American boxer Joe Louis (1914-1981) was world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1948. He defended his title 20 times in four years.
Joe Louis, born on May 13, 1914, was the son of an Alabama sharecropper. Joe was close to his large family, particularly to his mother, from whom he inherited a deep religious sentiment. His stepfather moved the family to Detroit in 1926.
As a teen-ager, Joe was the best boxer of his group. He won the National Light Heavyweight Amateur Crown of the Golden Gloves in 1933. As a 19-year-old light heavyweight, Louis whipped everything in front of him. He received his ring name from one of his managers, John Roxborough, who found the name Joe Louis Barrow too long. Jack Blackburn, a very knowledgeable boxing man, was Louis's trainer.
Before he became champion, Louis was beaten once, by Max Schmeling in 1936. The following year he defeated Jim Braddock for the championship. In 1938 Louis met Schmeling again and knocked him out in the first two minutes of the first round. Louis fought boxers like Billy Conn, Tony Galento, Rocky Marciano, and "Jersey Joe" Walcott. He won 19 other title fights. During World War II Louis was drafted, served faithfully, and fought two bouts for Army and Navy Relief.
The curse of many victories in a short period of time was the accumulation of a heavy tax burden. For example, Louis won $349, 228 for his victory over Schmeling and $591, 117 for beating Conn. In his entire ring career he earned $4, 677, 992. But his Federal income taxes were $1, 199, 000; furthermore, when penalties were assessed, taxes became astronomical. In fact, the tax assessors were so strict that they attached $66, 000 in trust funds for Louis's children.
Another source of trouble for Louis was his partnership in a public relations firm. In the early 1960s this firm entered into a contract with Cuba for $250, 000 to promote tourism. Although this was not illegal, it was considered in poor taste to deal with a country with whom the United States did not maintain diplomatic relations. Louis's other business ventures included the Joe Louis Food Franchise, a chain of food shops he opened in 1969 with his erstwhile ring rival Billy Conn. The former champ also served as a celebrity greeter at the Caesar's Palace Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Unfortunately, drugs took a toll on the once indomitable champion in his final years. In 1969, he was hospitalized after collapsing on a New York City street. While the incident was at first credited to "physical breakdown, " Louis later admitted to cocaine use and fears of a plot against his life. The following year, Louis spent five months in the hospital suffering from paranoid delusions. Strokes and heart ailments caused his condition to deteriorate further. He had surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm in 1977 and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair.
Despite failing health, Louis still found time to attend major boxing events. On April 12, 1981, he sat ringside at the Larry Holmes/Trevor Berbick heavyweight championship bout at Caesar's Palace. Hours after the fight, Louis went into cardiac arrest and died at the age of 66.
Louis married Marva Trotter and had two children by her; they were twice divorced. His third marriage, to Rose Morgan, was annulled. He later married Martha Jefferson of Los Angeles. In 1994, the bronzed boxing glove that Louis used to defeat Max Schmeling was donated to the city of Detroit by the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Dubbed "The Glove That Floored Nazi Germany, " it was enshrined in a plexiglass case at the city's Cobo Center, a monument to its wielder's enduring legacy.
Louis's autobiography is My Life Story (1947). His place in sports history is discussed in Nat Fleischer, The Heavyweight Championship: An Informal History of Heavyweight Boxing from 1719 to the Present Day (1949; rev. ed. 1961), and in Lester Bromberg, Boxing's Unforgettable Fights (1962). Louis and other African-American athletes are considered in a survey of the reality of integration in American sports, Jack Olsen, The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story (1968). Chris Mead, Champion (1985) is a full account of the boxer's eventful life. An assessment of Luis's influence within the context of African-American sports history is contained in Arthur Ashe, A Hard Road To Glory (1988). □
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