Brown Bomber: The Joe Louis Story

“Joe Louis is a credit to his race—the human race.” This was a sports journalist’s response to the subtly racist compliments Joe Louis often received. For in boxing and in life, Joe was special, one of a kind.

Black and white portrait of Joe Louis standing shirtless with his arms are crossed and fists clenched.
Joe Louis

Joe was born in a small, rural cabin in Lafayette, Alabama, on May 13th, 1914. He was the seventh of eight children of Munroe, a sharecropper, and Lillie, a laundress.

Joe’s early life was marked by hardship and adversity. When Joe was two, his father was committed to a mental institution. Raised by his mother, Joe would speak fondly of her. “I hope they’re still making women like my momma. She always told me to do the right thing. She always told me to have pride in myself; she said a good name is better than money,” he would say in later years

In 1926, Joe’s family moved to Detroit, Michigan, to seek better opportunities in the North. And it was the hardships of city life that led Joe to boxing, where his talent was evident early on. Joe won the Detroit-area Golden Gloves novice division championship in 1932. In 1934, he turned professional.

The “Brown Bomber,” as he would become known, quickly gained fame for his powerful punch and calm demeanor. One fighter said, “When you’re hit by Louis, it’s like a light bulb breaking in your face.” And, of course, there were his many victories.

One of the most famous bouts in Joe’s career was his rematch against Max Schmeling on June 22nd, 1938, at Yankee Stadium. This bout held significant symbolic importance as it was viewed by many as a contest between American democracy and Nazi racism and aggression.

Max, a German boxer, was the only fighter to have defeated Joe up to that point in his career. Their first match occurred in 1936, two years before their famous rematch. Max exploited a weakness in Joe’s defense and knocked him out in the 12th round, handing Joe his first professional defeat.

Joe won the heavyweight championship in the intervening two years, and the rematch with Max was highly anticipated. The political climate of the time also played a significant role in the build-up to the fight. Nazi Germany was on the rise, and Max was portrayed, somewhat against his will, as a symbol of Aryan supremacy, while Joe became a symbol of American democracy and freedom.

The pressure on Joe was immense. Before the fight, he received a visit from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who told him, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”

On the night of the fight, Joe was utterly dominant. He knocked Max out in the first round, with the fight lasting just over two minutes. His victory was celebrated as a sporting achievement and a blow against Nazi propaganda. And the fight cemented Joe’s status as a national hero in the United States. It was a defining moment in his career and one of the most famous fights in boxing history.

In his professional career, Joe would win the heavyweight championship in 1937 and hold the title for 12 years, defending it 25 times.

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“Brown Bomber: The Joe Louis Story” sources:

Van Vechten, Carl, photographer. Portrait of Joe Louis, Greenwood Lake, N.Y. Sept. 15. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2004663215/> / “Quotations from Joe Louis” – Digital History, University of Houston / Jimmy Cannon (2023) Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Cannon (Accessed: 06 June 2023).