Name: Joe Louis
Alias: The Brown Bomber
Birth Name: Joseph Louis Barrow
Nationality: US American
Birthplace: Lafayette, AL, USA
Hometown: Detroit, MI, USA
Age at Death: 66
Height: 6' 2
Trainers: Jack Blackburn, Mannie Seamon
Managers: Julian Black, John Roxborough
Twenty five consecutive title defenses. A world record. Twelve consecutive years as a world champion. Another world record. Three consecutive first round knockouts in title defenses. Ten victories over world champions. Only one loss in his first sixty-two fights. Any way one looks at it, Joe Louis is an all-time great in the sport of boxing and a deserving hall of famer. But the legacy and importance of Louis exists beyond the realm of statistics. In an era when blacks were shut out of most all opportunities for social equality or upward mobility, Louis succeeded in gaining the richest prize in sports, opening doors and minds like no other athlete before him. His overwhelming abilities and skills inside the ropes got him to the championship, but his sportsmanship and soft-spoken dignity made him an idol to millions. In his private life, Joe was far from a role model, but in public he was a symbol of values larger than himself. Americans of all colors, sexes, and creeds saw in him the ideals of freedom, competition, and patriotism that made him the perfect symbol of national pride during the troubled years of the Great Depression and then World War II. He may have been the greatest heavyweight in history, but much more importantly, he was a hero to an entire generation.
The Detroit Bomber
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Joseph Louis Barrow (as Joe was born) moved to Detroit, Michigan with his large family at the age of ten. To help his family financially, the boy found a job delivering ice in his neighborhood. He would later credit the hours of carrying heavy ice blocks from his wagon up several flights of stairs in tenement buildings for helping him develop his well muscled frame and fighting endurance. Meanwhile, he entered trade school to study cabinetmaking. He had no intentions of a boxing career whatsoever until he boxed a few friendly rounds with a friend of his, Thurston McKinney, who was a successful amateur boxer in the Detroit area. McKinney encouraged Joe to secretly spend the money his mother had given him for violin lessons on boxing lessons instead. Within a few years, he was regarded as one of the standout amateurs in the Midwest and won the Amateur Athletic Union’s national light heavyweight championship in 1934. With an amateur record that included 53 wins in 56 bouts, he turned professional later that year.
Julian Black and John Roxborough, two African American racketeers from Detroit, became Joe’s financial backers and managers. They immediately sought to groom him as the future heavyweight champion, changing his name from Joe Barrow to Joe Louis, and hooking him up with veteran trainer and former lightweight contender Jack Blackburn, whom Louis would affectionately come to know as “Chappie.” Additionally, Black and Roxborough placed certain restrictions upon Joe’s behavior in and out of the ring. These rules were instituted in order to cast Joe as non-threatening to the white establishment and fans, who had been so severely offended by the only black man to win the heavyweight championship previously, Jack Johnson. Black and Roxborough forbade Joe to appear in photographs with white women or alcohol. He was not allowed to gloat over beaten opponents, especially white opponents. As he progressed in the sport, he was not to flaunt his cars, suits, houses, and other evidence of his growing wealth. As his managers trained him in behavior, trainer Blackburn prepared Joe for the professional ranks. On July 4, 1934, Louis made his pro debut in Chicago, Illinois, knocking out experienced Jack Kracken in just a few seconds of the opening round.
Before the close of the year, having won eleven consecutive bouts (nine by knockout), Joe was already in the ring with his first ranked contender. The opponent was California’s Lee Ramage, a veteran of more than thirty bouts who had already been in with some of the best in the world. Though bookmakers made Ramage the favorite, Joe made his first major impact on the national boxing scene with an eighth round demolition of his opponents, whose handlers stopped the fight when Lee hit the canvas for the fourth time in that round. After just six months of professional competition, The Ring magazine already rated Joe as a top ten heavyweight contender. After seven more consecutive knockout wins (including a two-round rematch with Ramage), Joe was in the ring with Primo Carnera, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Carnera stood over six and a half feet tall and outweighed Joe by nearly one hundred pounds. Because of the political turmoil created from Italy’s recent invasion of Ethiopia, the fight took on a meaning that spread beyond the realm of sports. Ethnic tensions within New York City grew so dangerous in fact that many powerful people in the city pushed for the fight’s cancellation. Despite - or possibly because of - the controversy, 62,000 paying customers showed up at Yankee Stadium. After the first round, Carnera’s face dripped with blood, some of his lower teeth having been pierced through his upper lip. The remaining rounds only prolonged the inevitable, as Carnera proved easy target practice for the sensational “Brown Bomber.” A right hand in the sixth round sent the ex-champion “down slowly, like a great chimney that had been dymanited,” wrote journalist John Kiernan. Though Primo showed heart in rising, he was sent tumbling down yet again just moments later. He bravely stood up yet again, just in time to be battered to the floor a third time. Amazingly, Primo made it to his feet, but referee Arthur Donovan stopped the fight.
Having secured the most impressive victory yet in his career, Joe was now regarded as the standout young fighter in the division and was instantly adopted by African Americans as their most beloved athlete of the era. Next up on Joe’s boxing schedule was Kingfish Levinsky, another experienced ring veteran who had faced some of the division’s best. Though regarded as a hard puncher himself, Levinsky appeared obviously frightened of this young marauder from Detroit. He had to be practically shoved out of his corner to fight and was annihilated in less than a round. This dominance of yet another quality opponent only served to strengthen Joe’s status as the “great black hope” in the imaginations of many. He was a full fledged celebrity now and, to further enhance his image, Black and Roxborough arranged his marriage with a teenage secretary named Marva Trotter. Though Louis remained an insatiable ladies man behind the scenes, the union with Trotter was created to solidify Joe’s image of humility and integrity.
