Regarded as one of his sport’s all-time greats African American boxer Joe Louis, reigned as world heavyweight champion and broke multiple race barriers from 1937 until 1949!
Joe Louis became boxing’s heavyweight champion by defeating James J. Braddock in 1937. His knockout of Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938 gave Joe Louis the nickname the “Brown Bomber,” and made him a national hero.
This boxer established a record by holding on to the championship for nearly 12 years. Juicy fact: After his boxing ended, Louis suffered financial problems while working as a referee and a casino greeter! In this article, we discuss everything about the boxer, from his heights of success to his fall from grace!
Joe Louis: 11 Things About The Heavyweight That Most People Forgot!
1. Joe Louis had a tough childhood but gravitated to boxing when he shifted to Detroit:
Joe Louis was born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914 in a shack outside of Lafayette, Alabama.
Joseph Louis Barrow was the seventh of eight children and a grandson of slaves. His parents made a modest living as his father, Mun Barrow, was a sharecropper. On the other hand, his mother, Lillie Barrow, was a laundress.
Joseph Louis Barrow’s early life was shaped by financial struggles. The future boxer and his siblings slept three and four to a bed, and when Joe Louis was just 2 years old, his father was committed to an asylum.
Shy and quiet, Joseph Louis Barrow’s development was stymied by limited education, and the future boxer eventually developed a stammer.
Not long after Lillie Barrow (his mother) got remarried to a widower Patrick Brooks, Louis, and his siblings migrated north to Detroit with her new spouse. Here, the world heavyweight champion attended the Bronson Trade School, where he trained as a cabinet maker. It was also in Detroit that Joe Louis discovered boxing after he began hanging out with a local gang. Joseph Louis Barrow’s mother Lillie sought to keep her son out of trouble by having him take violin lessons. However, Joseph Louis Barrow had also been introduced to boxing by a friend; he began using the violin money to train at Brewster Recreation Center.
As a child, Joe was soon forced to take on odd jobs after his step dad Patrick Brooks lost his job with the Ford Motor Company.
2. Joe Louis amateur career saw him change his name to not get recognized:
Boxing under the name “Joe Louis,” ( his real name is Joseph Louis Barrow ) reportedly so his mother wouldn’t find out, Louis began his amateur career in late 1932.
At 6”2, Joe Louis cut an intimidating figure in the ring.
He began boxing in the amateur circuit in 1932 and while not an immediate success — he was floored several times by 1932 Olympian Johnny Miler in his debut — the Detroit native soon proved he could hit harder than anybody else.
His all-around skills and hard-hitting punches soon earned him a reputation as a fighter, and he won Detroit’s Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title in the open class, 2 years later, in 1934 and the national Amateur Athletic Union championship.
He wrapped up his amateur career with 50 wins in 54 matches, 43 of them by knockout, clearly he was ready for the pros.
3. Joe Louis’s professional boxing career took him to new heights:
In 1937, Joe Louis beat James J. Braddock to take home the title of being the first black heavyweight champion in twenty-two years and an inspiration to African Americans during the Great Depression. This was a horrific time when black men and women were often “the last hired, the first fired.” (The fight became the subject of the 2005 film Cinderella Man). From 1939-1941, he defended his title 13 times, leading critics to call his opponents members of the “bum of the month club.”
Did you know? From 1934 to 1951, the world heavyweight champion fought 71 matches and won 68 of them, 54 by knockout.
By the end of 1935, Joseph Louis Barrow who went by Joe Louis had defeated former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera, a symbolic victory over Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and Max Baer. But on June 19, 1936, he faced off with German boxer Max Schmeling, who knocked Louis out in the 12th round. Louis had experienced his first professional defeat, but he was determined to get a rematch.
4. Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling:
On June 22, 1938, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, whom Adolf Hitler saw as an exemplary representative of the Aryan race, battled in front of 70,043 fans in a dramatic rematch at Yankee Stadium. The American defeated Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds, knocking him out in the first round. The press seized on the victory as symbolic of the win of democracy over fascism. Most interestingly, these two would go on to become good friends and during Joe Louis’s funeral, his funeral was paid for in part by Max Schmeling, who also acted as a pallbearer.
5. Joe Louis and the Military:
As World War II raged on, Joe Louis donated almost $100,000 worth of his earnings to Army and Navy relief societies. In 1942, he joined the Army. During his service, the boxer was part of over 96 boxing exhibitions and went in the ring for over two million members of the military.
