When Joe Louis said “He can run, but he can’t hide,” he said a mouthful.
Former heavyweight champion of the world Joseph Louis Barrow was born in a shack in Lafayette, Alabama on May 13, 1914, the seventh of eight children conceived by Lillie Reese and Munroe Barrow. Two years after Joe’s birth, the champ’s dad was committed to an insane asylum forever.
Joe’s mother remarried a widower named Pat Brooks, who had five children of his own, and the Barrow brood moved to Mt. Sinai in the Buckelew Mountains. Joe Louis shared a bed with two of his siblings. He walked to school barefoot. He also picked cotton.
In 1926, when Joe Louis was twelve years old, Pat Brooks brought his family to ghetto Detroit and they crowded into a tenement apartment on Catherine Street. Louis hung out with the gangs and got into his share of mischief, so his mother, hoping to give Joe some direction, urged her son to study the violin.
Joe Louis took his money for fiddle lessons and spent it learning to box at the Brewster Gym.
He had his first amateur bout in 1933 and was knocked down seven times by a fighter named Johnny Miler. Joe Louis quit boxing for six months, but could not keep himself away. He figured boxing was the ticket and returned to the gym with renewed vigor. Fighting at light heavyweight, he had 54 amateur bouts during the next year, winning 50 of them, 43 by knockout.
John Roxborough and Julian Black handled Joe in the pros and hoped the trainer Jack Blackburn would join the team. Blackburn remembered the hell wrought by Jack Johnson twenty years earlier and was wary of getting involved. “I won’t have no truck with a colored boy,” he said at first, but eventually changed his mind.
Blackburn drummed it into Louis that “the science of boxing is to avoid getting hit, but if you do get hit, hit the other fella before he hits you again.” Joe Louis learned his lessons well and won his first pro fight on July 4, 1934 with a first round TKO over Jack Kracken in Chicago. That was the first of twelve victories that year.
Joe Louis, aka the “Brown Bomber,” was getting ready for the big time. “Yeah,” Blackburn said, “he’s ready for New York, but New York ain’t ready for him.”
Louis continued his winning ways in 1935 with ten victories, including a sixth round TKO over former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera in June at Madison Square Garden. “This was my first night in New York,” Louis recalled, “and this was the night I remember best in all my fighting. If you was ever a raggedy kid and you come to something like that night you’d know.”
Two months later, Joe dispatched Kingfish Levinsky in one round in Chicago.
Preparations commenced for Joe’s next fight against Max Baer. Many thought Baer had a fighting chance against the young slugger. Even Jack Dempsey - a magic talisman if there ever was one - agreed to serve as one of Baer’s cornermen. When Louis was asked if he was concerned about Dempsey seconding Max, Joe replied, “The rules say Dempsey can’t hit me, don’t they?”
Dempsey didn’t hit Louis that night. Neither did Baer. Joe Louis did most of the punching.
Jack Dempsey told Baer between rounds that they had nothing to worry about because Louis wasn’t landing. Max looked at Jack in disbelief and said, “Then you better keep an eye on (referee) Arthur Donovan, because somebody out there is beating the hell out of me.”
Louis kayoed Baer in four rounds. When the fight was over, sportswriters chastised Max because he took the count on one knee. “Sure I quit,” Baer told them. “He hit me eighteen times while I was in the act of falling that last time. I don’t intend to be cutting up paper dolls for a living. Besides, I got a wife and family to think about. If anyone wants to see the execution of Max Baer, he’s gotta pay a lot more than $25 for a ringside seat.”
The writer Ernest Hemingway described Louis as “The most beautiful fighting machine I had ever seen,” but said “The Louis-Baer fight was the most disgusting public spectacle outside of a hanging that your correspondent ever witnessed.”
As 1936 began, Joe Louis, although not yet champion, was seen as the greatest heavyweight alive. He could box. He could punch. He was humble. He wasn’t seen with white women. The nation embraced the knockout artist, even though he was the same color as Jack Johnson.
Louis wrote, somewhat reflexively several years later, about his predecessor Jack Johnson: “He was working as a strong man in Robert Ripley’s flea circus, and by my standards that ain’t shit.”