The marriage was so manufactured, in fact, that it fit right in as part of the publicity for Joe’s bout with former heavyweight champion Max Baer. Joe was married just moments before his arrival at Yankee Stadium for the fight on September 24, 1935. The wild-swinging, hard-hitting, fast-living, and fun-loving Baer, having lost the championship in an upset toJim Braddock only months earlier, was still regarded as a serious threat to any man in the ring. Many speculated that Louis’ handlers were rushing him too quickly into a fight with a man of Max’s caliber. Yet it was not Louis who was intimidated. Later, when asked in an interview to define the feeling of fear in the ring, Madcap Max responded, “Standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.” 88,150 people paid $1,000,832 – the largest gate in nearly a decade and a considerable achievement in the midst of the Depression – to see the two power punchers clash. Though both men threw bombs as expected, Louis’ punches were shorter, faster, and more accurate. Max’s punches were looping and amateurish and at no point did Louis show the effects of Baer’s fabled power. Both men traded punches for three rounds, Joe clearly getting the better of the action. In the fourth round, looking exhausted and resigned to defeat after taking a hurricane of punishment from Louis, Baer dropped voluntarily to his knees. It was the first time Max had gone down in forty-eight professional fights. He rose to fight on, but was quickly flattened to the floor by a left-right combination. Though Max made it up to his knee, he could not rise in time and suffered his first knockout defeat. “I could have struggled up once more,” he told reporters after the fight, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch it.”
Now deservedly regarded as the number one contender for the heavyweight championship (after just over one year of professional activity), Joe was matched with Germany’s Max Schmeling, the winner to face world champion Braddock with the title on the line. Just to stay active, he knocked out veteran contenders Paolino Uzcudun and Charley Retzlaff while the politics of the Schmeling matchup played out. Schmeling, another former heavyweight champion, had put together some decent victories of late, but was overall regarded as past his prime and due for a beating at the hands of the sport’s newest sensation. Max was an adept student of boxing science, however. Prior to the match, he carefully studied films of Louis’ fight with Max Baer, dissecting apparent flaws in the Detroit fighter’s technique. Among the weaknesses he noticed was the fact that Louis lowered his left hand after throwing a left jab. In the ring, Max exploited this subtle flaw to his own advantage, countering nearly every Louis jab with his best punch, the right cross. The fight proved to be a competitive, hard-hitting affair for the first three rounds, but, in the fourth, a counter right from the German dropped Louis for the first time in his career. Though Louis rose, he was badly dazed for the remainder of the fight and Schmeling subsequently delivered the finest performance of his career. For a further eight rounds he battered Louis, often standing toe-to-toe with the vaunted puncher and landing that same right hand to the jaw repeatedly. In the twelfth he sent Joe tumbling to the floor once more, and this time Louis could not recover. Joe was counted out while still sitting on the canvas, shaking his head confusedly.
Road to the Title
The unexpected loss proved devastating to Joe and his fans. The press dismissed his prior accomplishments as a hoax and his previously clear path to the championship now appeared to be closed. Joe was distraught and ashamed, but his handlers, not wanting depression to set in, wisely threw him right back into competition. Less than two months after the Schmeling fight, Joe was back in the ring with yet another former champ, Jack Sharkey. The man who had taken the championship from Schmeling back in 1932, Sharkey had also been in the ring with the likes of Harry Wills and Jack Dempsey. At this point, though, Jack was well beyond his prime and proved the perfect name opponent against whom Joe could rebuild his confidence. Sharkey showed heart in surviving three knockdowns before being floored for a fourth and final time in the third frame.
Undefeated in his next six fights, winning five of those by knockout, Joe was back in contention for the heavyweight title still held by Jim Braddock. Max Schmeling, however, by virtue of his knockout win over Joe, remained the number one contender and a Braddock and Schmeling showdown was scheduled for 1937. Rumors existed that the fight’s organizers were stalling, however, afraid of the negative publicity that would be generated over Schmeling, wrongly perceived by most Americans as a Nazi, getting a shot at the world’s title. When it was confirmed that Braddock’s managers were in talks with the Louis camp instead, the New York Commission officially released an order for Braddock to fight Schmeling for the title. Any other fight, with Louis or otherwise, would not be recognized by New York as being for the championship. The Madison Square Garden Corporation, the largest promotional company in the sport at the time, even attempted to get a legal injunction against a Braddock-Louis fight (Louis was not on the Garden’s promotional roster). Nonetheless, in February in 1937, Braddock’s people confirmed that he had singed to defend his championship against Louis.
The fight, held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park on June 22, 1937, was Braddock’s first in two years, since winning the title in a tremendous upset from Max Baer. With 25 losses on his record, he was considered a fluke champion, whose title was ready for the taking. In a rare case of the challenger being the favorite over the champion, Louis was made the 10-to-1 favorite. In the first round, it appeared that the champ would pull off yet another stirring upset. He fired a short right hand that put Louis on the seat of his pants and stunned the audience to its feet. Surprised but not hurt, Louis rose at the count of two and dealt a brutal beating to the champion. Jimmy did well to last into the eighth round, when a right hand caught him directly on the chin. Braddock’s knees sagged and then, with a delayed reaction, he crumbled to the floor, blood spilling out of his nose onto the floor. The famous “Cinderella Man” was counted out and the title transferred to Louis.
The Fight of the Century
From the start, Louis was expected to be a stellar champion, and he lived up to his promise. For his first defense, he took on Tommy Farr, the Welshman who held the British championship. Despite his national title and his considerable boxing skills, Farr was thought to be a pushover opponent. Instead, Farr put up a spirited fight and lasted the full fifteen rounds, but lost the unanimous decision. This was followed by knockouts of Nathan Mann and Harry Thomas.
On June 22, 1938, Louis received the opportunity to avenge his only loss against Max Schmeling, still rated the world’s number one contender. The social and political furor surrounding this match up was tremendous. Because of the increasingly aggressive military, political, and social agendas of the Nazi Party that now governed Schmeling’s native Germany, many across the world were afraid of Schmeling’s winning the heavyweight championship and handing it over to German dictator Adolf Hitler. Schmeling was not a Nazi, but was perceived to be and the public outside of Germany put a lot of pressure on champion Joe to defend his championship successfully and give the world a symbolic victory. American President Franklin Roosevelt personally visited Louis’ trading camp, while Hitler openly socialized with Schmeling. The international implications were obvious. And when the fight got started, Joe Louis’ improvements over the past two years became even more obvious. He came out blazing in the first round and Max tried to counterpunch as he had in the first bout, but to no avail. Joe was going to give him no time to wait and pick his punches. The American swarmed all over his challenger, smothering him with punches from all angles. Driven into the ropes and battered with a fusillade of short, crisp blows, Max turned his back to his opponent and let out a scream that years later many of the 75,000 spectators could still recall vividly. Max’s knees buckled under the punishment and referee Arthur Donovan pushed Louis away, beginning a count on Schmeling. Max reluctantly stepped away from the ropes and Donovan allowed him to continue. A few punches later, Max was lying on the canvas. From then on, he was helpless. He rose but fell moments later and Donovan stopped the fight. It would be the crowning performance of Joe’s career and the defining moment in boxing for a generation.
