Thursday, January 24, 2013

Joe Louis

Arlington, VA       Visited November 2012

Joe Louis was the first African-American athelete whose popularity crossed racial barriers. In a career spanning the period through World War II, Louis came to symbolize the determination of the American will to win.

Joe Louis Barrow was born May 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama. Little is known about his childhood other than that he was born to poor parents who were both former slaves. His father was committed to a mental institution and never knew of his son’s success. In 1926 Louis’ family experienced threats by the Klu Klux Clan and migrated north to Detroit. As a youth Joe began to visit a local recreation center where his interest in boxing was stimulated. He fought his first amateur fight at the age of 17 in 1932 (which he lost to a future Olympic champion), and changed his name to simply Joe Louis in order to hide his fighting from his mother. Louis turned pro in July 1934 after posting an amateur record of 50-4 with 43 knockouts.

Great boxing shot

Fighting from the get-go as a heavyweight Joe Louis quickly established himself as a force in boxing, though racial prejudice worked against his pursuit of the title. His first significant victory was in June 1935 over the hulking former champion Primo Carnera. Three months later he defeated former champ Max Baer (who had lost his title to James ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock in June 1935), establishing himself as the number one heavyweight contender. With a record of 27-0 Louis sought to prime himself for the title shot with a tune up fight in June 1936 against aging former champion Max Schmeling. But Louis trained poorly for the fight and he was knocked out by Schmeling in twelve rounds.

It seemed as if Joe Louis had lost his shot at the title. But a combination of boxing politics and growing antipathy toward Germans (as represented by Schmeling) played in Louis’ favor and he was eventually given a shot at the title now held by Braddock. On June 22, 1937, the two fought; while Braddock knocked Louis down in the first round Louis eventually overpowered the older Braddock and won in an eight round knockout becoming World Heavyweight Champion.

Joe Louis enjoying the coverage of his victory
over Max Schmeling
The stage was now set for the inevitable rematch with Max Schmeling. By the time the fight took place the Nazi Party was firmly in power in Germany and beginning to move toward war. The Nazi’s sought to use Schmeling as a propaganda tool, promising that they would use his winnings from the upcoming fight to build tanks. Thus the Louis-Schmeling rematch became far more than a sports event. Its political and racial implications played out on an international scale. On June 22, 1938, one year to the day after gaining the heavyweight championship “The Brown Bomber” demolished Max Schmeling in a two minute and four second onslaught. 

See the entire Louis-Schmeling fight here.

Love this war poster!

Joe Louis defended his title thirteen times before enlisting in the army in 1942. He never encountered combat and primarily spent his enlistment doing publicity and boxing exhibitions to inspire troops. But he also used his popularity to quietly influence army policy toward black enlisted men, including pressing to allow black candidates into Officers Training School. He rose to the rank of sergeant before being discharged in 1945.

By the time he left the service Joe Louis’ skills had begun to erode due to the sheer volume of fights in his amateur, pro and exhibition career. He was also severely in debt due to mismanagement of his earnings. Though he was still World Heavyweight Champion, the waning years of his career were largely spent fighting to stave off bankruptcy. After defeating Jersey Joe Walcott in two controversial fights Louis retired from boxing at the age of 35 in 1949. Due to his financial difficulties he was forced to come out of retirement in 1950 and fight for the title he vacated a little over a year earlier. He lost to Ezzard Charles and then was knocked out a year later by Rocky Marciano, ending his competitive boxing career. His professional record was 69-3 with 57 knockouts.

Remarkable photo of Rocky Marciano's knockout
of Joe Louis - effectively ending the
Brown Bomber's career

Louis on the links

Joe Louis’ post boxing career had highs and lows. He had taken up golf and gained sufficient proficiency that he was given a PGA exemption to become the first African American to play in a PGA tour event. But he was more than just a celebrity golfer; he worked to bring the first generation of black professional golfers onto the tour. However his later life was marked by continued financial problems, multiple divorces, eventual drug addiction and chronic health problems. Through it all he remained a sports icon.

Joe Louis and his old foe Max Schmeling

Joe Louis died at the age of 66 hours after making an appearance at the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick title fight in Las Vegas on April 12, 1981. President Ronald Reagan waived eligibility rules and Joe Louis was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His old nemesis Max Schmelling had become his friend and benefactor and helped cover the costs of his funeral.  

I had the chance to visit Louis’ grave with my son Grant and nephew Craig as we were driving down to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving. Interestingly Joe Louis is buried to another celebrity soldier, the actor Lee Marvin.

Very cool sculpture of Joe Louis'
fist in Detroit

Me and my son Grant at Joe Louis' grave
at Arlington Cemetery

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