Born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama, his father picked cotton. At age 10, his family moved to Detroit where he became involved with boxing. After much “hard work and determination,” he won the light heavyweight Golden Gloves, then turned professional.
At age 20 the world soon took notice of his boxing style and skill after winning his first 27 fights (all but four won with knockouts). At 6’1 ½”, 197 pounds, he became known as the “Brown Bomber.” From 1937, he began a 12-year reign as boxing heavyweight champion of the world.
In 1938, he went up against the only opponent he had lost to and, this time won. The win was a personal satisfaction for Louis—and it was significant worldwide: knocking out Max Schmeling “captured the admiration of countless Americans. Louis gained a moral victory for himself and for his country, and simultaneously struck a damaging blow to Hitler and his pretentious beliefs.”
In 1949, he retired at age 35, still the undefeated heavyweight champioon. However, he was forced back into the ring due to financial problems and tax debts. Within two years, he retired again—this time with two defeats. Though he had earned $5 million during his boxing career, at age 37, he had no money. He became a Las Vegas casino host, working as a celebrity greeter. His hobbies included watching the Detroit Tigers and other baseball games, horseback riding, and cabinet making.
“Joe Louis still holds the distinction of having successfully defended his title more times than any other heavyweight in history. He knocked out five world champions and will remain a powerful part of boxing history for many decades to come. His life and success story serve as proof that Americans can coexist” without color or race an issue. Joe Louis is a role model for all of us and proved that good sportsmanship can exist even in a sport as violent as boxing. When he died April 12, 1981, Joe Louis was eulogized - and continues to be known - as one of the greatest prizefighters of all time.
Excerpts from the online Joe Louis biography.