Today we share a tribute to heavyweight legend Joe Louis – born in on this day in 1914 in a rural farm in Alabama, also home to former WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder. At the age of 2, Joe’s father was committed to a mental hospital and later in 1922, his mother remarried before moving north to Detroit as part of the Great Migration.

Joe’s siblings recall him as a quiet child who didn’t like fighting, was good to everyone and as champion went on to help his friends and family with college fee’s, medical care and setting them up in business. His mother was keen on Joe becoming a violin player as a child, paying a dollar a week for him to take lessons. One day the teacher surprised his mother and turned up wondering where Joe had been, it turned out Louis had been using the money to pay for boxing lessons instead.

Unknown to many, Sugar Ray Robinson regarded now by many as the greatest of all time was a neighbour of Joe’s growing up in Detroit and Robinson followed Joe down to the gym each day. Robinson described how Joe was his idol and wanted to be just like Joe. “Everything I learned about boxing, all of the good clean habits, training hard and clean living. Another thing, if it hadn’t of been for you [Joe], I just might not have been a fighter!”

The Brown Bomber made his amateur debut against future Olympian Johnny Miler at the tender age of 17 and like many, began with a loss. Unfazed, Joe continued to box and compiled numerous amateur victories and titles finishing with a record of 50-3 (43 KO’s) in the unpaid ranks.

Louis’s amateur performances attracted the interest of John Roxborough, a local bookmaker who eventually became his life long friend. Roxborough convinced Louis that he should sign with him as white managers would have no real interest in seeing the success of a black boxer. Roxborough knew a well connected Chicago boxing promoter named Julian Black who already had a stable of mediocre boxers against which Louis could hone his craft. Black hired the best trainer available in fellow Chicago native Jack “Chappy” Blackburn as Louis’s trainer who in time, became a father figure to Joe.

Louis pro debut came in April 1934 in Chicago, earning himself $59 for his first round knockout of Jack Kracken which is equivalent to just over $1000 in todays money. By the end of 1934, Louis had racked up 10 KO’s in his 12 wins. Despite a strong unbeaten start to his career, a path to the title was not forthcoming. In wake of the unpopular Jack Johnson era, many white American’s were wary of the prospect of another black champion, which made it very difficult for black fighters to become successful. Joe had the talent but in order for him to reach national prominence, a change in management was required.

Louis along with Roxborough & Black met up with arguably the most powerful promoter in the sport in Mike Jacob’s who promised the prospect of delivering a title shot to Louis. The new 3 year deal included a term that meant Black and Roxborough would collectively continue to manage and take a 50% cut of Louis’ future earnings. Mindful of the tremendous backlash Johnson had suffered for his unapologetic attitude and flamboyant lifestyle, Black & Roxborough carefully and deliberately shaped Louis’ media image, portraying him as a modest, clean living and humble citizen.

By this time in the mid 30’s, boxing was struggling and in desperate need of a marketable hero. Jack Dempsey’s retirement in 1929 left a huge hole and the sport had moved into dark times consisting of gambling, fixed fights, thrown matches and organised crime.

Jacob’s first move was to match Louis (now 19-0) against ex champion Primo Carnera (82-7) from Italy. Primo was a giant puppet in the hands of New York racketeers who were not able to fix this fight. They attempted to move in on Louis, but Joe was not for sale. 60,000 fans crammed inside Yankee stadium to see the young Brown Bomber outclass his game opponent, eventually forcing him to quit in the 6th round. Even the most narrow minded people now realised and accepted the 21 year old Joe Louis was a logical contender and the most exciting puncher in the division since the days of Dempsey.

Not long after came another ex-champion Max Baer, considered by many to be as bigger puncher as Joe Louis himself but lacked the discipline Joe had to train and live the lifestyle. Amazingly, on the day of the fight, Joe married the beautiful Marva Trotter before heading over to the stadium. Both fighters came out swinging but it was Louis took control and finished Baer off in the 4th round.

With political and social tensions hightening with Nazi Germany, Hitler gave his blessing for Geman champion Max Schmeling to face the Brown Bomber in the USA. Although Schmeling was considered as the number 2 contender for champion James Braddock’s title, he was believed to be on the decline and seen as the final stepping stone to Louis’ title bid. Despite Joe being a heavy favourite, Max identified and exploited a key weakness in the American’s game (dropping the left hand after the jab) to win by 12th round KO.

