Hand color tinted photo of Heavy Weight Boxing Champion, Joe Louis, 1941
Joseph Louis Barrow (May 13, 1914 – April 12, 1981), better known as Joe Louis, was a heavyweight boxing champion. Nicknamed the Brown Bomber, he is considered to be one of the greatest in boxing history. Louis held the heavyweight title for over 106 months, more than anyone else before or after him, recording 25 successful defenses of the title. In 2003, Ring Magazine ranked him No. 1 on its list of the 100 greatest punchers of all time. In 2005, Louis was named the greatest heavyweight of all time by the International Boxing Research Organization. He participated in 27 heavyweight championship fights, a record which still stands.
In the turbulent era during World War II, he became a national hero in America, partly because of his comment about the Allies, “We’re gonna win ’cause we’re on God’s side”.
In 1935, Louis fought 13 times, creating history. He knocked out the former world heavyweight champion, the 6’6″, 265-pound Primo Carnera, in six rounds. Louis then knocked out the iron-chinned former heavyweight champion Max Baer in four rounds. Before losing to Louis, Baer had been knocked down only once, by Frankie Campbell. Louis also knocked out Paolino Uzcudun, who had never been knocked down or out before.
In his next fight, he was matched with former world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling. Although not considered a threat, the German had studied Louis’ style intently, and believed he had found a weakness. By exploiting Louis’ habit of dropping his left low after a jab, Schmeling handed Louis his first loss by knocking him out in round 12 in Yankee stadium.
Louis, despite the loss, was awarded a title shot by champion James J. Braddock after negotiations with Madison Square Gardens number 1 contender Schmeling broke down. Braddock, looking to retire on a large payoff, was promised a more lucrative fight with the Brown Bomber after Louis bounced back up the pecking order by knocking out former champion Jack Sharkey.
Schmeling (and the Nazi German government) was furious, and insisted that a win over highly ranked Sharkey did not reverse the Louis defeat by Schmeling, which was considered a title eliminator. The matter was settled in court, and Madison Square Garden and Schmeling lost. The fight was staged in Chicago, and Braddock’s heavyweight championship would be up for grabs. Despite a knock down in round 1, Louis defeated the “Cinderella Man” by KO in round 8. Joe Louis was heavyweight champion of the world.
The Louis-Schmeling Fight, 1938
The rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling is one of the most famous boxing matches of all time, and is remembered as one of the major sports events of the 20th century. Following his defeat of Louis in 1936, Schmeling became a national hero in Germany. Schmeling’s victory over an African-American man was touted by Nazi officials as proof of their doctrine of “Aryan superiority.”
When the rematch was scheduled, Louis retreated to his boxing camp in upstate New York and trained incessantly for the fight. A few weeks before the fight, Louis visited the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt told him, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” Louis later wrote in his autobiography, “I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me.” Comedian Dick Gregory jokingly said that it was “probably the only time in history that a black man could end up being a white hope”.
When Schmeling arrived in New York in June, 1938, for the rematch, he was accompanied by a Nazi party publicist who issued statements that a black man could not defeat Schmeling, and that when Schmeling won, his prize money would be used to build tanks in Germany. Schmeling’s hotel was picketed by anti-Nazi protesters in the days before the fight.
On the night of June 22, 1938, Louis and Schmeling met for the second time in the boxing ring. The fight was held in Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 70,043. It was broadcast by radio to millions of listeners throughout the world, with radio announcers reporting on the fight in English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Before the bout, Schmeling weighed in at 193 pounds; Louis weighed in at 198¾ pounds.
The fight lasted two minutes and four seconds. Louis battered Schmeling with a series of swift attacks, forcing Schmeling against the ropes and giving him a paralyzing body blow. (Schmeling later claimed it was an illegal kidney punch.) Schmeling was knocked down three times, and only managed to throw two punches in the entire bout. On the third knockdown, Schmeling’s trainer threw in the towel and referee Arthur Donovan stopped the fight.
Louis’s victory was seen as a major victory for America. The German press recounted Schmeling’s story that Louis had won the bout thanks to an illegal kidney punch. But in America, and throughout the world, Louis’s victory was seen as a major rebuff of German claims of racial superiority.
Ironically, while most people associate the German Schmeling with the Nazi party, he never joined it, and indeed once refused to accept an award from Adolf Hitler. His resistance of the Nazi party made him a hero in post-war Germany, and he became a life-long friend of Joe Louis. Their rivalry and long-lasting friendship is the main focus of the 1978 TV movie Ring of Passion.
Joe Louis lives on in popular memory. Among other contributions, Louis coined two of boxing’s most famous quotes: “He can run, but he can’t hide” and “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.” In 1936, a beat writer for the Winnipeg Tribune used Joe Louis’ nickname to refer to the Winnipeg Football Club after a game. From that point, the team became known popularly as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.