Early life and career
The son of Monroe Barrow, a cotton picker who lost his emotional stability and Lilly Reese, a homemaker, Louis became interested in boxing after the Barrows (after his father was sent to a hospital) moved to Detroit in 1924. He went on to win Michigan's Golden Gloves title, after which he turned professional in 1934. Louis made his debut on July 4 of that year, knocking out Jack Kracken in the first round at Chicago, Illinois that night. He won 12 fights that year, all in Chicago, 10 by knockout. Among his opponents in 1934 were Art Sykes and Stanley Poreda, both top contenders.
In 1935, he boxed 13 more times, and started touring the United States and Canada. He won each of his fights, and he began to face better opposition, beating former world Heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer, and former Carnera world title challenger Paolino Uzcudun. His last four bouts that year were exhibitions in Canada, as one fight versus Isodoro Castagana, supposed to take place December 29 at Havana, Cuba, was suspended.
He began 1936 knocking out Charlie Retzlaff in the first round. In his next fight, however, he was matched with former world Heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, who was thought to be fading when he upset Louis by a knockout in 12 at New York. The German had studied Louis and discovered that he dropped his left hand after throwing his legendary left jab. Schmeling managed to weather Louis's pummeling long enough to exploit this weakness and bring down Louis. Louis and his supporters were devastated.
Schmeling now deserved a fight for the title, but was denied a chance to challenge the world champion in large part due to his relatively weak ties to the German Nazi Party.
That year Louis had four more bouts, winning all of them, and three exhibitions. Among the boxers he defeated were former Heavyweight champ Jack Sharkey and Eddie Simms, who turned and asked the referee to take a walk on the roof with him after a hit from Louis. The referee stopped the fight right away.
1937 came by, and after a ten round decision win over Bob Pastor, Louis was matched with world champion James J. Braddock in Chicago for the World Heavyweight title. Louis was dropped in round one, but he got up and became the world champion by knocking Braddock out in round eight. He said after the fight, however, that he would not feel like a world champion until he beat one man: Schmeling. Louis retained the title three times, outpointing the capable Welshman Tommy Farr and knocking out Nathan Mann in three and Harry Thomas in five.
The rematch with Schmeling finally took place, on June 22, 1938. This time the fight was hyped on both sides of the Atlantic, and many fans around the world saw this fight as a symbol: Louis representing the American interests and Schmeling, who was wrongly seen as a Nazi, fighting for Germany and white supremacy. This 'Good vs Evil' perception was mistaken, as Schmeling was, at best, a hesitant poster boy for the regime. Although commonly accused of being a fascist, Schmeling's actions prove that this was not so. Aside from employing a Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, he also sheltered the two sons of a Jewish friends after Kristallnacht at considerable personal risk. He travelled to Las Vegas in 1989 at the behest of one of the sons. The irony that Joe Louis was still living in an America under segregation is not lost upon many commentators.
The fight itself ended quickly. With his superior speed, Louis retained his title by a knockout in the first round, avenging his only loss up until that time and achieving something not too many African-Americans of the era imagined anyone could do: becoming a national hero both for the white and the black population. Louis was black, so when he won the title, he had become an example to his fellow black Americans. But by beating a German boxer, Louis won over whites too, something very hard to do during the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.
In 1940 Louis actively campaigned for Wendell Willkie for the presidency. Louis favored Willkie over FDR because he believed that Willkie and the Republicans would do more for civil rights.
Joe Louis' trainer was Jack Blackburn. Initially unwilling to train a black fighter, as it was difficult for blacks to get opponents, Blackburn relented and helped Louis develop his precise, powerful style. He was a stern trainer, verging on cruel. Joe and he called each other "Chappie."
During World War II
In between serving in the United States Army during the Second World War, Louis kept on defending his title, totalling 25 defenses from '37 to 1949. He was a world champion for 11 years and 10 months, after which he left his crown vacant. He set records for any division in number of defenses and longevity as world champion non stop, and both records still stand. Apart from Schmeling, Farr, Mann and Thomas, other notable title defenses during that period were:
his fight versus world Light Heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis, knocked out in the first.
his fight with Two Ton Tony Galento, who upset the boxing world by knocking Louis down in round one, but Louis got up and knocked Galento out in the fourth.
his two fights with Chilean Arturo Godoy, who almost did something no other boxer from Chile has ever done and no Hispanic had done before: Become world Heavyweight champion in their first bout, which Louis won by a close decision, and when Louis won the rematch by a knockout in the eight round, a riot broke loose at the Madison Square Garden.
