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Joe Louis (Barrow) "The Brown Bomber," Heavyweight Champion of the World


During the 1930s and 1940s, the name of Joe Louis probably was as well known as that of the president, Franklin Roosevelt, because between 1937 and 1949, Joe Louis was boxing's "Heavyweight Champion of the World." He held that title longer and defended it more often than any other boxer in history, becoming the first great African-American idol for a whole generation of Americans.

Joe Louis' proper name was Joe Louis Barrow, but when he fought his first amateur fight, he signed up as "Joe Louis." His career skyrocketed and he became universally known. Born in Lexington, Alabama, Joe moved with his six older brothers and sisters and their widowed mother, Lilly Barrow, to Detroit when he was a young boy. He was working in Detroit as an automobile assemblyman when he won the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union crown in 1934 and turned professional that year.

Joe Louis suffered only one defeat in his first 69 fights, and that was at the hands of Germany's great Max Schmeling, the reigning world heavyweight champion, on June 19, 1936. Schmeling knocked out Louis in the 12th round of that title fight. Louis became world champion one year later, on June 22, 1937, when he knocked out James J. Braddock in the eighth round of their bout. While defending his title 25 times, more than any other champion in boxing history, Joe scored knockouts in 20 of those fights.  

On June 22, 1938, in what was touted as "the fight of the century," a rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling drew a crowd of 70,000 to Yankee Stadium in New York. This time it was Louis who entered as champion and Schmeling as challenger. President Roosevelt met with "the Champ" before the fight to wish him well; everyone knew that more was at stake on that night than just the title. In that right Joe Louis represented America's best, and he was squaring off with Schmeling,, the pride of Nazi Germany, at a time when the Nazis were professing to be a superior race. While none of the American spectators were disappointed in the outcome, they may have been disappointed that the fight did not last longer. Louis pummeled Schmeling, knocking him to the canvas in just over two minutes into the first round. Schmeling was hit so hard and so often in that short time that he spent a full week in a New York hospital.  

When the United States finally went to war against Germany in 1941, Louis enlisted in the Army, serving in the same segregated unit as Jackie Robinson, the first African American later to play major league baseball. During the war, Louis fought 96 exhibition matches before more than two million troops. He also donated more than $100,000 to Navy and Army relief effort. When he left the Army, he had reached the rank of sergeant.  

Joe Louis retired from boxing on March 1, 1949, with a record of 68 wins and one loss. During his fabled career, he had earned about $5 million, most of which he either gave away or spent. In the late 1940s, the Internal Revenue Service assessed Louis more than $1,000,000 in back taxes and penalties. This arose as a result of a divorce settlement in which Louis agreed to pay his ex-wife a portion of the purse from his biggest fight, $650,000. It was based on a percentage of his winnings, as a manager's fee would be computed, but the IRS considered it to be alimony, ruling that Louis owed taxes and considerable penalties on money. Louis knew only one way to earn that kind of money, so he returned to the ring.  

Coming out of retirement on September 27, 1950, he challenged the new champion, Ezzard Charles, but was beaten decisively in 15 rounds. He attempted another major bout on October 26, 1951, against future champion Rocky Marciano; this time Louis was knocked out in the eighth round. He never fought again, ending his extraordinary 17-year career with a record of 68 wins and three losses, winning 54 of his fights by knockouts.  

Louis is remembered for the famous "Bum-of-the-Month" tour, during which Joe defended his title with a fight each month for a full year. He spent his final years confined to a wheelchair as a result of open heart surgery. He also worked as a greeter at a Las Vegas hotel.  

When Joe Louis died on April 12, 1981, he had not been champion for more than 32 years. But still people throughout the world paid him homage. To them he would always be "The Champ." President Ronald Reagan waived the technical requirements for burial at Arlington to allow Joe Louis to be interred there. During a service with full military honors, the hundreds of people who came to the funeral heard three volleys fired into the quiet, spring air as a salute to the former boxing great, signaling his last round. Since his death, thousands of visitors have come to view the tombstone that bears a bas-relief of the famous fighter and the inscription "The Brown Bomber."  

Peters, James Edward. Arlington National Cemetery: Shrine to America's Heroes. Woodbine House, 2000.