During Joe Louis’ years in the ring there were only two professional sports that consumed the interests of Americans: baseball and boxing. Winning a World Series ring was the pinnacle of team competition. Winning a heavyweight championship belt was the greatest individual honor.*
Joe Louis, nicknamed the "Brown Bomber", fought 72 fights in his 12-year professional career: he had 69 wins (of which 57 were knockouts) and only 3 losses. He was declared number 1 in The Ring's 100 Greatest Punchers of All Time. He won a total of almost 5 million in prize money and yet he died penniless; in fact, one of his archrivals paid for his funeral.
Joseph Louis Barrow was the grandchild of former slaves. He was the seventh child of a cotton picker father named Munro Barrow and a housewife mother named Lilly. The Barrow family lived in a ramshackle cabin off of Route 50 north of Lafayette, Alabama, struggling to make ends meet. When Joe was only 4 years old, his father suffered a nervous breakdown and entered a mental institution. Later, his mother was told that his father passed away and she remarried. In 1924, the family suffered persecution at the hands of the KKK and migrated north to Detroit.
In the city's "Black Bottom" neighbourhood, named for the rich soil from the basin of the River Savoyard, Joe sold newspapers, shined shoes and worked as an assistant on an ice wagon to help make ends meet. Later he would say that it was carrying those heavy blocks of ice that helped him develop his muscles for boxing. His mother, fearing that he might get in trouble on the streets, paid for him to have daily violin lessons. However, as Joe walked down Brewster Street every day, he noitced a youth recreation centre and eventually went inside. He started training regularly, putting his boxing gloves in his violin case so his mom wouldn't suspect anything.
Legend has it that when he signed up for his first fight, he was barely literate and wrote his name in such big letters that he ran out of room for Barrow and that's how he became Joe Louis. Another theory says that his manager thought his full name was too long and shortened it. Finally, some suggest that he didn't want his mom to know he was boxing and so he altered his name. Whatever the case, Joe Louis clinched numerous amateur victories, winning The Golden Gloves in 1933.
He quickly developped an honest reputation, heeding the advice of his coach to never gloat, never engage in a fixed fight and live and fight clean. As a pro in 1935, Louis fought Primo Carnera at Yankee Stadium in front of 62,000 spectators, winning the match. The boxer continued to clinch victory after victory until he met up with the German fighter Max Schmeling. Their June 1936 gruelling bout ended in a 12th round knockout by the German. They had a rematch in June of 1938, listened to by 1,000,000 fans on the radio. This time the American knocked out the German in the first two minutes of the match. The two went on to become lifelong friends.
Joe Louis held the title of Heavyweight World Champion from 1937 until 1949 with only a four year hiatus where he joined the military during World War II. Finally, he retired and became a celebrity greeter at Caesar's Palace. After paying his trainers and managers and the IRS, he ended up penniless. He passed away in 1981, his funeral costs covered by his former rival Max Schmeling.
*Excerpt from Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (Randy Roberts).