The Bum of the Month Club
Basking in the glory and riches that were his after the defeat of Schmeling, Joe stayed out of the ring for five months before defending his championship next against John Henry Lewis, the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world. One of Joe’s good friends, Lewis had long kept secret that fact that he was going blind. Knowing that his vision problems spelled an early end to his career, John approached Joe about a lucrative title shot, which Joe was happy to grant. Knowing of his friend’s ailment, Louis devised a strategy that he knew would do Lewis the least amount of long term damage: take him out quickly so as not to prolong the punishment. In the first heavyweight championship bout between two black fighters in more than twenty years, Joe destroyed his challenger in less than a round. It was Lewis last fight. It was Joe’s second consecutive first round knockout of a future hall of famer. Less than three months later he flattened overmatched Jack Roper in the same round.
Over the next several months, Joe cleaned out the division of all credible opposition. In a thrilling slugfest with tough-talking, hard-hitting, beer-swilling “Two Ton” Tony Galento, Joe survived an early knockdown to stop the ex-bouncer from New Jersey in the fourth round. Then, in a rematch with New York’s Bob Pastor, who had previously lasted the distance against Louis, Joe scored an eleventh round knockout. Then came his controversial showdown with Argentina’s Arturo Godoy, a mauling fighter who lasted the full fifteen rounds but lost a split decision. After doing away with aptly named Johnny Paychek in two rounds, Louis gave Godoy a rematch and scored two knockdowns in the eighth before the referee stopped the fight. When their man had finally brushed aside every worthwhile challenger available, Joe’s handlers began matching him with what became known in the press as the “Bum of the Month” club, journeymen and fringe contenders who were no match for the champion. Between December, 1940 and April, 1941, Joe dispatched five men (Al McCoy, Red Burman, Gus Dorazio, Abe Simon, and Tony Musto) with relative ease.
A more credible opponent, Buddy Baer, Max’s younger brother, posed a bigger threat than the previous five combined. At 250 pounds, Buddy was both taller and heavier than his more famous brother. He had beaten such notable foes as Tony Galento, Nathan Mann, and Abe Simon, and was ranked among the top contenders. In an exciting fight, Buddy put the champion through the ropes in the opening round of their May 23, 1941 bout. Louis retaliated furiously, however, and had obviously taken back the lead when the referee disqualified Buddy at the start of the seventh round because Baer’s trainer refused to leave the ring. Buddy’s men claimed that the champion had fouled their fighter by throwing a punch (that knocked Buddy out cold) after the bell ending the sixth round. When referee Arthur Donovan refused to listen to their protests, they remained in the ring and Donovan disqualified the bunch of them. Baer, still sitting dazedly on his stool, was in no condition to continue anyway.
The Conn Fight
If the first round of Joe’s bout with Buddy Baer proved to be a close call for Louis, his next fight would be even more dangerous. On June 18, 1941, Joe squared off with the former light heavyweight champion of the world, Billy Conn at the Polo Grounds in New York. Known as the “Pittsburgh Kid,” Conn was a popular fighter and one of the pound-for-pound best of the era. Slick and elusive, yet with a cocky attitude and a solid punch to boot, Billy had cleaned out both the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions in the same period that Joe had done the same with the heavyweights. In 1940 he jumped up into the heavyweight division and, while besting some of the best men in the ranks, established himself as the only remaining valid contender for the champion’s crown. Their highly anticipated match up is still regarded by many today as the greatest heavyweight championship battle of all time. Certainly, despite Conn’s highly respected skills, the drama of the match was not expected. The official results of the weigh in revealed a twenty-five pound weight advantage for the champion (199 for Louis and 174 for Conn). However, promoter Mike Jacobs had tweaked those numbers just to make the bout seem like less of a mismatch; the actual weights were 200 for Louis and 169 for Conn, a thirty-one pound advantage for Joe.
Leave it to the clever Pittsburgh Kid to turn his disadvantage into an advantage however. Conn’s lighter weight allowed him to constantly dance around the ring, not allowing Joe to plant his feet to land his famous bombs. In the opening few rounds, Conn neglected offense, content to circle his opponent and stay out of range. By round three, however, the challenger’s advantage in hand speed became obvious. Louis was being repeatedly pelted with jabs and straight rights, followed by fusillades of solid hooks from both hands. By the time the champion offered anything in return, Billy had skipped around behind him. There was little else Joe could do but plod after his tricky opponent and take punches. “You’ve got a fight on your hands,” the ever plucky challenger boasted to Joe at one point during the fight to which Louis honestly replied, “I know it.” By the opening of the eleventh round, despite having opened up two cuts on Conn’s face, Louis seemed to have lost all of his energy. He simply plodded after his foe with the sagging body language of exhaustion. Yet he kept his famous “poker face” and never showed signs of panic or discouragement. During the closing seconds of the twelfth, a series of left hooks and right crosses from Conn stunned the Brown Bomber, whose knees sagged. The staggered champ stumbled backward into the ropes. When the challenger charged in to finish him off, however, Louis’ remaining instincts allowed him to hold, allowing him to make it to the bell.
