Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Boxing Glove Remembers Joe Louis

By Peter Silkov

The name Joe Louis conjures up certain nostalgia for a time when boxing ruled the world of sports, and when the heavyweight champion of the world was not only the most widely known face in boxing, but in the general world of sport. In Joe Louis boxing had a champion who was able to transcend the sport, and become one of the most famous in the world, to an extent that few boxing champions, before or after him, would ever come close to achieving. The fact that Louis was the second black man to win the world heavyweight crown had much to do with it.  While Jack Johnson was the first black man to wear the heavyweight crown, he found himself mired in controversy and racial hatred.  Louis, with his quiet and gentlemanly demeanor, was able to win over the public at large, and in time, become one of the most popular and enduring champions that the ring has ever seen.

Joe Louis was born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914, in Lafayette, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. When he was two years old, Joe’s father was committed to a state hospital, where he would spend the rest of his life. Louis would grow up in stark poverty and with little schooling. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Detroit, and where the young Louis would do odd jobs to help financially. As Joe entered his teenage years, his mother bought him a violin and paid for music lessons, believing that this would offer Joe a chance of a better life. Unknown to his mother, Joe began going to the boxing gym, rather than the music lessons, after being encouraged by a friend Thurston McKinney, who was an amateur boxer himself.

After losing his first amateur fight, Barrow soon started to make progress, fighting under the name of Joe Louis, so that he could keep his new activity a secret from his mother.

In 1934, Louis’ amateur career culminated in his winning the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in the light-heavyweight division and the AAU light-heavyweight championship. After compiling an amateur record of 53-3, Louis turned professional on July 4, 1934.

From the beginning of his professional career, Louis was nurtured to win the World heavyweight title. He was taken under the wing of manager John Roxborough, an African American businessman, who would, with the help of promoter Mike Jacobs and trainer Jack Blackburn, guide Louis to the top. 

Roxborough was determined that Louis would avoid the problems and controversies, which befell Jack Johnson, and helped Louis construct his public image. Louis was not allowed to celebrate after beating an opponent in the ring, especially if he was white.  He was also never to be photographed with white women or to flaunt his growing wealth as his career progressed. In other words, Louis was coached in how to become an antithesis of what Jack Johnson had been, at least in public.

It was Louis’ exploits in the ring and his aura as “The Brown Bomber” that generated much of the love and admiration, which Louis would enjoy throughout his career.

Louis’ progress as a professional was meteoric. There was never any doubt that he was a very special fighter. He fought like a smooth-running fighting machine; eliminating opponents with a fearsome ease. Louis had a great jab, which he would use like a battering ram upon an opponent. Jack Blackburn taught The Brown Bomber how the jab could be used as an offensive weapon, rather than just a defensive weapon. Louis’ jab would pave the way for his two-fisted attacks, which were powerful, and accurate.  Louis wasn’t fast on his feet, but he had a way of manouvouring himself to cut off his opponent, as he advanced with a catlike smoothness. Once he had someone hurt, they rarely got away. Louis was probably the best finisher that the heavyweight division has ever seen.

Incredibly, just after a year, Louis was already a ranked contender. On June 19, 1936, however, Louis’ progress came to a shuddering halt when he was knocked out in the 12th round by former World heavyweight champion Max Schmeling. The defeat by Schmeling seemed to threaten Louis’ whole future at first, but he was back inside the ring two months later, knocking out another former world champion Jack Sharkey in 4 rounds.

Although he had been beaten by Schmeling, it was Louis, not Schmeling, who received a shot at Jim Braddock’s World heavyweight title on June 22, 1937. Louis had won 6 fights since his defeat to Schmeling and was primed to fight for the World heavyweight title.

Despite all of his stubborn bravery, and an early knockdown against Louis, the champion Braddock took a fearful beating from The Brown Bomber, before eventually being counted out in the 8th round.

Joe Louis proved to be every bit the champion that he had been trained to be, and more.  He was the most active and enduring of any World heavyweight champion and his record of 25 successful defences over 12 years still stands today. Never before, nor since, has a heavyweight champion cleared out his division with such clinical devastation. Indeed, Louis’ reputation was such that many of his opponents were beaten before the first bell sounded. Included in Louis’ 25 defences were many classic fights, such as his contests with Tommy Farr, Tony Galento, Buddy Baer, Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott, but perhaps his greatest performance as world champion was the night of June 22, 1938, when Louis gained his revenge over Max Schemeling, with a crushing 1st round knockout.

During WW2, Louis’ reputation grew even higher, due to his enlistment in the Armed Forces and his involvement in the war effort. The champion became a physical instructor and boxed exhibitions for both the American and English troops. Louis enlisted in the US army in January 1942. He defended his title twice that year, against Buddy Baer and Abe Simon, with most of his purses going towards the war effort.  After the Simon bout, Louis would not have another official fight for over 4 years, with his ring activity confined to training, and dozens of exhibition bouts.  

When he did finally return to the ring to defend his world title in 1946, it was an older and heavier Louis, who now lacked the timing and catlike reflexes of the past. Louis also returned to the ring without his father figure, advisor, and trainer, Jack Blackburn, who died in April 1942.

Tragically, Louis was also heavily in debt by the end of WW2, after years of being unable to earn anything from his championship. Furthermore, the world champion was being taxed by the IRS for the fights where he had donated his purse to the war effort.  Louis had kept going financially during the war years by borrowing heavily from his promoter and managers, and by 1946, was heavily in debt to them as well as the IRS.

Remembering Joe Louis...the Quiet Patriot


The Brown Bomber’s chaotic finances saw him make four further defences of his world title following the end of the war, even though it was plain to see that the champion was a faded force.

After defending his title against Jersey Joe Walcott for the second time, Louis announced his retirement on March 1, 1949. Retiring undefeated champion, after an amazing reign of 12 years, and 25 defences. Louis was a beloved figure by now amongst all boxing fans and beyond. Alas, the IRS were making ever-increasing demands for money from Louis, who could not even pay the interest upon his ever-escalating debts.

On September 27, 1950, Louis returned to try to regain the world title, which he had never lost inside the ring, from Ezzard Charles, a brilliant boxer-puncher who had acceded to the vacant throne. Louis still had some of his old power and strength, but he had lost his speed and reflexes, and was beaten clearly on points.

Despite the conclusive nature of this defeat, Louis would continue to fight on, having 8 fights in the next year, and winning them all. Louis was then matched with a young rising contender called Rocky Marciano. The two met on October 26, 1951, and despite Joe putting up a brave and stubborn fight, “The Rock” proved to be too young and strong for the old Bomber, and Louis was worn down, and then knocked out in the 8th round. 

Louis never fought again.  Retiring for good with a final record of 63(49koes)-4.

Retirement was not easy for Louis.  He was still in demand from the public, but the jobs he could do now, such as commentating on fights, or training young fighters, and working as a referee, just did not pull in the money that Louis had become accustomed to earning. Even when the IRS finally wrote off much of the debt that Louis owed them in the 1960s, Louis would still struggle to make ends meet.

Ironically, one of the greatest fighters of his generation would end his days living on the kindness and charity of friends and admirers.


Yet, for all his failings outside of the ring, Joe Louis remained and still remains one of the most loved and respected of all the champions in boxing history. He was a man who brought together fans, both white and black, and who raised the status of the coloured fighter to a level of acceptance, which had never before been attained.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to www.theboxingglove.com and www.theboxingtribune.com

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