Louis had six fights that year, including a pivotal bout with another former heavyweight champion, Max Schmeling. Schmeling wanted a bout with the titleholder James Braddock, but the powers-that-be denied him, so Schmeling said, with some resignation, “I will fight Joe Louis then.”
Louis was an 8-1 favorite to beat the German when the two men met on June 19, 1936 in Yankee Stadium. Schmeling, 31, caught Lewis, 22, with a straight right in the fourth which staggered the Brown Bomber. Another right dropped Joe to the canvas for the first time in his career. The fight was give and take for several rounds, with Max doing most of the giving and Joe doing most of the taking. Lillie Reese Barrow, Joe’s mom, was led from the hall imploring, “Don’t let them kill my son.” Things came to a head in the twelfth when Schmeling caught Louis with two overhand rights. Louis was down for the count.
Schmeling recalled that decisive moment in his autobiography: “The punch turns Louis around. Astonished, he looks at me with eyes that no longer see anything. He turns 180 degrees and falls into the ropes and then down to his knees. His arms go back. Referee Donovan sends me to a neutral corner and starts his count. Louis tries to use the ropes to get back up. He holds himself in this position for a second or two, his face surprisingly calm. Then his head falls forward, his shoulder slides along the ropes, and then, as if his will has finally given in, he collapses. He lies there stretched out on the canvas. He seems to be trying in one last desperate effort to get up. He actually does manage to get his shoulders a few inches off the canvas but then suddenly collapses completely. Joe Louis rolls over and lies face down, stretched out and motionless . . . My heart is in my throat as I watch Donovan’s hand rhythmically rise and fall: ‘Seven-eight-nine!’ Then he spreads his arms wide – Joe Louis has been knocked out.”
That was a shocking loss, a stunning defeat, and some men exploited it to their own ends. Hitler cabled Schmeling from Germany: “Most cordial felicitations on your splendid victory.” Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary that morning after the fight, once the announcer’s cries of “Aus! Aus! Aus!” had died down in his ears: “Stayed up all night. At 3 a.m. the fight begins. In round 12 Schmeling knocks out the negro . . . The white man defeats the black man, and the white man was German!” Goebbels was no less fulsome in his message to Max. “I know you fought for Germany, that it was a German victory. We are proud of you,” he wrote. “Heil Hitler!” The Daily Telegraph ran a feature which included the following: “The Fuhrer takes a deep delight in Schmeling’s career. After he knocked out Joe Louis in New York . . . he was received in the Chancellery by Herr Hitler, who told him how delighted he was about this triumph of Nordic blood over negro blood.”
In his next fight, on August 18, 1936, Joe Louis kayoed another former heavyweight champ, this time it was Jack Sharkey, in three rounds. Sharkey, who also fought Jack Dempsey, compared the two men and was not impressed by the Brown Bomber: “Every time Louis hit me, he said, ‘Sorry.’ Every time Jack Dempsey hit me, he said, ‘How come you’re not dead yet?’” Sharkey added, “I was the only fighter to fight Dempsey and Louis. Who hit me hardest? Dempsey hit me the hardest because Dempsey hit me $211,000 worth while Louis only hit me $36,000 worth.”
After kayoing Sharkey, Louis flattened Al Ettore, Jorge Berscia and Eddie Simms to end 1936, not with a whimper, but with a bang.
In 1937 Joe Louis beat Bob Pastor and Natie Brown, setting up a title fight with the champ James Braddock, aka The Cinderella Man, who won the title from Max Baer a year and a half earlier. Baer said of Braddock after the loss: “Jim can use the title. He has five kids. I don’t know how many I have.”
Louis met Braddock on June 22 in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Braddock got to Louis early and knocked him down with an uppercut in round one, but Louis came back swinging and took over the fight. Louis caught Braddock with a crushing overhand right in round eight and that was it for Braddock.
Joe Louis was the new heavyweight champion of the world.