As the fighters returned to their corners after the end of the twelfth, Conn was leading on two out of three judges scorecards. The third had the fight a draw. Though he did not know the scores, Billy was also confident that he was winning, but resisted the idea of carefully boxing his way through the final rounds. “This is easy,” he told his trainer, Johnny Ray. “I can take this son of a bitch out this round.” Ray adamantly advised his charge against the idea, but Billy charged out for the fourteenth intent to war with the most feared puncher on the planet. He settled down on his feet and stood toe-to-toe with the champ, and both fighters exchanged hard punches. Still Conn’s hand speed kept him in front, but Louis was clearly landing now and the crowd erupted in excitement. As the round reached its final minute, Joe landed a hard right hand that seemed to double Conn over. Seeing his chance, the always dangerous champion let loose with a volley of combinations, the final one tipping the frozen challenger over onto his right side. By the time a dazed Conn staggered to his feet, the referee had counted to ten. Billy Conn’s impetuousness, combined with the awesome punching power of Joe Louis, had given the boxing world one of its most thrilling moments in history. It was certainly Joe’s most inspiring victory since his one round annihilation of Schmeling, the most intense heavyweight title fight of the decade, and immediately sparked interest in a rematch.
"We're On God's Side"
While negotiations were being made for a second bout with Conn, Louis next defended his title against overmatched Lou Nova from California. Before a crowd of more than 56,000 fans, Joe fought a lackluster bout that was nonetheless described by boxing historian Nat Fleischer as a “massacre” because the champion completely dominated and the referee was forced to stop the fight in the final second of round six. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan that December changed the course of world history, prompting America’s involvement in the second World War, a fight with which Americans already identified Louis because of his two bouts with Germany’s Max Schmeling. Thus the U.S. Army sought out Louis as a representative for the patriotic cause. Joe enlisted on January 8, 1942. A day later he was in the ring for a rematch with Buddy Baer, a sensational first round knockout that laid to rest all controversy surrounding their prior matchup. On March 10, he appeared at Madison Square Garden as a speaker at a large dinner given by the Navy Relief Society. “I have only done what any red-blooded American would do,” he told his fellow guests. “We gonna do our part, and we will win, because we are on God’s side,” would become one of the great inspirational quotes for the American cause. A little over two weeks later he returned to the Garden to knock out overmatched Abe Simon in the sixth round. The majority of Joe’s winnings for both the Baer rematch and the Simon bout were donated to the Army Relief Fund. After twenty-one consecutive title defenses, already a record, Joe abandoned boxing to enter the service. The boxing community then put his title on “freeze” until his return.
Though he was one of the most popular symbols of American virtues and a great source of pride for his countrymen, Joe Louis never saw action during his time in the military. He did mostly public relations and training work in between dozens of unpaid exhibition bouts during his years in the service, but managed to attain the rank of sergeant before his honorable discharge in October of 1945. It was also during his Army tenure that his finances fell into complete disarray. Already somewhat in debt at the time of his enlistment thanks to his irresponsible spending and borrowing, Joe did not fight professionally for several years and thus continued to borrow heavily from his promoters and managers. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service taxed Joe for his income from the 1941 bouts, most of which he donated to the U.S. government. By the end of World War II, Joe would owe the IRS more than $100,000.
Joe’s first comeback fight, a rematch with Billy Conn on June 19, 1946 at Yankee Stadium in New York, promised to help. The second fight had been in the making since the conclusion of the first, but, because of the war, was postponed indefinitely. As a result, public demand for the bout continued to grow. The end of the war, resulting in the return of servicemen stateside, the increased popularity of both Louis and Conn, and a growing economy, produced nearly two million dollars in gate receipts, the largest figure in almost two decades. Joe’s share of the purse was $625,916, the largest any fighter had made in a single night before. Nearly all of it went to paying off his enormous debts. But now he owed taxes on this purse. The fight itself was a dud. Conn was past his prime and Louis was rusty. The challenger simply ran the entire night, neglecting to exchange punches until Joe caught up with him and knocked him out in the eighth round, proving his now famous prediction before the fight: “He can run. But he can’t hide.”
The money problems led Joe back into the ring three months later to face number one contender Tami Mauriello. Despite his high ranking, Tami had achieved his status mostly against mid-level competition. He was felt to be an easy mark for the champ and few outside of Tami’s native New York were interested in the matchup. Thus promoter Mike Jacobs put the fight at Yankee Stadium and reduced the ticket prices, prompting a turn out of nearly 40,000 fans to watch the “Bronx Barkeep” take on the “Brown Bomber.” The opening (and only) round of the fight was one of the most exciting of Joe’s long career. The challenger caught an unsuspecting Joe with a solid right hand in the early going, sending the champ careening into the ropes. The crowd reflexively shuddered to its feet. As Mauriello charged in with dreams of glory pushing him on, Joe bought time to regain his senses by clinching. After the referee broke them, the pair exchanged a wicked series of blows, Louis seeming to get the better of the action. Less than a minute after had been nearly out on his feet against the ropes, Joe sent home a left hook that dropped Tami to the mat. Though he made it to his feet, the challenger was finished. Another left hook nearly knocked him out of the ring and the fight was finished. In his autobiography, Joe would refer to this as the last great performance of his career.
The Walcott Fights
Regardless of the quick knockout of Mauriello, it was clear that Louis had entered the twilight of his illustrious boxing career by 1946. Nevertheless he remained a champion and the most popular boxer in the world. However, upon hearing news that Joe’s next challenger was to be former sparring partner Jersey Joe Walcott, a former middleweight with eleven losses and twelve draws on his record, the New York State Athletic Commission initially forbade to sanction the bout, though they eventually relented and allowed the pair to fight for the championship. Ignoring warnings from his doctors about the obvious signs of long-term nervous damage to his body and concerned about losing weight rather than getting training properly to fight Walcott, Louis entered the ring unprepared for the determined challenger before him. Walcott, on the other hand, found nothing like the twenty-to-one underdog he was supposed to be. Known for his tricky footwork and veteran’s skills, the challenger danced circles around the champion and used his left jab to keep Louis at bay. Occasionally he let loose with a stinging right hand, the first of which sent Louis down in the opening round. The Louis scrambled to his feet and continued to stalk Walcott, he seemed slow, clumsy, and disheartened. In the fourth, Walcott scored another knockdown, this time with an uppercut. Joe rose to fight on, but did little else but defend himself, shuffle forward, and lazily counterpunch. Confident of a victory, Walcott spent the final three rounds practically running away from Louis, not wanting to endanger what he perceived to be a comfortable points lead. When the final verdict was announced, however, with Louis as the split decision victor and still heavyweight champion, both Walcott’s corner and the crowd erupted in outrage. The decisions of the two judges who scored the bout for Louis are still puzzled over by many today.
