If boxing had its own Mount Rushmore, it would probably be comprised of Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano and the man who held the heavyweight title longer than any other fighter, Joe Louis. Louis, champion from 1937 to 1949, will be profiled on ESPN Classic’s “Ringside,” Sunday, April 11th at 10 pm. Hosted by Brian Kenny and Bert Sugar, the 2 ½ hour program will feature filmed footage of “The Brown Bomber’s” key fights, as well as in studio analysis by several boxing experts and historians.
After an astounding amateur career, Joe Louis made his professional debut in 1934, and quickly rose to top contender status. Louis’s most difficult opponent in the earlier stage of his career was the racism that had prevented African Americans from fighting for the heavyweight title. It had been 20 years since the controversial reign of the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and the sports establishment was not anxious to relive a similar experience. Louis’s management team forged an alliance with the country’s top promoter, Mike Jacobs, and capitalized on Joe’s image as a hard working, clean living athlete to help make him acceptable to White America. After destroying former champion Max Baer in four rounds in September of 1935, Louis appeared ready for a match with Jim Braddock for the title, but a 12 round kayo loss to Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1936 seemed to put a championship bout out of reach. Although Schmeling was now the logical contender for a crack at the title, Jacobs, through some clever maneuvering, was able to secure the title fight for Louis, and in June of 1937, Joe Louis became the heavyweight champion of the world with an eighth round knockout over Jim Braddock. The next year, Louis would gain his finest victory, a one round kayo over Max Schmeling, avenging his only loss.
Joe Louis was by far the heavyweight division’s most active champion, defending his title successfully 25 times, and holding the crown for over 11 years, including the four year period when Louis enlisted in the armed services, and was inactive as a fighter. Retiring in 1949, Louis found himself in deep trouble with the I.R.S., owing the government millions of dollars in unpaid taxes. Forced to re-enter the ring, Louis lost a 15 round decision to his championship successor, Ezzard Charles, and hung up his gloves for good after suffering a crushing knockout at the hands of Rocky Marciano in 1951.
Seeing films of Joe Louis’s fights only tell a part of his story. Much of Joe’s career took place at a time when Major League Baseball, the NFL, and most major college sports included no people of color. For much of the 1930’s, Joe Louis was the nation’s most prominent African American, and any Louis bout would be a major cultural event in the Black community, as millions would gather around radios to listen to the fight’s broadcast. Eventually, Louis would become a hero to all America, and upon his death in 1981 at the age of 66, Joe Louis was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1993, Louis became the first boxer featured on a U.S. Postage stamp.