Joseph Louis Barrow. Joe Louis. Mahogany Mauler. The Brown Bomber. Call him what you want, Joe Louis was one of the great boxing champions of all time, and he made Detroit his home.
The Brown Bomber was born in a rural area of Alabama to a sharecropper and his wife. One of eight children, Louis never really knew his father, who was committed to a mental institution when Joe was only two. The family made their way to Detroit in 1926, after a gang of white men that belonged to the Ku Klux Klan terrorized them. Thus shaped the will in Louis to fight and to be part of the civil rights movement.
Louis was a poor student who had a speech impediment and struggled in school. He started to hang out at a local youth recreation center where he learned to box. In 1932, at the age of 17, Louis made his amateur debut. Louis, barely literate at the time, wrote his name so large that he couldn’t fit in his last name. He was, from then on, forever known as Joe Louis. In 1933, Joe won the Detroit Area Golden Gloves and in ’34 it was the United States Amateur Championship at the AAU tournament in St. Louis. Joe Louis finished his amateur career with a 50-3 record, tallying 43 knockouts.
As a professional boxer, Louis won 66 of 69 bouts and knocked out 52 fighters. His Heavyweight Championship reign began in 1937 when he knocked out James J. Braddock. It ended in 1949 when he retired at the age of 34. Still the longest reign of any heavyweight champion in the post-bare-knuckle era.
After his first retirement, Louis realized he was broke due to tax issues and decided to fight again. He lost his first match against Ezzard Charles. After beating a few club level pugilists, Louis signed on to fight Rocky Marciano on October 26, 1951. It would be his final fight. He was pummeled for the better part of the fight and finally knocked through the ropes in the eighth. His career was over.
Joe Louis was a fighter, both in life and the ring. He was a central figure in the Detroit civil rights movement and he was generous to a fault. Even after his professional career ended, he traveled the country fighting in exhibition bouts to delight fans.
In his adopted hometown of Detroit, his name is adorned on the Red Wings’ former home and he has a memorial dedicated to him called ‘The Fist’. His reach was felt all over the world as he was a central figure in breaking the color barrier. He was the first African-American invited to play in a PGA Tour event as an amateur. He was also the first boxer to be honored on a postage stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.
Joe Louis passed away on April 12, 1981, at the age of 66. He will forever be known as one of the greatest boxers of all-time and his influence on the sport and culture will never die.