Louis was born in 1914 in Chambers County, Alabama, the son of a sharecropper. His father was committed to a mental asylum when Louis was two years old; two years later, his mother was falsely informed that her husband had died. She remarried, and the family moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1924. By his teens, Louis was learning cabinet making in vocational school and earning money carrying 50-pound blocks of ice, which developed his powerful arms. He soon was using money given him for violin lessons to rent a locker at the local boxing gym. Encouraged to compete in the Golden Gloves, Louis won 50 of 54 amateur matches and the national light heavyweight amateur title in 1934 under the shortened name of Joe Louis.
This earned the interest of two managers later that year, who moved Louis to Chicago, engaged a professional trainer, and brought him into professional boxing. They mandated a code of conduct designed to enhance his popularity and defray racial antagonism. Louis would observe these precepts throughout his professional career, which started off with a bang: he won his first 27 matches, 23 by knockout. Standing over six feet tall, he was an imposing figure with a brutally effective range of punches that carried disabling power at close range. The early victories included two over former heavyweight champions, Carnera and Baer. To many, “The Brown Bomber” seemed unstoppable; to the Associated Press, he was 1935’s “Athlete of the Year.” In just a year-and-a-half, he earned over $350,000. Two hours before the fight with Baer, he married Marva Trotter with whom he would have a daughter.
Louis’ 28th fight was with the German Max Schmeling in 1936. Schmeling studied Louis’ technique, and discerned a vulnerability in his lowered left arm. Louis, meanwhile, had become slightly complacent. Schmeling successfully exploited Louis’ weakness, although it took 12 rounds for him to drop his opponent. By some accounts, Louis wept in his dressing room after the fight.
A Victory for America
Louis was nevertheless selected as world heavyweight contender in 1937, when he fought title holder James Braddock, “The Cinderella Man.” Louis knocked out Braddock, becoming the first African American champion since 1908. The effect on disempowered Blacks nationwide was electric, but Louis’ reaction set the tone for what would become his greatest quest: “I don’t want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling.”
The opportunity came one year later, within the context of a world on the eve of war: Schmeling was (inaccurately) perceived as a Nazi, and the representative of Hitler’s racial superiority theories and bellicosity. Louis was invited to the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt, who said: “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” He entered the ring at Yankee Stadium before 70,000 people and a radio audience of millions as the symbol of freedom and national might, and his triumph was complete. In slightly over two minutes, he dropped Schmeling three times, climaxing with a knockout. The nation united in celebrating the victory. In the words of one journalist: “Joe Louis is a credit to his race – the human race.”
For the next several years, Louis won so many fights that his opponents became known as the “Bum of the Month Club.” A tendency toward selfless generosity began to manifest itself, as Louis donated prize purses to military relief funds while assisting friends and other charitable causes. Louis joined the Army in 1942, fortifying his image as a patriotic hero. He served as a spokesman boosting morale for the war effort. While fighting nearly 100 exhibition matches for millions of soldiers, and acting in a promotional film, Louis was instrumental in arranging for the first black entrants into Officers Training School.
Discharged in 1946 with the rank of Sergeant, Louis, although past his prime, returned to boxing. He defeated Billy Conn in a rematch of their pre-WWII bout followed by three more victories, before retiring and abdicating his title. He had earned over $5 million in the course of his career, but a lifetime of poor financial management had left him unprepared for an IRS claim of $1.2 million. His wife Marva, who had divorced him in 1945 and remarried him a year later, now made the divorce permanent and added alimony to his woes. He returned to the ring in 1950, losing by decision to his title successor Ezzard Charles and by knockout to future champion Rocky Marciano in 1951. Louis abandoned boxing permanently, but attempted to earn money as a professional wrestler before settling into a job at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. During this time he married again twice, and successfully battled a drug addiction and mental illness; but his physical condition declined steadily, due in part to the effects of boxing. A heart attack felled Louis in 1981. President Ronald Reagan arranged for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Max Schmeling, who had become one of Louis’ best friends, was a pallbearer.
Louis successfully defended his world title 25 times, and held the championship for nearly 12 years, records that still stand. His lifetime score was 68 wins, including 54 knockouts, and only three losses. He is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the Detroit Red Wings stadium is named after him, and a memorial sculpture was dedicated in Detroit in 1986.