When asked after the fight when he knew he had Braddock beat, Louis said “I knew I had him when I signed for the fight.” Braddock admitted after the fight, “When (Louis) knocked me down I could have stayed there three weeks . . . I couldn’t have got up if you offered me a million dollars.” Asked by a reporter what it was like to be hit by the Brown Bomber, Braddock said it was “Like someone jammed an electric light bulb in your face and busted it.”
That was a huge win, the dream of a lifetime come true for Joe Louis, but the heavyweight champ had unfinished business. “I don’t want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling,” Joe said. “Bring on Schmeling.”
Louis wrote about the bout: “I had nothing personally against Max, but in my mind, I wasn’t champion until I beat him. The rest of it - black against white – was somebody’s talk. I had nothing against the man, except I had to beat him for myself.”
Louis fought and beat Tommy Farr (“Every time I hear the name Joe Louis, my nose starts to bleed”), Nathan Mann and Harry Thomas, setting the stage for the rematch with Schmeling.
The geopolitics of the time anointed Joe Louis as America’s proxy against the Huns and he met the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the White House before the rematch with Schmeling. FDR put his hand on the champ’s biceps and offered these stirring words: “Joe, these are the types of muscles we’re going to need to beat the Germans.”
Joe recalled that “White Americans – even while some of them were lynching black people in the south – were depending on me to K.O. a German. I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons, and the whole damned country was depending on me.”
Even though Schmeling insisted “I am a fighter, not a politician,” even though his manager, Joe Jacobs, was Jewish to the bone, most Americans treated Max like he was one of Hitler’s henchmen. “I was never a Nazi,” Schmeling said, “but once a German, always a German.”
Louis and Schmeling had their rematch on June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium. Louis took it to Schmeling at the opening bell and caught him early. When Max retreated to the ropes, Joe went for the kill. Louis knocked Schmeling down three times, and broke two of his vertebrae, in less than two minutes. At 2:04 of the first round, Schmeling’s corner threw in the towel. Max was sorry to have lost on one hand, but relieved on the other: “A victory over Joe Louis would have made me forever the 'Aryan Show Horse’ of the Third Reich.” Joe was more sanguine. “I’m sure enough champion now,” he said.
Joe Louis was on top of the world. With his destruction of Schmeling, he had beaten every man he had ever faced. Thus began the infamous “Bum-of-the-Month” Club. The Bum-of-the-Month Club disparagingly describes the lack of talent in the heavyweight division during the years of Louis’ reign. “Those guys weren’t bums,” Joe wrote. “They were hardworking professionals trying to make a dollar, too. I knew the training they went through, and I knew the dream they had. No different from me. I respected every man I fought. It’s no easy job getting up in that ring; you got to have a special kind of balls.”
Louis had four fights in 1939. Joe’s first victim was John Henry Lewis. His second was Jack Roper, who had a fine excuse for losing to Joe in one round in LA: “I zigged when I shoulda zagged.” The third notch on Louis’ belt that year was against "Two Ton" Tony Galento. Barney Nagler wrote that “The hardest punches I ever saw Louis throw were against Tony Galento. Every time he hit him it made little breaks in the skin as though (Galento) cut himself shaving.” Two Ton Tony had a good mea culpa for his crummy performance: “I coulda busted Joe Louis real good if my manager woulda let me get out there and hit him all over,” Galento said. “You know what I mean . . . Butt him and kick him around. It’s a fight, isn’t it?”
Louis ended the year with an eleventh round kayo over Bob Pastor.
Joe had four fights in 1940. He beat Arturo Godoy twice, and had wins over Al McCoy and Johnny Paychek. Paychek, who Joe flattened on March 29 in two rounds, exclaimed at the fight’s end, “God, how the man can punch!”
1941 was a busy year for the champ. He had seven bouts, stopping Red Burman, Gus Dorazio, Abe Simon and Tony Musto, and won by DQ over Buddy Baer. Buddy was one of the boxing Baer boys, and those brothers loved to talk. “I took his best punches,” Buddy Baer said in his dressing room after the fight. “(Louis) has to hit you a million times before he gives you a headache.”
