal gambling and connections with organised crime. 

When Joe Louis hit the boxing scene, all this changed and his reputation as an honest, hardworking fighter caught the imagination of the American press and public, a sentiment summed up by New York Times Columnist Edward Van Ness when he 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 slump."

Joe Louis, otherwise known as the Brown Bomber, was an American boxer and widely considered to be one of the greatest world heavyweight champions of all time, holding the title for almost twelve years between 1937 to 1949. 

He defended it against the best opponents the boxing world had to offer, dispatching most of his opponents early in the fight with only three of his title defences going the full fifteen rounds. 

Rise to the Top of the Boxing World 

Born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914 near Lafayette, Alabama, Louis had a tough childhood and would receive little in the way of an education. 

As a teenager, he moved with his family to Detroit and soon after became involved with a local boxing gym. His first amateur fight was at light-heavyweight in 1932 at the age of seventeen but it didn’t go well as he lost on points after three rounds in which he got knocked down three times. Undeterred, he learned from his mistakes and in 1934 won the American Boxing National Amateur Athletic Union light-heavyweight title; he ended his amateur career at this point with a record that included 50 wins, 43 of which were by way of knockout and just 4 losses. 

In the same year, he made his professional debut beating Jack Kracken with a first round knockout. He went on to have eleven more fights in 1934 and fourteen in 1935. By this time his power, skill and ability to quickly dispatch his opponents had attracted the attention of promoter Mike Jacobs who would put the Brown Bomber on the big stage in New York City. 

An American Hero 

Joe Louis was soon thrust into the spotlight when on June 25, 1935 he beat former world heavyweight champion Primo Carnera with a sixth-round knockout. After this he became a hero to many, especially in the African American community as Italian national Carnera symbolised Benito Mussolini fascist regime that was at the time involved in an invasion of Ethiopia. 

On September 24 of the same year, he took just four rounds to KO Max Baer who had lost the heavyweight title a few months earlier to James J. Braddock leaving few pundits with any doubt about the young fighter’s title credentials. Two years later Louis got his chance to become heavyweight champion of the world and after initially being knocked down in the first round, he emerged victorious after knocking out Braddock in the eighth. 

With his win, he became only the second Black boxer to hold the title. The boxing world in the early twentieth century often drew the colour line, especially in the heavyweight division. However, while the first, Jack Johnson, was hated by White America, Louis would win the hearts of the whole country and be seen as a national hero. Unlike the brash, outspoken Johnson, Louis was a softly spoken, mild mannered man which would have made it easier for the American public, both Black and White, to take to him. 

From the start of his professional career his handlers had coached him on how to behave when in the public eye in order for him to be able to get a shot at the title and avoid the dreaded colour line. Their instructions included that he was never to be photographed with a White woman and that he should limit celebrations in the ring after a win, especially against a White opponent. 

However, his popularity with White Americans really took hold in the run up to the Max Schmeling fight of 1938. Schmeling had handed Louis his first professional defeat two years earlier, knocking him out in the twelfth round but in the rematch, it took the American boxer just over two minutes to KO his German opponent. 

To the American public, this was more than just a boxing match, though he was never a member of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler had hailed Schmeling as an example of the superiority of the Germanic race and with growing tensions between America and Germany, the fight was seen by many as being a symbolic battle between democracy and fascism. 

Joe Louis and the War Years 

The persona of Joe Louis, the American hero was further enhanced in 1942 when he joined the army. Though he saw no combat in World War Two, he travelled thousands of miles staging nearly one hundred exhibition bouts to help raise money for the war effort and to entertain his fellow troops, over two million in total got to see the great world champion ply his trade. 

At the time, many African Americans questioned their role in the conflict suggesting they should be treated as equals at home before being asked to fight abroad. Louis was seen as the ideal symbol to keep African Americans supporting the war, so much so that he was used in recruitment and propaganda campaigns by the military to help get conscriptions from the Black community. 

By joining the army, he gave up four years worth of prize money that would have equated to hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for a military pay of just $21 a month. When asked in an interview why he would work for nothing he stated, “Well I’m not working for nothing, I’m working for my country and I think that’s about the greatest piece of work that anybody can do”. 

The American army at the time was segregated and Black troops were often treated unfairly, a situation that did not go unnoticed by Louis. While he usually kept his political views to himself, during his time in the army he spoke up for the rights of Black soldiers and worked to give them more equality when he could, including: 

  • When entertaining the troops, some bases wanted to admit only White servicemen to watch him, but Louis would insist on being allowed to entertain all troops. 
  • When he met Black soldiers, they would often complain to him about racist conditions at their base so he would use his connections in Washington to improve things for them. 
  • While serving, he met future baseball great Jackie Robinson and was able to use his status to help Robinson and several other Black soldiers gain admittance to Officer Candidate School. 
Despite his fame and public image as an American hero, Louis was not immune to the racism of the day. One time during the war, he was reportedly travelling on a military bus with middleweight boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson. Both were ordered to the back of the bus but the usually mild-mannered Louis loudly refused and the two great boxers were then able to argue their way out of trouble. 

