You would be hard-pressed to find many athletes that transcended their given sport to impact the structure and perspectives of a society as much as Joseph Louis Barrow did. Although he was not the first black American heavyweight champion, Joe Louis was the first who was generally accepted by white America. Beyond just his ability to entertain and excite boxing fans with his explosive punching power, his workmanlike dismantling of opponents and an all-around engaging fighting-style, there were many reasons that he was able to make progress towards finally allowing a black fighter to, once again, challenge for the most coveted prize in the athletic arena, the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
The first factor that set the stage is that Louis’ image was carefully crafted to be “presentable.” Even though he had been a highly-decorated amateur, with a record of 50-4 and 43 knockouts, his management team, knew that opportunities for black contenders were few and far between. Louis’ “brain-trust”, which consisted of a Detroit bookmaker, John Roxborough, local boxing promoter, Julian Black and Louis' trainer, Jack "Chappy" Blackburn, knew that they still had the legacy of Jack Johnson to contend with.
Johnson had been a prideful champion, who used his dominance and power over the heavyweight division to explore, enjoy and even flaunt the liberties that he had earned as heavyweight champion. His rebelliousness and independence did not sit well with the general white American boxing public. Louis’ team was aware of this legacy and knew that they would need to overcome it in order for their young protégé to experience the level of popularity and generate the kind of money he was capable of.
Their first order of business was to counteract and contradict Johnson's wild and wayward public persona, so they went about drafting a set of rules of personal conduct for Louis. Unlike Johnson, Louis would follow these strict guidelines whenever he was in public. This would help endear him to the more mainstream boxing fans.
These “commandments” were...
• Never have his picture taken with a white woman.
• Never gloat over a fallen opponent.
• Never engage in fixed fights.
• Live and fight clean.
At every opportunity they would speak about Joe’s modesty and sportsmanlike conduct, helping to mold a much-less-intimidating image than that of Jack Johnson, taunting and humiliating his white opponents.
The second factor that helped lay the foundation for Louis’ success and groundbreaking acceptance was simply a by-products of current circumstances and the state of the sport. The environment was right for a new boxing star. Louis came along on the heels of Jack Dempsey’s retirement in 1929 and boxing desperately needed a marketable hero. The fight game had turned into a “racket. “ It had fallen deeper into the hands of organized crime, which led to more and more blatantly “fixed fights” and a pool of athletes that were somewhat uninspiring. The time was right, true boxing fans were restless and the mainstream press was ready for Joe Louis.
That being said, “The Brown Bomber” could also fight. By June of 1936 and just two short years into his professional career, Louis had won 24 straight bouts (all, but 4 ending by way of knockout.) Before heading into his fight against Max Schmeling, he had gained widespread popularity and was a heavy betting-favorite to get through Schmeling to secure a shot at the heavyweight title. He had garnered the support of the fans like no other black champion before him. Unfortunately, Schmeling would hand Louis his first defeat and would force Louis back into contender status and into a position of having to re-establish himself as a future champion.
Another year later, Louis would go on to win the title with an 8th round knockout over James J. Braddock, but even then was quick to reply, whenever he was referred to as the Champ, "I don't want to be called champ until I whip Max Schmeling." So again, exactly one year from Louis winning the heavyweight championship of the world, he would get his chance.
As unfortunate as it seemed at the time, the loss to Schmeling, would ultimately set the stage for the third contributing factor in Joe Louis’ iconic stature in heavyweight history. While Louis, had continued to hammer-away-at the US heavyweight division, Schmeling had gone home to Germany, after their first meeting, recognized and celebrated as a national hero. Schmeling's victory over America’s Black Hope was held up by Nazi regime as proof that their belief in Aryan Superiority had been proven true. He became one of Germany’s greatest examples and the propaganda poster-child for their tyrannical Nazi agenda. That strong anti-Semitic shadow was a weight and responsibility not lost on Louis. He had, even in defeat, become a national symbol of not only black America, but white America and an entire democracy that didn’t subscribe to Hitler’s beliefs, and was frankly, was beginning to make many Americans extremely uncomfortable.
In the rematch, which was held in Yankee Stadium in front of more than 70,000 spectators and millions of radio-listeners worldwide, broadcast it in four different languages, Louis met Schmeling on June 22, 1938. The fight itself was quintessential Louis and lasted only 2 minutes and 4 seconds. “The Brown Bomber” was merciless and swiftly attacked, battering the German against the ropes, to the head and body, knocking him down three times. Schmeling managed to throw only five or six clean punches in the round, but none that would even begin to keep Louis off or cause him to lose sight of his mission. After the fight, Schmeling was admitted to the hospital for ten days where it was discovered that Louis had cracked several vertebrae in his back.
Whether it can be viewed as a moral victory, plain and simple physical superiority, nothing more than a personal victory for Louis or a classic story of good conquering evil, it was without question the “Fight of the Century,” based on the sheer magnitude of the event, as well as the historical and political landscape at the time.
Everyone cared about the outcome. It didn’t change race-relations, but possibly made a select few reconsider their prejudicial views and gave people one more reason and opportunity to see things differently.
Even if only for just one night, Joe Louis wasn’t just the Black Heavyweight Champion of the World, he was America’s Heavyweight Champion of the World.
In all, Joe Louis defended his World Heavyweight Title 25 times, between 1937 and 1948, holding the championship for a record 11 years and 10 months. He racked-up a record of 66-3 with 52 KO’s. The number of title defenses he made and length that he retained the heavyweight championship are both records that still stand today.
Considering that he made some inroads in reshaping the world’s view of having a black heavyweight champion, Louis’ boxing legacy goes well-beyond his ring records and KO percentages. His contribution to the sport, and to every fighter that would follow after him, is why many historians consider him the greatest heavyweight champion ever. Joe Louis was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
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