Who Was Joe Louis?

Joe Louis became boxing’s heavyweight champion with his defeat of James J. Braddock in 1937. Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber,” his knockout of Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938 made him a national hero, and he established a record by retaining the championship for nearly 12 years. After boxing, Louis endured financial problems while working as a referee and a casino greeter. He died of cardiac arrest in 1981.

Early Years

Joseph Louis Barrow was born on May 13, 1914, in a shack outside of Lafayette, Alabama. The grandson of enslaved people, he was the seventh of eight children born to a sharecropper father, Munn, and wife Lillie, a laundress.

Louis’ early life was shaped by financial struggles. He and his siblings slept three and four to a bed, and Louis was just 2 years old when his father was committed to an asylum. Shy and quiet, his development was stymied by limited education, and he eventually developed a stammer.

Not long after Lillie Barrow remarried, to widower Patrick Brooks, the family migrated north to Detroit. Louis attended the Bronson Trade School, where he trained as a cabinet maker, but was soon forced to take on odd jobs after Brooks lost his job with the Ford Motor Company.

After Louis began hanging out with a local gang, Lillie sought to keep her son out of trouble by having him take violin lessons. However, Louis had also been introduced to boxing by a friend; he began using the violin money to train at Brewster Recreation Center.

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Amateur Success

Fighting under the name “Joe Louis,” reportedly so his mother wouldn’t find out, Louis began his amateur career in late 1932. While not an immediate success — he was floored several times by 1932 Olympian Johnny Miler in his debut — Louis soon proved he could hit harder than anybody else. His all-around skills eventually caught up to his punching power, and in 1934 he won Detroit’s Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title in the open class and the national Amateur Athletic Union championship. He wrapped up his amateur career with 50 wins in 54 matches, 43 of them by knockout.

Pro Beginnings and Loss to Schmeling

Louis hit the ground running as a professional in 1934, obliterating opponents with his powerful jab and devastating combos. By the end of 1935, the young fighter had already dispatched former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer, accumulating some $370,000 in prize money along the way. However, he reportedly did not train hard for his first fight against former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling of Germany, and on June 19, 1936, Schmeling scored a 12th-round knockout to hand Louis his first professional defeat.

Defeat of Braddock for Heavyweight Title

On June 22, 1937, Louis was given the chance to fight James J. Braddock for the heavyweight championship. Later the subject of Ron Howard’s 2005 film Cinderella Man, Braddock was renowned for his perseverance, but after knocking Louis down early, he was outclassed by his younger, stronger opponent. The “Brown Bomber” battered Braddock in the middle rounds, until finishing him with an eighth-round knockout to claim the heavyweight crown.

Schmeling Rematch

On June 22, 1938, Louis got the chance at a rematch with Schmeling. This time the stakes were higher: With Schmeling hailed as an example of Aryan supremacy by Adolph Hitler, the bout took on heightened nationalistic and racial overtones. This time Louis annihilated his German opponent with a first-round knockout, making him a hero to both Black and white Americans.

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Run as Heavyweight Champ

One of the world’s best-known athletes, Louis’ enduring popularity was partly due to his sheer dominance: Of his 25 successful title defenses, nearly all came by knockout. But in winning, Louis also showed himself to be a gracious, even generous victor. He also drew praise for his support of the country’s war effort, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and donated the prize money to military relief funds.

After reigning as heavyweight champion for 11 years and eight months, a record, Louis retired on March 1, 1949.

Loss to Marciano

Saddled with financial problems, Louis returned to the ring to face new heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles in September 1950, dropping a 15-round decision. He compiled a new winning streak against a series of lesser opponents, but was no match for top contender Rocky Marciano; following their bout on October 26, 1951, which ended in a brutal eighth-round TKO, Louis retired for good with a career record of 68-3, including 54 knockouts.

Post-Boxing Career

The years after his retirement from the ring proved uneven for Louis. He was still a revered public figure, but money was a constant issue for him due to unpaid taxes. He briefly wrestled professionally in the mid-1950s, and later served as a referee for both wrestling and boxing matches. The IRS eventually forgave his debt, allowing the former champ to regain some financial stability while he worked as a greeter at the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas.

Louis suffered from his share of health problems as he aged. After battling a cocaine addiction, he was committed to psychiatric care in 1970. He was later confined to a wheelchair after undergoing heart surgery in 1977.

Wives and Personal Life

Overall, Louis was married four times. He twice married and divorced Marva Trotter, with whom he had two children: Jacqueline and Joseph Louis Jr. His marriage to his second wife, Rose Morgan, was annulled after less than three years. With his his third wife, Martha Jefferson, he adopted four more children: Joe Jr., John, Joyce and Janet. Additionally, Louis was romantically involved with such celebrities as singer Lena Horne and actress Lana Turner.

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Death and Legacy

Louis passed away from cardiac arrest on April 12, 1981. Undoubtedly one of his sport’s all-time greats, he was inducted into The Ring Magazine Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. However, Louis also left behind a legacy that transcended the boundaries of athletics. He was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 1982, and in 1993 he was the first boxer to appear on a commemorative postage stamp.


  • Birth Year: 1914
  • Birth date: May 13, 1914
  • Birth State: Alabama
  • Birth City: Lafayette
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: African American boxer Joe Louis, who reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1937 until 1949, is regarded as one of his sport’s all-time greats.
  • Industries
    • Boxing
  • Astrological Sign: Taurus
  • Schools
    • Bronson Vocational School
  • Death Year: 1981
  • Death date: April 12, 1981
  • Death State: Nevada
  • Death City: Las Vegas
  • Death Country: United States

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  • Article Title: Joe Louis Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/athletes/joe-louis
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: April 27, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014


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