Privately, it had been Joe’s intention to retire after the Walcott bout, but the disputed decision rankled his ego and left him wanting to settle the score. Always one to give a worthy challenger a rematch, especially one necessary to redeem his public image, Louis granted Walcott a rematch on June 25, 1948. “There ain’t gonna be no argument when we meets again,” the champ told one reporter. Despite the boast, he came in heavier than any time previous in his career, weighing 213 pounds, and looked every bit of it. Again he appeared slow and clumsy, even hitting the deck in the third round, thanks to a combination from the evasive challenger. Rising to his feet before the referee could even begin his count, Joe fought on. Aside from that brief moment of excitement, the fight proved a bore for the fans through most of the going, as Walcott did little but dance out of harm’s way while Louis failed to put any harm on his fleet-footed challenger. In the tenth, referee Frank Fullam commanded the fighters to “get the lead out of your ass” and finally the pair started battling, Louis seeming to having the edge on the action. When another lull in action occurred in the eleventh, the ref again told the fighters to start throwing punches. Cornered against the ropes, a fatigued but angry Walcott immediately opened up with punches, but Louis’ shots were harder. Walcott’s body slowly drooped down on the ropes as he took blow after blow Fullam subsequently counted him out.
On March 1, 1949, the longtime champion announced his retirement from boxing, stating he intended to spend the rest of his days relaxing and playing golf. He had held the title for nearly a dozen years, still a world record to this day, and had made more title defenses (twenty five) than any other champion in any weight class in boxing history. His professional record was sixty one wins (fifty three by knockout) with one loss. His status as an all-time great was secure, but unfortunately the status of his personal life and finances could not boast the same security. In the middle of a well-publicized divorce, hit with multiple law suits stemming from his womanizing ways, overcome with millions of dollars in debt to both the government and lenders, and witnessing the failures of several business ventures, Joe quickly realized the necessity of a comeback.
Shortly before announcing his retirement, Joe had gotten involved in the formation of the International Boxing Club, a promotional company that quickly came under the control of organized crime figures. The IBC, with Louis as a partner, bought up the contracts of the top heavyweight contenders and organized a box-off to determine a new champion. At the end of the tournament, Ezzard Charles became Joe’s successor as champion (officially recognized by the National Boxing Association), having beaten Jersey Joe Walcott by decision. Charles was a skillful, experienced, and dangerous fighter, but not one with the eye-catching qualities that made Louis such an icon for his generation. The IBC and the public were hungry for a Charles-Louis title fight; Charles was hungry to gain his due respect from the public; and Louis was hungry for cash. The fight was announced in August of 1950.
Charles and Marciano
The IBC scheduled the bout for September 27, giving the fighters just six weeks to prepare. Joe had boxed in several four-round exhibitions since announcing his retirement, but had not fought professionally in more than two years. He neglected taking a tune-up and jumped right into the title fight with Charles. Nevertheless, he was installed as a two-to-one favorite. The fight itself was aired live on CBS television, resulting in a poor live turnout at Yankee Stadium and a dismal $205,370 payday for Louis. The fight itself proved equally humiliating for the ex-champion. Charles used his advantages in youth and speed to keep the challenger off-kilter. Joe remained determined in the early going and did manage to land some telling blows, but it was clear that Ezzard was pulling ahead in the bout. Though he won the tenth by hurting the champ with a left hook, Charles survived to box on and returned the favor by staggering Joe with a right hand in the fourteenth round. As the bell rung to open the final round, the bruised old Bomber had to be lifted on his stool by his seconds and shoved into center ring. Joe was helpless through the final round, a sitting duck for Charles’ constant flow of combinations. The easy decision went unanimously to Charles, dealing the first loss to Joe Louis in fourteen years.
Against the wishes of those close to him and against the advice of doctors, Joe fought on. He managed to hold onto his status as a major draw and a ranked contender by stringing off eight consecutive victories in less than a year’s time, including a sixth round knockout of contender Lee Savold and a ten round decision over future hall-of-famer Jimmy Bivins. On October 26, 1951, he took on the undefeated up-and-comer from Brockton, Massachusetts named Rocky Marciano. The Marciano’s punching power and toughness was not in question, Louis was the slight betting favorite. The fight proved a competitive slugfest as two of history’s greatest punchers gave the crowd several thrills during the night. Still Joe’s stamina waned as the fight went on and Marciano’s youth and determination ground him down. A crisp left hook to the jaw sent Joe down in the eighth. The wise old fighter stayed down on one knee until the count of nine and then bravely rose to take more punishment. Rocky poured in with haymakers from all directions, missing plenty but landing two more left hooks that crippled his prey against the ropes. Dazed and exhausted, Joe caught a hard right hand, Marciano’s signature punch, clean on the jaw and fell over backward through the ropes, his body lying senseless on the ring apron. “I saw the right hand coming,” Joe told reporters afterward, “but I couldn’t do anything about it.” He never fought again.
In his post-ring life, Joe continued to be a visible public figure, especially in boxing circles, for the next couple of decades. He held official positions as a boxing promoter (at the Moulin Rouge in Hollywood in 1962 and 1963), commentator, cornerman, and advisor, but at no point made near enough money to pay off the massive debts he had accrued during his days as a boxer and soldier. He lived mainly off of the charity of family in friends. During the 1960s, Joe fell prey to several health issues, including the mental effects of the punishment he took in the ring, high blood pressure, and various addictions to narcotics. His health suffered greatly and he was hospitalized for various drug-related issues, both physical and mental. After overcoming his addictions, he worked as a greeter at the Cesar’s Palace resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ill-health continued to plague him, however, and he died on April 21, 1981 of a cardiac arrest. In 1990, Joe Louis was among the inaugural class inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Bak, Richard. Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope. 1996.
Flesicher, Nat. The Heavyweight Championship. 1961.
Johnston, Alexander. Ten and Out. 1943.
Sullivan, Richard. Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times. 2002.
