Joe Louis Barrow, the seventh child of Monroe and Lily Barrow, was born May 13, 1914 in a cabin in the cotton fields of Lexington, Alabama. While Joe was still a young boy, his father suffered a mental breakdown and later died in the Searcy State Hospital near mobile, Alabama. His mother later married Pat Brooks, a widower with many children of his own, and the combined family moved to Detroit when Joe was ten.
After an introduction to boxing and lessons by his friend Thurston McKinney, Joe tried his luck at competition. The Brewster East Side Gymnasium became a second home for him. At sixteen he entered his first amateur tournament.
Joe Louis was an outstanding amateur. He lost only four decisions in fifty-four fights, and forty-one of his wins were by a knockout. Joe fought his last amateur fight on April 13, 1934, in St. Louis.
John Roxborough had encouraged Louis as an amateur and became his manager when Joe turned pro. Roxborough hired Jack Blackburn, a boxer himself, to coach and train the young Joe Louis. At this time Roxborough also teamed up with Julian Black of Chicago in a business venture that carried over into the management of Joe Louis.
Joe's professional debut took place in Bacon's Arena in Chicago on July 4, 1934. He decisively defeated Jack Kracken for a fifty-dollar purse. Only four of his first twenty-seven foes lasted all fifteen rounds.
As Joe Louis worked his way up the ladder as a contender for the heavyweight championship he acquired the nickname the "Brown Bomber." On May 14, 1935, one day after his twenty-first birthday, the young pugilist signed a ten-year contract with Julian Black. The contract stipulated that fifty percent of Joe Louis's gross earnings from boxing contests, exhibitions, movies, and radio would go to Julian Black. Jack Blackburn, the trainer, was paid from Joe's portion of the money. John Roxborough, the other manager, claimed "to have a contract for twenty-five percent of Louis's gross earnings for an indefinite period."
The newly organized 20th Century Sporting Club, with Mike Jacobs as promoter, operated in competition with Madison Square Garden. The club signed the promising young boxer to an exclusive contract. Joe's first appearance in a New York ring took place at Yankee Stadium on June 25, 1935, against Primo Carnera. Joe KO'd Carnera in the sixth round. On September 24, 1935, also at Yankee Stadium, Joe knocked out Max Baer in the fourth round.
After winning twenty-seven straight fights, including twenty-three KO's, Louis was the heir apparent to James J. Braddock's heavyweight title. On June 19, 1936 he battled max Schmeling, the former champ who was considered washed up. Schmeling surprised everyone by punishing and then finishing Louis off with a twelfth-round knockout.
A year later, in his thirty-sixth professional fight, Joe Louis won the heavyweight crown at twenty three years of age by defeating Jim Braddock in Chicago in eight rounds. Braddock fought Louis to avoid a fight with Max Schmeling and the possible loss of the title to a German. Braddock, however, insisted on a percentage of Louis's future purses. It is generally believed he received ten percent of all Joe's earnings over a period of fifteen years.
After defeating two easy opponents, Louis met max Schmeling in a dramatic rematch on June 22, 1938. Like Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympic Games, Louis symbolized American democracy versus an increasingly menacing Nazi Germany. The irony of a black hero representing a racially segregated society in a symbolic battle between freedom and oppression was not lost on all Americans and, although Louis himself was not a political activist, his example added fuel to the movement for racial equality and civil rights. Louis defeated Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds of the first round.
In the following years promoter Jacobs searched for opponents for Louis. After defeating five former champions - Carnera, Baer, Sharkey, Braddock, and Schmeling-the pickings were slim. on January 25, 1939, Joe "squared-off" with the first Black to fight him professionally -- John Henry Lewis (great-great nephew of Tom Molineaux, the first of America's Black heavyweight champions). Lewis was the light-heavyweight champion of the world and a natural 175 "pounder." He and Joe were close personal friends outside of the ring. Nevertheless, Joe totally outclassed Lewis in the ring.
Joe Louis defended his title twenty times before World War II interrupted his career. He was eventually classified 1-A and inducted into the Army. During the winter of 1941-1942 he staged bouts for the Navy and Army. The service relief fund received $75,000 from the purse of each fight. While in the service the Brown Bomber traveled extensively, giving boxing exhibitions and refereeing bouts. For his service on behalf of the armed forces, he received a citation from the United States government.
Louis retired an undefeated champion March 1, 1949. He came out of retirement and lost a fifteen-round decision to Ezzard Charles on September 27, 1950 at Yankee Stadium. He won eight more fights from the end of 1950 until the fall of 1951. However, on October 26, 1951, Louis lost by a knockout in the eighth round to Rocky Marciano. He retired for good after this comeback attempt. For many years after he retired, Joe had income tax problems and other financial problem. He also underwent a brief stay in a Denver psychiatric hospital. Joe Louis died in 1981.