Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Louis, Joe

As the world’s heavyweight boxing champion for a record 12 years from 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis is generally regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time, a breaker of racial barriers, and national hero. Joseph Louis Barrow was born to sharecroppers near Lafayette, Alabama on May 13, 1914. His family came to Detroit in 1926 when Louis was 12, and settled in the city’s Black Bottom Neighborhood. As a teenager, Louis developed an interest in boxing while spending time at the Brewster Recreation Center, and fought as an amateur for several years. 

At the age of 20, Louis quit his assembly line job and became a professional fighter. During his 17-year career he achieved a 66-3 record, with 52 knockouts. Some of his most famous bouts carried political overtones in the years before World War II. As Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini seized power in Europe, Louis defeated Italian champion, Primo Carnera, but suffered his first professional loss to German “superman,” Max Schmeling in 1936. The following year, Louis defeated Jim Braddock to become World Heavyweight Champion. 1938 set the stage for a rematch between Louis and Schmeling, where Louis triumphed by knockout in just two minutes and four seconds. All of America looked to Louis as a hero, simultaneously crushing the Nazi “master race” notions. Columnist Jimmy Cannon immortalized Louis as “a credit to his race – the human race”. 

Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army following the Attack on Pearl Harbor. He was placed into the Special Services Division, where he performed boxing demonstrations for service members, helped drive enlistment of African American soldiers, and boosted the morale of the American population. 

After defending his champion title for 12 years, Louis retired from boxing in March 1949, but troubles with the IRS drove him back into the ring. He lost his first match after returning, but went on to win eight more professional fights before suffering his third career loss to the undefeated Rocky Marciano, prompting Louis to retire for good.

Joe Louis died in 1981 at the age of 66 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1982, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Detroit has honored his legacy in numerous ways – including the former Joe Louis Arena, the Joe Louis Greenway, a statue in the lobby of the TCF Center (formerly Cobo Hall), and Monument to Joe Louis, or “The Fist,” a bronze sculpture by Robert Graham at the intersection of Woodward and Jefferson avenues.

Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber” on his rise to fame, Louis dominated prize fighting and forced America to re-examine its segregationist policies and attitudes. His fists destroyed the myth of white supremacy and his quiet dignity and exemplary patriotism opened the door for the wave of black athletes who followed.



Joe Louis, 1935 - 2006.004.062

Bronzed glove of Joe Louis, 1939 - 2012.004.021

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