It seemed logical that Schmeling would now face the champion Jim Braddock but increasing tensions and demonstrations in America against Nazi Germany and their possible control of the heavyweight championship, paved the way for a deal to be struck between Jacob’s and Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould. The agreed terms meant that Gould received 10% of all Joe Louis’ purses for the next 10 years which eventually resulted in a return of $150,000. By now, Louis had strung together 7 wins since his defeat and was ready to take on the champion.

Despite being knocked down in round 1, Louis recovered to knockout Braddock in the 8th round with a straight right hand to the jaw to become the new heavyweight champion of the world. His victory was monumental for African American’s during these times of the Great Depression, who celebrated all night long across the country. Although Louis was now officially touted as the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe publically refused to recognise himself as champion until he faced and defeated Max Schmeling.

Three successful defences followed and exactly 12 months to the day of winning the title, came the hugely anticipated rematch between the champion Joe Louis and his German nemesis, Max Schmeling. Louis quoted in his biography, “I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me.” Both men weighed just under 200 pounds which is equivalent to todays cruiserweight division and both claimed to be in the best shape of their life. Louis took the fight to Schmeling from the opening bell and knocked down the German three times in the first round and the fight was over.

From that moment, Louis went on to become a major celebrity in the United States and considered the first true African American national hero. He made 25 consecutive defences of his title total, reigning as world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 – a truly remarkable feat and to this day, the longest span of any heavyweight title holder. One of the most memorable of these defences came in 1941 against the formidable light heavyweight champion Billy Conn, who was moving up to take on Louis. The fight, won by Louis, produced one of the greatest bouts in history and created an instant rivalry which would take 5 years to be concluded.

Joe volunteered himself into the army during World War II which further enhanced his media image and was eventually promoted to sergeant in 1945. During this time, he had charitable bouts where gave his full purses to Army and Navy fund to assist. Despite these amazing gestures, the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) demanded income tax to be paid which left him in debt. In addition to this looming tax bill, Mike Jacobs claimed that Louis owed him $250,000.

The boxing world finally got their chance to see the long awaited Billy Conn rematch in 1946, but the challenger was not the man we saw in the first fight and was dispatched inside 8 rounds. Back to back victories over legendary Jersey Joe Walcott followed in 1947 & 1948. In the first, Louis recovered from two early knockdowns and scraped a controversial decision to which the fans booed. Despite being sent to the canvas again in the rematch, Louis responded well and redeemed himself, knocking out Walcott in round 11.

Fans believed the Brown Bomber was now on the decline and Louis would not defend his title again before announcing his retirement. During this time, the Revenue Service were completing their investigation into Louis’ tax returns which were handled by Mike Jacob’s accountant and concluded that he owed more than half a million dollars. Joe had no choice but to return to the ring.

The 2 year layoff meant that Joe was not at his peak and his first opponent came against the great but underrated fighter, Ezzard Charles. Charles was younger and faster and took a unanimous decision victory to claim the title and hand Lois the second defeat of his career. Figuring he could still compete, Joe went onto win 8 fights in a row but the chance of a rematch with Charles ended when he was knocked out by Joe Walcott. Now the only money fight left for Louis was the young, undefeated Rocky Marciano (37-0), who’s style and power were being compared (as Joe’s one had been) to Jack Dempsey’s. Louis was knocked out by Marciano in the 8th round to close the curtain on a truly remarkable boxing career.

Despite earning nearly $5 million during his boxing career, Joe only saw about $800,000 and ended up in huge debts ($1 million) with outstanding tax, interest & penalties. An agreement was finally reached with the IRS and Joe was allowed to live comfortably towards the end of his life.

He finished his glittering boxing career with a record of 66-3 (52 KO’s) and is rightly considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Officially ranked number 1 by the International Boxing Research Organisation and The Ring Magazine’s number 1 in the list of “100 greatest punchers of all time.”

Joe Louis was loved, respected and admired not only as one of the greatest heavyweight’s ever but as a human being. Happy Birthday Champ.


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