Joseph Louis Barrow, better known as Joe Louis, was a professional boxer and the World Heavyweight Champion by 1937. Joe Louis began his professional boxing career in 1934, showcasing a power and skill set the boxing world had never seen before. Joe is considered to be one of the greatest heavyweights of all time earning him the nickname the “Brown Bomber”. Louis won his first 27 fights, all but four by knockouts and victorious in 25 successful title defenses, holding down the title from 1937 to 1949. A record that remains standing in any weight division. In 2005, Louis was ranked as the #1 heavyweight of all-time by the International Boxing Research Organization, and was ranked #1 on The Ring’s list of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time Joe Louis Barrow was born on May 13, 1914 north of Lafayette in rural Chambers County, Alabama. Louis was the son of Munroe Barrow and Lillie (Reese) Barrow, the seventh of eight children. His father Munroe was predominantly African American with some white ancestry, while Lillie was half Cherokee Indian. Louis spent twelve years growing up in rural Alabama before his family moved to Detroit in 1924. Having grown up in the Old South, Louis had acquired the instinct and anger of a true fighter, even amidst the evils of racial discrimination and intolerance. The Depression hit the Barrow family hard, but as an alternative to gang activity, Joe began to spend time at a local youth recreation centre at 637 Brewster Street in Detroit. Legend has it that he tried to hide his pugilistic ambitions from his mother by carrying his boxing gloves inside his violin case.

Louis made his amateur debut in early 1932 at age 17. It has been said that before the fight, Louis wrote his name so large that there was no room for his last name, and thus became known as “Joe Louis”, however truth be told, Louis simply omitted his last name to keep his boxing pursuits a secret from his mother.

His early career was a period of hard work and determination and was one without glamour or fame. Ten years after his arrival in Detroit, Louis won the Golden Gloves as a light heavyweight. Following this win, Louis turned professional and won twelve contests within the first year. The first few years of Louis’ pro career involved a steady ascension up the pyramid of the Heavyweight class. His boxing prowess, as well as his reputation, was growing at an incredible rate. In June 1935, he fought Primo Carnera, the former heavyweight champion, before a Yankee Stadium crowd of 62,000. Louis followed this fight with a pairing against Max Baer, who he defeated by knockout in the fourth round. Ernest Hemingway described this fight as “the most disgusting public spectacle outside of a public hanging” that he had ever seen.

Joe Louis was seemingly invincible, until his meeting with Max Schmeling on June 19, 1936. Schmeling was the underdog but, to the surprise of all, gave Louis a defeat that would continue to sting long after the cuts had healed. Louis was counted out in the 12th round of this lengthy fight and suffered the first and most painful defeat of his boxing career. In 1937, Louis faced world heavyweight champion James J. Braddock in Chicago. In an eight round match, Louis captured the heavyweight title of the world by knocking Braddock out. After this victory, Louis stated, “I don’t want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling.” Louis had ascended to the top of the boxing world, but in his estimate, his journey was far from complete. His embarrassing loss to Max Schmeling was the only dark spot on a career that otherwise was the stuff of dreams, and he was consumed by a desire for revenge.

Following this successful title defense against Welsh boxer Tommy Farr in a 15-round marathon match, Louis initiated his “Bum of the Month” campaign. The idea was for Louis to take on a variety of fighters, whether they were contenders or not. 

uring this period, on the day of June 22, 1938, Louis once again took on the only opponent who had ever beaten him, Max Schmeling. This time around, Louis knocked Schmeling out and captured the admiration of countless Americans. Louis gained a moral victory for himself and for his country, and simultaneously struck a damaging blow to Hitler and his pretentious beliefs. 

Louis’ first punches, a pair of powerful left hooks, began his opponent’s eventual demise. Schmeling complained bitterly about being hit with foul kidney punches, but every punch was a fair one. The fight was nothing short of ridiculous, with Schmeling falling to the floor in just two minutes and four seconds. 

It was this time period that bore witness to Louis’ reign of terror in the heavyweight boxing world. Beginning in 1937, he began a 12-year reign as boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world. During this stretch, Louis had victories over Lou Nova, Tony Galento, Gus Dorazio, Buddy Baer, and Johnny Paycheck. Louis’ epic battle with Billy Conn at the Polo Grounds also occurred during this time. In 1942, Joe Louis began a period of service in the Army and worked as a physical education teacher. It would be four years before Louis again returned to the ring. Between 1946 and 1949, Louis flawlessly defended his title four times, including two victorious fights against ‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott. 

Louis retired in 1949, still the undefeated heavyweight champ. Succumbing to financial pressures and government debts, Louis was forced back into the ring. In 1950, he attempted to recapture his title in a bout against Ezzard Charles. However, in a points decision, Louis was handed a loss. Not ready to accept defeat, he again tried his hand in 1951 against Rocky Marciano. During this unsuccessful return to the ring, Marciano knocked Louis through the ropes in the 8th round. This was Joe Louis’ final time in the ring. He had earned $5 million in his illustrious boxing career. But at 37, Joe Louis had not a single cent to show for it.