After an eleven-year and eight-month streak as heavyweight champion—the longest run in history at the time—Joe Louis said goodbye to boxing on March 1, 1949. His retirement would be short-lived.
6. He played professional golf:
One of Louis’s other gifts was the game of golf, in which he also was a part of a historic role.
Joe Louis was a long-time devotee of the sport of golf since being introduced to the game before the first Schmeling fight in 1936.
In 1952, the American pro boxer was invited to play as an amateur in the San Diego Open on a sponsor’s exemption, making himself the first African American to play a PGA Tour event.
At first, the PGA of America was reluctant to permit Louis to enter the event, having a bylaw at the time restricting PGA membership to Caucasians.
Louis’s celebrity status eventually pushed the PGA toward removing the bylaw, although the “Caucasian only” clause in the PGA of America’s constitution was not amended until November 1961.
The new alteration, however, carved out the way for the first generation of African-American professional golfers such as Calvin Peete.
Joe Louis himself financially supported the careers of several other early black professional golfers, such as Bill Spiller, James Black, Ted Rhodes, Howard Wheeler, Clyde Martin, and Charlie Sifford.
The Detroit native was also instrumental in founding The First Tee, a charity helping underprivileged children become acquainted with the game of golf.
The world heavyweight champion’s son, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., currently oversees the organization.
In 2009, the PGA of America granted posthumous membership to Bill Spiller, Ted Rhodes, and John Shippen who were not given the opportunity to become PGA members during their professional careers. The PGA also has allowed posthumous honorary membership to the world heavyweight champion.
7. Joe Louis comes out of retirement:
With the IRS on his tail after him for not paying taxes, the then 37-year-old Joe Louis decided to get out of retirement in 1951. The Detroit native was successful in his fight against Freddie Beshore on January 3, 1951, prompting excitement about a major comeback.
The world heavyweight champion would go on to meet his match when he faced off against 27-year-old Rocky Marciano, “the Brockton Blockbuster.” On October 26, 1951, the two entered the match in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“The Brockton Blockbuster” who stood at 5’10” and weighed just 185 pounds, was one of the smallest champions in heavyweight division history, but he had the power of youthful strength on his side. Sports columnist Red Smith wrote the following of the match:
“Rocky hit Joe with a left hook and knocked him down. Then Rocky hit him another hook and knocked him out. A right to the neck followed that knocked him out of the ring. And out of the fight business. The last wasn’t necessary, but it was neat. It wrapped the package neat and tidy.”
This saw the legendary Joe Louis retiring from boxing for good after the match. The passing of a special bill by congress forgave the rest of the boxer’s tax bills. When Louis finally chose to retire, he had a record of 68 wins to 3 losses (including boxing bouts with Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles, the only man to go 15 rounds with Louis and win) with 54 Knockouts.
8. He had several failed marriages:
Louis had two kids by wife Marva Trotter (daughter Jacqueline in 1943 and son Joseph Louis Barrow Jr. in 1947). Marva and Joe divorced in March 1945 only to remarry a year later, but the pair were once again divorced in February 1949.
His ex-wife Marva later moved on to a Hollywood acting and modeling career.
On Christmas Day 1955, Louis tied the knot to Rose Morgan, a successful Harlem businesswoman; however, this second marriage was annulled in 1958.
Louis’s final marriage—to Martha Jefferson, a lawyer from Los Angeles, on St. Patrick’s Day 1959—lasted until his death. Joe and Martha had four children: another son named Joseph Louis Barrow Jr, John Louis Barrow, Joyce Louis Barrow, and Janet Louis Barrow. The second Joe Louis Barrow Jr. resides in New York City and has followed in his father’s footsteps in boxing.
Though married four times, Louis secretly enjoyed the company of other mistresses like Lena Horne and Edna Mae Harris.
9. Joe Louis struggled financially in his later years:
The boxer’s health festered steadily and for a while, the former champ ended up working as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas because of an array of unwise financial decisions.
Joe Louis battled with cocaine addiction and in 1970, was committed to psychiatric care.
Despite Louis’s lucrative career moves over the years, most of the proceeds ended up going to his handlers. Of the over $4.6 million he banked during his boxing career, Louis himself received only about $800,000 in hand.