The Fall of a Hero 

After the war, the champion defended his title four more times, the last two coming against the future heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott however, by this time Louis was clearly past his best. He won the first encounter with Walcott in 1947 with a controversial split decision after being knocked down twice in the first four rounds. In the rematch the following year, Louis was again up against it and was knocked down in the third round before coming back and knocking Walcott out in the eleventh round. 

Around this time the Inland Revenue Service came after him claiming he owed around half a million dollars in taxes, a figure that would rise to around $1.25 million before they were done. The government that had hailed Joe Louis as a hero now relentlessly pursued him for the money he owed, taxing his income at 90% leaving him unable to pay the interest let alone the debt. 

He officially announced that he was hanging up his gloves on March 1, 1949 however he was forced out of retirement in 1950 because of his increasing debts. He lost to the heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles in his first fight back then followed this by winning seven fights in eight months against lesser opponents, fighting in front of small crowds and for a fraction of the purses he was used to. 

In 1951, he would face the up-and-coming American boxer Rocky Marciano in his last ever professional fight. A total mismatch, Marciano won with ease knocking The Brown Bomber out of the ring in the eighth round rendering him unable to continue and ending one of the most celebrated careers in boxing history. 

Eventually, after considerable legal and political pressure the IRS would forgive the debt but Louis’s financial situation would remain difficult for the rest of his life. He tried his hand at several professions after boxing including a short stint as a wrestler, TV commercials and as a greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas where he would shake hands with people as they entered, and gamble with house money to entice customers to the tables. 

From the late 1960s, both his mental and physical health began to deteriorate. He developed an addiction to cocaine, suffered from paranoia, had heart problems, suffered a number of strokes and in 1977 was confined to a wheelchair after surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm. 

On April 12, 1981 at the age of 66, Joe Louis collapsed a few hours after attending a heavyweight championship fight between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick at Caesars Palace and died of a heart attack after arriving at a nearby hospital. He was buried with full military honours and his funeral was paid in part by his old adversary turned friend Max Schmeling, who also served as a pall bearer. 

The Legacy of Joe Louis 

Inside the ring, Joe Louis has probably been labelled as the best heavyweight champion of all time more than anyone else in the world of boxing, (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali), including being ranked number one by the International Boxing Research Organization, and The Ring's List of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All-TimeHe fought in more title fights that anybody in boxing history, with twenty-seven championship bouts and to this day holds the record for defending his title more times that anybody else, seeing off twenty-five opponents as the champion. 

Outside the ring his legacy is even greater as he did more for race relations in American than most in the pre-civil rights era. He is widely seen as the first African American to be elevated to the status of national hero in the USA after becoming a focal point for anti-fascist sentiment both before and during World War Two. He was able to get White America to support him in the ring, an achievement that opened the door for many other Black boxers who followed him, especially in the heavyweight division. 

As well as breaking the colour line in boxing, he also played an important role in doing the same in golf after he became the first Black man to appear in a PGA event in 1952. While it can be argued that these factors did not greatly affect race relations outside of sport, he did pave the way for more Black athletes to follow him in becoming American heroes and role models for people of all ages, genders, social classes and ethnicities. According to Chester Higgins of Ebony Magazine:

''He gave inspiration to downtrodden and despised people. When Joe Louis fought, Blacks in ghettos across the land were indoors glued to their radios and when Louis won, as he nearly always did, they hit the streets whooping and hollering in celebration. For Joe's victory was their victory, a means of striking back at an oppressive and hateful environment. Louis was the Black Atlas on whose broad shoulders Blacks were lifted, for in those days there were few authentic Black heroes.''

Further Reading:

Chamberlain, G. [Internet]. 2012. Joe Louis. Great Black Heroes. Available From: [Accessed Jan 5, 2021]. 

Joe Louis - America's Hero - Betrayed. [Video]. 2008. YouTube. Available From: [Accessed Jan 5, 2021]. 

Joe Louis. [Internet]. 2014. John Cabot University. Available From: [Accessed Jan 5, 2021]. 

Joe Louis. [Internet]. 2017. Encyclopaedia of Alabama. Available From: [Accessed Jan 5, 2021]. 

Joe Louis. [Internet]. 2020. Available From: 

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