THE SUPERMAN OF THE PRIZE RING (1914-1981)
JOE LOUIS is phenomenal in the history of the prize ring. After he became a professional fighter he did not have an opponent against whom he really had to extend himself, as say, Corbett had to against Peter Jackson, Sullivan against Corbett. Dempsey against Firpo, or Tunney against Dempsey. Either the other champions were overrated and Joe Louis was superior to all of them; or the race of prizefighters had degenerated. As PM, the New York daily, said, "Conn proved that a retreating fight against Louis won't, do and Mauriello proved that an advancing one won't do either. Obviously the only way to fight Joe is by mail." The fighter who came nearest to standing up against him was Tommy Farr, champion of the British Empire, who stayed the full fifteen rounds of the bout but suffered terrific punishment. As for Louis' defeat by Max Schmeling, it was later asserted after an investigation conducted by a Chicago daily that he was physically ill at the time.
Louis was born in Lexington, Alabama, and was taken as a child by his mother to Detroit. Like all the other Negro prizefighters, his background was poor and success came the hard way. At school, too, he was a failure, never being able to get further than the seventh grade. He did no better at trade school, where he was put to learn cabinetmaking. His mother even tried to make a musician of him with no better results. But this did not mean he was mentally inferior. His skill had merely taken an athletic bent, as others are inclined to drawing or to music. It takes an exceptionally keen brain and lightning-like thinking to be a successful boxer.
On leaving trade school, he went to work in the Ford automobile plant at Detroit as a laborer. After the day's hard work he would go to a gymnasium, where he took lessons in boxing. He engaged at this period in several amateur bouts; in three consecutive ones he was beaten, by Stanley Evans, Clinton Bridges, and Marek. Those knowledgeable in the game predicted that he would never make a first-class fighter because he was too phelgmatic and machine-like, and showed none of the flair and flash expected of a boxer. But Louis had an inner vision of his own capabilities and he persisted until in I934 he became the national amateur 175-pound champion at St. Louis, Missouri. There was a man, one with a keen practiced eye, who saw great possibilities in him--Jack Blackburn, a Negro lightweight of the earlier days, and a past master at the art of training fighters. Blackburn took charge of him. Louis now decided to become a professional. His best friends advised him strongly against that. Better, they said, his $25-a-week job at the Ford plant, which, at least, was certain. They reminded him of the great handicaps facing a Negro heavyweight; of the struggles of Peter Jackson and Jack Johnson; and of how Harry Wills, a first-class heavyweight, had been sidestepped by Jack Dempsey. Louis, however, decided to follow his star, and on July 4, I934, fought his first professional bout with Jack Kracken, whom he knocked out in the first round. His step was a very wise one. No other heavyweight in ring history has made such rapid progress or as much money in as short a time. In his first four years, 1934-1938, he earned $1,384,034. As for his opponents, three of whom were former champions, he beat every one of them between 1934 and 1946.
During his career he had a total of seventy-one professional fights, fifty-four of which were won by knockouts, or technical knockouts and fourteen by decisions. Up to September 18, 1946, he fought twenty-three straight title defenses, or more than double the record of any other champion. Eight of these were in one year, 1941. Louis lost one fight by decision and two by knockout or technical knockout--once to Max Schmeling when Louis was on his way up and once (a technical knockout) to Rocky Marciano. Louis held the world's heavyweight championship from June 22, 1937, to March l, 1949, when he retired undefeated.
Of his many fights, the three that created anything approaching the excitement of the old ring battles were: the fight with Primo Camera, an Italian and former world champion, who stood six feet five and a quarter and weighed 254 pounds; his return bout with Max Schmeling, whom he knocked out in the first round with such force that Schmeling screamed in agony like a wounded animal; and the one with James J. Braddock, June 22, I937, in which he won the championship by knocking out Braddock in the eighth round. His return engagement with Billy Conn in 1946, though looked forward to worldwide with expectation, was a tame affair, Conn proving too easy a foe. In the year 1947 he stood alone, with no challenger in sight. Bill Corum, a sportswriter, said after his bout with Mauriello on June 18, 1946, "Louis is so far ahead of all the heavyweights in the world today that there is no second... Fistically, the brown destroyer finds himself in the same position as Alexander the Great. There aren't any more worlds for him to conquer." And Arthur "Bugs" Baer said, "If there is anybody in the world left to fight Joe Louis I don't know his name. And if I did I wouldn't squeal."
Joe Louis was a great influence for good in prizefighting circles and in athletics, and a model of integrity for American youth. As a boy in school he got high marks for deportment and that would always be characteristic of him. Once when a cigar firm offered him a large sum for the use of his name he refused it saying that since he did not smoke he would not be able to speak of the merit of its cigars. On his release from the army in 1945, Major-General Kells, in presenting him the Legion of Merit. called him "a model soldier." His utter lack of pose and thorough gentlemanliness made him a general favorite with the sportswriters. Arthur Daley of the New York Times said of him while he while he was waiting for Mauriello to be counted out:
In the opposite corner Louis stood as expressionless as Buddha. He was still champion of the world. When you look back on it, though, there was a definite expression that every spectator took away with him, the utter majesty of that regal figure, Joe Louis. Gosh, but he has class. The Dark Destroyer has it in superabundance right down to his finger-tips. He has it in his kingly bearing and in his every motion in the ring, too. Being a champion isn't the easiest thing in the world but the Jolter wears his crown as gracefully and as naturally in his simple dignity as if he had been to the purple-more so.
Joe Louis was sometimes referred to as "deadpan" because of his calm, unruffled manner and his apparent unconcern over things at which others gel excited. But he was known to laugh boisterously. His humor was Iaconic and direct like his blows. When asked who had hit him the hardest in the prize ring, he said, "Uncle Sam, the tax man." When he was about to fight John Henry Lewis, a Negro, and it was suggested to him that he go easy with him because Lewis was his friend, he replied, "He's my pal, all right, so I'll put him away early--make it quick for him. That'll be easier." Quiet, good-natured, generous, Joe Louis was truly what Van Every said of him. "The finest example of coldly controlled fistic lightning" in ring history.