Joe Louis signed to defend his title against light heavyweight king Billy Conn and the hype was ripe in the buildup to the fight. Conn said of Louis, “He can’t box a lick. He has to hit you with those punches to hurt you, and he couldn’t hit me in the britches with a bull fiddle.” Maybe Louis sensed what he was getting into when he said “A drop of rain will hurt you if you let enough drops hit you first.”
It was June 18, 1941. A crowd of 54,487 filled the Polo Grounds. The opening bell rang. Conn was a slow starter, but he weathered an early storm and proceeded to pick Joe Louis apart. Louis looked slow. The challenger was beating the champ to the punch. Louis wasn’t cutting off the ring. It looked like Conn had Louis on a leash. “You’ve got a fight on your hands tonight, Joe,” Conn told Louis during the fight. Joe replied, “I know it.”
Conn was ahead on the scorecards after twelve. The world was on the verge of having a new heavyweight champion. But Conn let his success in the early and middle rounds go to his head and figured he was man enough to trade with Joe Louis.
That was Billy Conn’s only mistake of the night, but it was a big one.
In the thirteenth round Louis connected with a left to the body, a right uppercut, a left hook and right cross in rapid succession - and Conn went down. With only two seconds remaining in the round, Conn couldn’t beat the count.
After the fight, Louis told Conn, “Man, I loaned you my title for twelve rounds and you couldn’t keep it.” Conn said, “What’s the good of being Irish if you can’t be dumb now and then?”
Joe Louis finished off the year with a fight against Lou Nova. Nova trained with a yoga master, instead of a conventional boxing trainer, and claimed he possessed a “cosmic punch.” “He not only has to fight my muscles,” Nova said. “He has to fight my mind.” It took Joe six rounds to beat Nova’s muscles and mind. If anyone had a “cosmic punch,” it was Joe Louis.
The champ had two fights in 1942. The first was a rematch and round one kayo against Buddy Baer, who insisted “The only way I could have beaten Joe that night was with a baseball bat.” The second was a rematch with Abe Simon. Then Joe Louis enlisted in the army. Although there was a war going on, the only action Joe saw during WWII was in a boxing ring.
At the war’s conclusion, Joe resumed his pro career in 1946 with kayos over Conn in the rematch and a one round blowout of Tami Mauriello. Louis said that was “the last time I really felt like my old self.”
Joe Louis was slowing down, but he was still dangerous, and he was on the lookout for new opponents. Joe Baksi, a former Pennsylvania coal miner of Czech descent, was offered a chance to fight the Brown Bomber. “Sorry, I can’t fight Louis for you. I’ll be busy this summer,” Baksi said. “I can’t disappoint my relatives in Czechoslovakia. I promised to visit them.”
Louis was given a gift decision over Jersey Joe Walcott in the Garden in 1947, which Louis clarified with an eleventh round kayo the next year.
Then Joe Louis retired.
In 1949 Ezzard Charles decisioned Walcott in a box-off in Chicago to win the heavyweight title. The next year Joe made the inevitable comeback and lost a decision to Charles. But Joe liked being back in the ring, plus he needed the money, so he continued fighting.
After winning eight fights in a row, Louis agreed to meet an up-and-comer named Rocky Marciano on October 26, 1951 in New York City. With painfully little resistance, Rocky pummeled his hero Joe Louis and kayoed him in round eight. It was an ugly loss, an unsightly fall, the end of the end of the road, and even Joe Louis knew it. “The Rock don’t know too much about the boxing book, but it wasn’t a book he hit me with,” Louis said. “It was a whole library of bone crushers.”
Louis retired from boxing with a record of 68-3 (54 KOs) and began a full-time tilt with the IRS. Due to poor management, bad advice, and out-and-out larceny, the champ was in hock up to his neck. “When I was boxing, I made $5 million and wound up broke, owing the government a million. If I was boxing today,” Louis speculated, “I’d make $10 million and wind up broke owing the government two million.”
Louis tried professional wrestling to settle his bill with the state - Joe said “it beats stealin’” - but the hoped for jackpot never came and debt plagued him to the end.
“They say money talks,” Louis said, “but the only thing it ever said to me was goodbye.”