his two fights with world Light Heavyweight champion Billy Conn, the first of which is remembered as one of the greatest fights in heavywieght history. Conn, much smaller than Louis but also much faster, said that he planned to "hit and run,' prompting Louis's famous response, "He can run, but he can't hide." For 12 rounds it appeared that Conn would prove Louis wrong; his agile footwork, blinding hand speed and ability to slip punches stymied Louis, and Conn was so far ahead on points that only a knockout could save Louis. Near the end of round 12, though, Conn visibly hurt Louis, so he decided to go for a knockout in the 13th. His decision to go toe-to-toe with Louis turned out to be his downfall, as the champion KO'd Conn with a vicious barrage. In the rematch, Louis won by a knockout in the eighth round.
his two fights versus future world Heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott, who would drop Louis in round four of their first bout and lose a close decision, then get knocked out by Louis in the rematch in 11 rounds.
Louis served in the Army from 1942 to 1945 and spent that whole period travelling around Europe visiting with the fighting troops and boxing in exhibitions. During this time, he became a national spokesman for the Army, inviting young men to join in and help their country in the war. He even acted in a couple of movies, produced by the Army to entice men to go to the war. After he came back to keep defending his title in 1946, Louis looked somewhat slower in his fights, and his best years seemed to have gone. He still managed to fend off every challenger until he retired for the first time, after the second Walcott bout. On March 1, 1949 Louis announced his retirement from boxing.
In 1950, burdened by I.R.S. debt, he announced a comeback and was promptly given a chance to recover his title, but he lost a 15 round unanimous decision to world champion Ezzard Charles, who had won the title after Louis left it vacant. He kept boxing, and in his next fight he beat fringe contender Cesar Brion by a decision in 10. Seven more wins followed, including a rematch with Brion and a decision over fellow hall of famer Jimmy Bivins. In 1951, however, he would box what would be his final fight: In front of a national television audience, Louis lost by a knockout in eight rounds to the future world Heavyweight Champion, Rocky Marciano. Louis did not embarrass himself that night, but it was obvious his best years had gone by. He retired with a record of 68 wins and 3 losses, with 54 wins by a knockout.
Louis became a professional wrestler in 1956 but quit in 1957 due to injuries suffered during a match.
Louis faced a drug problem, a fact not too many people knew about but was made public by a boxing book published by Ring Magazine, just as in Sugar Ray Robinson's case, but later on in life, he was able to kick his drug habit.
Retirement and later life
A few years after his retirement, a movie about his life, The Joe Louis Story, was filmed in Hollywood.The role of Joe Louis was played by fellow fighter Coley Wallace.. Louis remained a popular celebrity until his twilight years, when he began suffering various illnesses, notably Pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome, and ran out of money. It was in the late 1960s that Louis also became addicted to cocaine. He began suffering from paranoia and delusions. His wife was forced to have him committed to a Denver mental hospital in 1970. Louis was eventually able to overcome his addiction. In his later years, he got a job welcoming tourists to the Caesar's Palace hotel in Las Vegas, where many world boxing champions and legends from other walks of life, including old rival Max Schmeling, would visit him.
In fact, Schmeling and Louis became close personal friends over the years, and the compassionate Schmeling (who was awarded control of the German Coca-Cola bottler after WWII) would often send him money.
They remained friends until Joe Louis' death, when Schmeling paid for his funeral and was one of the pallbearers. Louis had also become close friends with Billy Conn. After Louis' death, Conn wrote an article in Reader's Digest magazine called "Unforgettable Joe Louis". He recalled their classic fight and how close he came to defeating Louis. He ended the article with the words, "I was proud to have fought him and prouder still to have been his friend". Max Schmeling was also heartbroken by Louis' death. When asked, on his 90th birthday, if he had any regrets he replied "I only have one. I regret Joe isn't still alive and we were still friends".
Joe Louis died of a heart attack in 1981. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. His life and his achievements prompted famed New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon to write "Joe Louis is a credit to his race - the human race."
He has a sports complex named after him in Detroit, the Joe Louis Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings play their NHL games. A memorial to Louis was dedicated in Detroit (at Jefferson Avenue & Woodward) on October 16, 1986. The sculpture, commissioned by Time, Inc. and executed by Robert Graham, is a 24-foot long arm with a fisted hand suspended by a 24-foot high pyramidal framework. It represents the power of his punch both inside and outside the ring. On March 25, 2004, two men, Brett Cashman and John T. White, pleaded guilty on charges of defacing the monument. They had allegedly covered it with white paint on