Joe Louis

Joe Louis

African-American boxer Joe Louis, who reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1937 until 1949, is regarded as one of his sport's all-time greats.


Born in Alabama in 1914, Joe Louis became boxing's heavyweight champion with his defeat of James J. Braddock in 1937. Nicknamed the "Brown Bomber," his knockout of Germany's Max Schmeling in 1938 made him a national hero, and he established a record by retaining the championship for nearly 12 years. After boxing, Louis endured financial problems while working as a referee and a casino greeter. He died of cardiac arrest in 1981.

Early Years

Boxer. Widely considered one of the greatest and most beloved boxers in the sport's history, Joseph Louis Barrow was born on May 13, 1914, in a shack outside of Lafayette, Alabama. The grandson of slaves, he was the seventh of eight children born to Munn, a sharecropper, and Lillie Barrow.

Louis's early life was shaped by financial struggles. He and his siblings slept three and four to a bed, and Louis was just 2 years old when his father was committed to an asylum. Shy and quiet, his development was stymied by limited education, and he eventually developed a stammer.

Not long after Lillie Barrow remarried, to widower Patrick Brooks, the family migrated north to Detroit. Louis attended the Bronson Trade School, where he trained as a cabinet maker, but was soon forced to take on odd jobs after Brooks lost his job with the Ford Motor Company.

After Louis began hanging out with a local gang, Lillie sought to keep her son out of trouble by having him take violin lessons. However, Louis had also been introduced to boxing by a friend; he began using the violin money to train at Brewster Recreation Center and fighting under the name "Joe Louis," reportedly so his mother wouldn't find out.

While not an immediate success—he was floored several times by 1932 Olympian Johnny Miler in his debut—Louis soon proved he could hit harder than anybody else. His all-around skills eventually caught up to his punching power, and in 1934 he won Detroit's Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title in the open class and the national Amateur Athletic Union championship. He turned professional that year, wrapping up his amateur career with 50 wins in 54 matches, 43 of them by knockout.

Pro Career

Joe Louis hit the ground running as a professional, obliterating opponents with his powerful jab and devastating combos. By the end of 1935, the acclaimed young fighter had already dispatched former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer, accumulating some $370,000 in prize money along the way.

On June 19, 1936, Louis suffered his first professional defeat, a 12th-round knockout by former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling of Germany. The setback stung Louis, but it was offset by the chance to fight James J. Braddock on June 22, 1937, for the heavyweight crown. The "Brown Bomber" knocked out Braddock in the eighth round, setting the stage for an unprecedented run as the heavyweight champion of the world.

On June 22, 1938, Louis got the chance at a rematch with Schmeling. This time the stakes were higher: With Schmeling hailed as an example of Aryan supremacy by Adolph Hitler, the bout took on heightened nationalistic and racial overtones. This time Louis annihilated his German opponent with a first-round knockout, making him a hero to both black and white Americans.

Louis's enduring popularity was partly due to his sheer dominance: Of his 25 successful title defenses, nearly all came by knockout. But in winning, Louis also showed himself to be a gracious, even generous victor. He also drew praise for his support of the country's war effort, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and donated prize money to military relief funds.

After reigning as heavyweight champion for 11 years and eight months, a record, Louis retired on March 1, 1949. A short-lived comeback, fueled by financial problems, soon followed, but the aging fighter failed to capture his earlier magic. Following an eighth-round knockout by Rocky Marciano on October 26, 1951, Louis retired for good with a career record of 68-3, including 54 knockouts.

Post-Boxing and Life Outside the Ring

The years after his retirement from the ring proved uneven for Louis. He was still a revered public figure, but money was a constant issue for him due to unpaid taxes. He briefly wrestled professionally in the mid-1950s, and later served as a referee for both wrestling and boxing matches. The IRS eventually forgave his debt, allowing the former champ to regain some financial stability while he worked as a greeter at the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas.

Louis suffered from his share of health problems as he aged. After battling a cocaine addiction, he was committed to psychiatric care in 1970. He was later confined to a wheelchair after undergoing heart surgery in 1977.  

Overall, Louis was married four times. He twice married and divorced Marva Trotter, with whom he had two children: Jacqueline and Joseph Louis Jr. His marriage to his second wife, Rose Morgan, was annulled after less than three years. With his his third wife, Martha Jefferson, he adopted four more children: Joe Jr., John, Joyce and Janet. Additionally, Louis was romantically involved with such celebrities as singer Lena Horne and actress Lana Turner.

Louis passed away from cardiac arrest on April 12, 1981. Undoubtedly one of his sport's all-time greats, he was inducted into The Ring Magazine Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. However, Louis also left behind a legacy that transcended the boundaries of athletics. 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.

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