Louis was nevertheless extremely generous to his family, paying for homes, cars and education for his parents and siblings, and then he would invest in a number of businesses, all of which eventually failed, including the Joe Louis Restaurant, Joe Louis Punch (a drink), a softball team called the Brown Bombers, the Joe Louis Insurance Company, the Joe Louis Milk Company, Joe Louis pomade (hair product), the Louis-Rower P.R. firm, a horse farm and the Rhumboogie Café in Chicago.
The boxer also gave liberally to the government as well, paying back the city of Detroit for any welfare money his family had received – this was extremely unheard of.
A combination of this largesse and government intervention eventually chained Louis in severe financial straits.
His entrusting of his finances to his ex-manager Mike Jacobs haunted him.
After the $500,000 IRS tax bill was assessed, with interest accumulating per year, the need for cash precipitated Louis’s post-retirement comeback.
Even though the world heavyweight champion’s comeback earned him significant money the incremental tax rate in place at the time (90%) meant that these boxing proceeds did not even keep up with interest on Louis’s tax debt. As a result, by the end of the 1950s, he owed the country over $1 million in taxes and interest.
In 1953, when Louis’s mother Lillie Barrow died, the IRS appropriated the $667 she had willed to Joe Louis.
To bring in money, Joe Louis was entangled in numerous activities outside the ring. He made a guest appearance on various quiz shows, and an old Army buddy, Ash Resnick, who gave Louis a job welcoming foregin tourists to the Caesars Palace hotel in Las Vegas, where Resnick was an executive. For earning money, the world heavyweight champion even became a professional wrestler. This shift saw him make his professional wrestling debut on March 16, 1956 in Washington, D.C. at the Uline Arena, defeating Cowboy Rocky Lee. After defeating Lee in a few matches, Louis found out the sobering fact that he had a heart ailment and retired from wrestling competition. However, the boxer continued to work as a wrestling referee and retired in 1972.
Joe Louis remained a popular celebrity in his twilight years. The legendary boxer’s friends circle included former rival Max Schmeling, who provided Louis with financial assistance during his retirement—and mobster Frank Lucas, who, disgusted with the government’s treatment of Louis, once paid off a $50,000 tax lien held against the boxer.
These payments, in addition to an eventual agreement in the early 1960s by the IRS to limit its collections to an amount based on Louis’s current income, granted Joe Louis the opportunity to live comfortably toward the end of his life.
After the Louis-Schmeling fight, Jack Dempsey expressed the opinion that he was glad he never had to face Joe Louis in the ring. When Louis fell on hard financial times, Dempsey served as honorary chairman of a fund to assist Louis.
10. He almost died from taking drugs:
Drugs took a toll on the once world heavyweight champion in his later years. In 1969, the boxer was hospitalized after collapsing on a New York City street. While the incident was at first concluded to be a result of”physical breakdown,” underlying problems would soon surface and break world wide news!
In 1970, the boxer spent five months at the Colorado Psychiatric Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Denver, in a hospital (although surrounded by his loved ones like his wife, Martha, and his son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr.), for paranoia.
In a 1971 book, Brown Bomber, by Barney Nagler, Louis publically revealed the truth about these incidents, stating that his collapse in 1969 had been a result of cocaine usage, and that his subsequent hospitalization had been prompted by his fear of a plot to destroy him, which obviously resulted in paranoia.
Strokes and heart ailments continued to cause Louis’s condition to fester further later in the decade. He had surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm in 1977 and thereafter used a POV/scooter for mobility aid.
11. He died of cardiac arrest in 1981:
A 1977 heart surgery left him in a wheelchair.
Joe Louis died on April 12, 1981, from cardiac arrest, in Desert Springs Hospital near Las Vegas on April 12, 1981, just hours after his last public appearance viewing the Larry Holmes–Trevor Berbick Heavyweight Championship.
He was 66 years old at the time of his death.
He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on April 21, 1981 with full military honors thanks to an exception granted by President Ronald Reagan who waived the eligibility rules just for the beloved boxer.
Did you know? His funeral expenses were paid for in part by former competitor and boxer friend, Max Schmeling,who also acted as a pallbearer.
These days, the legedary Brown Bomber is remembered as a larger-than-life figure in not just black history, but in American history as one of the best path breakers of his era.