Nebraska State Journal
31 August 1937
Louis Grabs Decision over Farr
Tommy Farr v Louis
They came slowly to the center of the ring. Farr poked two left jabs to the face and they clinched Joe mussed Tommy's blond hair with a straight left Farr did most of the leading and drove Louis to the ropes with a brisk flurry of punches to the head. Farr shot a hard right to the temple and followed with a light left to the body The champ missed twice with left counter punches but scored with a. half dozen left labs to the face, Farr's nose and right eye reddened under punishment. Louis pumped his left to the face before being rushed to the ropes Farr stuck his left to Joe's nose twice without I a return. Tommy roughed Joe around the head as they went into a short clinch
Louis came out on his toes but Farr made the first lead, forcing Joe to give ground as he connected with a snappy left hook to the head. Tommy moved in and out of range quickly, shifting his lead from the head to the body while Louis sparred cautiously. They exchanged light lefts to the head, then Farr jabbed the champ three times to the face the crowd roared as the Englishman showed plenty of fight. Louis forced Farr to give ground under left hand punishment Joe pumped his left with great rapidity to the face and had the Welshman blinking. The champ blocked Tommy 's body attack and continued to pour lefts to the challenger's face Farr appeared considerably baffled as he went to his corner. Louis' round.
Farr threw an overhand right that curled harmlessly around the champ's neck Tommy then dug both hands to the head and jarred Louis with a choppy right to the head. Louis missed twice with his left and they clinched in Farr’s corner. They exchanged long lefts in midring while Tommy tried hard to find an opening in the champ's defense Joe continued to use his left jab almost exclusively. He was beating Tommy to the punch consistently Tommy lowered his head and charged in, landing a hard right to the body and grazing Joe's chin with another. Louis opened a deep gash under Farr's right eye. The crimson was flowing freely as Tommy went to his corner Louis’s round.
Farr carne out in a crouching stance, throwing a short left to the body as he clinched. Louis picked off most of Farr's punches before they landed and began further execution with his long snakelike left. Farr connected with a short right to the chin but Joe did not even blink as he went methodically about his work. Louis speared Farr a half dozen times with his left without a return Tommy kept on the move, meanwhile being wild with most of his counter punches After sparring at long range. Louis jolted the challenger with a short right hook. They were sparring at the bell Louis' round.
Louis landed three light lefts to the head Farr circled the champ in midring Tommy was short with both hands Louis again began pumping his left to the challenger's face. The crowd became restive and whistled for more action. Louis pulled away from a long right and shook Farr with a hard counter punch to the head Tommy swung a hard right to Joe s head but took two terrific smashes in return The challenger was bleeding from cuts under- both eyes as Louis stalked him Joe dug his left to the body and forcer! Farr to retreat In some distress The challenger gamely charged in but Joe had no difficulty tying him up as the bell rang Louis’s round.
Farr backed off and carried his left shoulder high to help protect his chin Tommy's left miss fired but he connected with a short uppercut to the champ's chin Joe blinked but quickly began jabbing and keeping his opponent off balance Tommy threw cautions to the winds as he leaped forward, punching with both hands but escaped serious damage for the time being Tommy brought a roar from the crowd as he landed both fists to the Jaw. The challenger was finding the range more often with his left and had the champ Somewhat puzzled. Joe covered the next time Tommy rushed and made no attempt to counter punch The crowd was cheering the challengers rally wildly as the bell rang. Farr's round.
They exchanged lefts In midring Farr rushed the champ aggressively but was jolted by two hard lefts to the face. Louis missed with a terrific left hook but punished Farr as he forced the challenger from one corner to another Tommy could not keep his face from Louis' left and blood again began to stream from the challenger's cuts Tommy roughed Joe as they leaned their heads together near the ropes They exchanged short lefts to the head Louis opened up and let drive with both hands The champ beat his opponent unmercifully Tommy's face was a bloody mask but the challenger hung on gamely. Louis ducked a hard right hook just Before the bell The crowd gave Farr an ovation as he went to his corner Louis’s round.
Tommy circled the champ in midring They exchanged light lefts. Farr let fly with a round house left that caught Joe's neck harmlessly Tommy charged In twice connecting with lefts, while Joe took his time and waited for an opening The champ shifted to the body but then backed away as Tommv again charged forward Joe pumped his left to Tommy's face three times but Farr rallied and had Joe blinking with_ a series of hard smashes to the head the crowd was in an uproar as the challenger carried the fight to the champ and staged another game rally Tommy grinned at his handlers as the, wiped out the blood off his face. Farr's round.
Tommy led briskly with his left as they met in the center of the ring There was a slight swelling under the champ s right eye Louis opened a fresh flow of blood from under the cut under his rival s left eye but Tommy retaliated with both hands hard to the head. Tommy forced Joe to give ground and punched the champions body with both hands in a neutral corner Farr forced Louis to the ropes where they clinched Tommy kept throwing his left and was beating Joe frequently to the punch Louis backed away after Farr landed both hands solidly to the face They exchanged light lefts In midring just before the bell Farr's round.
They sparred in the center of the ring before Farr forced Louis to give ground ,with a left to the ribs Tommy swung with both hands to the head and continued to keep the aggressive. Tommy took a stiff left as they came into the clinch. Joe began to find the range again and clouted the challenger with a right hook to the ear. Both kept busy with their lefts Joe again countered with a right but barely escaped being nailed by a right hander that Farr brought up from his knees. Tommy's next rush was stopped short by the champ's solid right hook The champ staggered Farr with both fists to the face just before the bell. Louis' round.
Farr cane out in a low crouch Joe pumped his left several times to the nose and then ducked inside Farr's vicious attempt to counter Tommy tried smartly to find an opening by shifting his attack from the head to the body but the champ was unwilling to open up Louis danced away from a long left but continued to find Farr a puzzling target Tommy charged Louis with both fists swinging He drove the champion to a corner with a snappy left hook. After sparring at a fast pace in midring, Tommy let fly again with both hands and had Joe again in retreat just before the bell. Farr's round,
Louis worked his left briskly to the head and tried hard to find an opening. Farr refused to stay m one spot, however, and outpunched the champ in a brisk exchange along the ropes Farr got in some effective punches with his left hand after narrowly escaping a terrific Louis right that had havmaker written all over. They speared each other with lefts Farr s face was well smeared with blood again but the challenger repeatedly rushed forward as he continued to force the fight Tommy landed a right hook to the champ's face just before the bell. Round even.
