- Louis, Joe
- (1914-1981)Born Joe Louis Barrow, the son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves in Alabama in 1914, the future heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was one of eight children. When Louis was about two, his father, Monroe Barrow, was committed to a state mental institution suffering from schizophrenia and his mother later re-married and the family moved to Detroit in 1926. Having dropped out of school Louis worked in a number of laboring jobs and began boxing in his early teens. He fought his first amateur fight in 1932. Having mistakenly omitted the name “Barrow” from his registration forms, he became known thereafter as Joe Louis. After winning 50 of his 54 contests, in 1933 he won the National American Athletic Union light heavyweight title. Before turning professional in 1934, Louis fought 58 amateur bouts, lost four, won 54, 43 of which were by knock out.Carefully coached by his manager and trainer on how to behave as an African American competing in a sport dominated by whites, Louis successfully fought 18 opponents before meeting the former heavyweight champion, Primo Carnera, in 1935. Louis knocked the giant Italian out in the sixth round. He went on to fight and knock out three other contenders for the heavyweight title: King Levinsky, Paulino Uzcudun, and then another former heavyweight champion, Max Baer. His ferocious punches won Louis the nickname of “Brown Bomber.”On 19 June 1936, Louis faced another former heavyweight champion, the German Max Schmeling. Perhaps underestimating his opponent, Louis did not train properly for the bout and was knocked out in the twelfth round. He made his comeback on August 18 when he knocked out Jack Starkey in the third round. After a number of relatively easy fights, he was matched against James Braddock (known as the “Cinderella Man” due to his come back) for the world heavyweight championship ahead of Schmeling in 1937 and on June 22, 1937 in front of a crowd of 45,000 at Comiskey Park, Chicago, he came back from an early knock down to k.o. Braddock in the eighth round and win the heavyweight title. At the age of 22, Louis became the youngest heavyweight champion in history. After fighting several defenses of his title, Louis finally got his rematch with Max Schmeling in 1938. The fight on 22 June 1938 assumed enormous significance as it was presented in terms of competing nations, ideologies, and races. Schmeling was portrayed as the representative of Nazi Germany while and Louis now symbolized liberal democracy and racial equality. Louis knocked out Schmeling within the first three minutes of round one.Louis successfully defended his title in 14 fights—often against insignificant challengers—before he faced Billy Conn on June 18 1941. In what is regarded as one of the greatest fights of the twentieth century Louis knocked out Conn in the thirteenth round. The champion went on to defeat Buddy Baer in January 1942 and then gave most of his purse to the Navy Relief fund. Shortly afterward, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private. He fought several bouts while in the army, and again in 1942 donated his winnings to the Army Emergency Relief Fund as well as paying to provide seats for servicemen. Made sergeant in August 1942 and staff sergeant 1944, Louis’s role in the army was largely public relations, boosting morale by fighting exhibition bouts for service personnel. He also featured in war posters, army publications, and in a film This Is the Army, with future-president Ronald Reagan in 1943. In recognition of his patriotic work, Louis was awarded the Legion of Merit by the army in 1945.Louis returned to the ring for an eagerly awaited rematch against Billy Conn on 19 June 1946. Before the fight, Conn indicated that he would outrun the champion, to which Louis replied with the famous remark, “He can run but he can’t hide.” Louis won with a knockout in the eighth. Faced with huge tax demands from the IRS, Louis continued to fight beyond his prime, but after successfully knocking out “Jersey” Joe Walcott in a rematch in 1948, he retired from the ring in 1949. His debts forced him to make a comeback in 1951, but after being beaten by Rocky Marciano in 1951, he retired once more. In defending his title over a 12-year period and winning 23 of the 27 contests with knockouts, Louis had secured his place as one of the greatest fighters of all time.However, his career after retiring was to be one of slow decline. He found employment for a while in advertising, but as his tax liabilities increased Louis became a professional wrestler to earn more. He also performed briefly in a circus. He stopped wrestling due to injury in 1957 and subsequently became a “greeter” in Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. In later years, he became addicted to alcohol and drugs and was briefly hospitalized in 1970. In 1977, he suffered a massive heart attack and was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. He was supported through illness and declining years by show business friends, including Frank Sinatra. Following his death in 1981 Louis was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., on the special instructions of President Ronald Reagan. Louis was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1982.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.