They exchanged lefts to the face Farr bobbed and weaved as he circled the champion midring drawing nothing more serious than long lefts that he took most on top o£ the .lead Louis poured his left to Tommy's battered face as ringsiders cautioned the challenger to keep moving Tommv chopped a right to the ear. Louis was short with a right but continued to pile up points with straight lefts and jabs Louis cocked his right hand but Farr kept out of range. Tommy swung and connected with both hands to the chin just before
the gong. Louis' round.
Louis jabbed quickly three times as Farr cautiously circled the champ Tommy stuck to his protected crouch and was taking fewer chances. The challenger missed a long right but Joe connected with a choppy right hook They exchanged a dozen long lefts before Louis bounced away from an overhand right Farr's next right hand sailed harmlessly over Louis' head. The champ shot a hard right to the face but Farr refused to give much ground Tommy chased Joe halfway across the ring, swinging his right, but failed to connect Louis jabbed Farr briskly with his left just before the bell Louis' round.
Farr came out in the center of the ring before the bell rang Tommy connected with a left jab and outpunched the champ at close range. Farr charged in and forced Louis to cover Joe jabbed twice then gave ground and was belted around the head by the rugged and determined challenger Tommy fired both hands to the head before he was brought up short by a hard left hook. Blood poured from Farr's nose They speared each other with left hands and Tommy clubbed the champ along the ropes as they clinched. Farr tried hard to connect with long rights but was wild and took too many chances Louis punished him about the face but Tommy had Louis giving ground as the final bell rang. Farr’s round
RINGSIDE, YANKEE STADIUM,
Tommy Farr, that stout Welsh fighter from the coal mines, violated every tradition of British prize fighting here Monday night by remaining vertical for 15 rounds, under a withering fire from the left glove of Joe Louis which left the Welshman’s face a scarlet mask. Louis won the fight handily, and kept his title of heavyweight champion of the world, but Farr stole the show. Reeling and glassy eyed in the closing rounds, he kept fighting back—lurching right into Louis’ fire, his chin thrust ahead of his dragging feet, throwing futile punches, winning yells of admiration from the crowd.
Tommy’s gameness was enormous. A time came before the fight was half over when every punch that Louis landed must have jarred the Welshman’s brain and shaken the bruised bones of his body. The end of the 14th round found him slightly punch-drunk. Maybe the brandy they were feeding him in his corner had something to do with it. Anyway, he staggered into the ring before the bell rang to start the 15th, and Tommy Evans, his trainer, bawled “Come ‘ere, Tommy, come ‘ere.” But Tommy wandered like a lost dog until the gong clanged, and then, wide open, he fought off Louis’ final charge by instinct.
It was a heroic achievement for a British fighter, and it constituted the major sports upset of the year. There was no sprinting backward, none of the track meet stuff that marked Bob Pastor’s fight with Louis. Farr came in and fought his best from start to finish. Remember Joe Beckett and Phil Scott? And Bombardier Wells? Those famous British swooners must have winced over their tea and scones when they heard that a son of the empire had so far forgotten himself as to stand up for 15 rounds. Maybe a better Joe Louis would have stopped the taffy haired “Welshman. Joe didn’t fight too well. He was sleepy and his punching, his hooking lacked sharpness Its possible he was affected by the four Day postponement of the fight from Last Thursday .
Courage, skill, ability
But that strips none of the luster from Farr’s performance. He had courage and Shrewdness and agility. He lacked Only one thing – a punch. Three or four times, in the course Of the rolling, deceptive rush at the champion, He landed a right hand on Joe’s head. These blows made Joe crouch and cover up, but they didn’t hurt him. Farr has no hurting power In his glove. It’s a pity, too, because he has an appetite for fighting. The Welshman outweighed Louis by 204 ½ to 197. He entered the ring in a camel’s hair bathrobe with a red dragon embroidered on the back He smiled while a couple of hundred champions and former champions—Dempsey, Tunney, Jack Johnson, Baer, Braddock, Barney Ross, Marcel Thil, Sixto Escobar, and others—paraded across the ring. Then his face turned solemn. The bell rang, and the thing was on, and people waited to see Joe Louis blast the British champion into the state of coma.
There was a cut under Farr’s left eye, with a patch on it. And Louis made this the target of his flicking, wounding left jab. Before three rounds were over, Farr was bleeding from both eyes. Joe finally landed a right in the fifth round, and it seemed to hurt Tommy. But he fought back. He weathered a savage storm in the seventh—eight clubbing left hooks and six rights. He was-lurching and reeling, but he stood up.
Wins Eighth, Ninth, Eleventh.
Then to the amazement of all hands, including the sleepy champion, Tom began to carry the fight. He won the eighth and ninth and eleventh rounds by confusing Louis with sudden rushes and oft time lefts to the face. All this while, however, Joe kept poking at those red eyes. By the end of the 13th he had the Welshman built up for the kill, and he punched him glassy eyed with a short right hook that slid an inch below Farr’s guard. The bell saved Thomas from trouble this time, and his courage and Joe s sleepy bewilderment kept him vertical—and treasonous, by every British code of law—for the last two rounds. The crowd, which thought more of Farr’s wild rushing than it did of Joe’s deadly jabs, booed to the high heavens when the decision of Referee Arthur Donovan and the two judges, Charlie Lynch and Kid McPartland, was announced I think the fans must have known that Louis won. but they didn’t like the way he performed And the truth is, he didn’t perform like a champion of the world.
Can’t Solve His Style.
But you must consider how tough a man this wild Welshman is. He ran Max Baer dizzy He is smart, and strong, and peculiarly elusive. There is no way of gauging his style in 15 short rounds. You have to fight him all day to dope him out. And that would be no pleasant chore. At the end, he snarled out at Referee Donovan for grabbing his hand and chiding him about low blows as he walked to the corner. He made a little rush at Donovan, and Donovan snarled back. Then the brief spat subsided. It was somewhat silly, but it showed that Thomas Farr was very conscious. This was a breach of etiquette, for etiquette requires a man to be very unconscious when he is thru fighting Louis.
My scorecard gave 12 rounds to the champion and three to Farr. More important, the promoter Uncle Michael Jacobs gave $50,000 to Farr. Tommy can joy himself for the rest of his life by dividing that sack of pound sterling into shillings and pence.