When Joe Louis faced Max Schmeling in the ring on June 22, 1938, it was no ordinary boxing match. Louis was seen as representing American democracy, while Schmeling was thought to be representing Nazi Germany. Prior to the fight, Louis visited the White House and had his biceps felt by none other than President Franklin Roosevelt. "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany," the president told him.
The seventh of eight children, Joseph Louis Barrow was born in a shack near Lafayette, Ala., on May 13, 1914. His father, Munroe, was committed to an asylum when he was two, and his mother, Lily, later married Pat Brooks, a widower with eight children. Factory work was available in Detroit, and the new family moved there seeking a better life.
To prevent his mother from learning he had taken up boxing, the young man went by the name Joe Louis. Naturally, his mother did find out, and was initially upset. "But she said that if any of us kids wanted to do something bad enough, she'd try to see that we got a chance at it," Louis recalled. "'No matter what you do,' she said, 'remember you're from a Christian family, and always act that way.'" Louis enjoyed great success as an amateur, winning 50 of 54 bouts before turning pro. He began his professional career on July 4, 1934, with a knockout victory. It was the first of 27 consecutive victories Louis recorded, 23 of them knockouts. His defeated opponents included two former heavyweight champions, Primo Carnera and Max Baer.
The winning streak came to an end the first time he faced former heavyweight champion Schmeling. The boxers were contractually prohibited from scheduling any other fights in the six months prior to the bout. Rather than training, Louis played golf. When he stepped into the ring against the German on June 19, 1936, Louis was a 10-1 favorite, but Schmeling knocked him out in the 12th round. "An idol fell, and the crashing was so complete, so dreadful and so totally unexpected that it broke the hearts of the Negroes of the world," according to the "New York Post."
Redemption came on June 22, 1937, when Louis defeated James Braddock in eight rounds to become the first African American heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson. Exactly one year later, Louis faced Schmeling again. Seventy thousand people filled Yankee Stadium in New York to see what was called "the fight of the century." Adolf Hitler personally telephoned Schmeling before the fighter left the dressing room. Hitler's dreams of a win that would bring the Third Reich pride was short-lived, as Louis knocked Schmeling to the canvas three times in a fight lasting only 124 seconds. The blows Schmeling received forced him to spend a week in a hospital.
America's entry into World Warr II inspired Louis to join the Army. As Louis put it, "Might be a lot wrong with America, but nothing Hitler can fix." To raise money for the Armed Services and improve the spirits of the troops, Louis fought in exhibition matches. He also donated his own money to military relief funds. "Joe Louis set a stunning example through his acts of patriotism, and even the South responded appreciatively," said historian Jeffrey Sammons.
Following the war, Louis returned to boxing. He retired in 1949 with a 68-1 record. His 12-year reign as champion was the longest any heavyweight had enjoyed. Despite earning approximately $5 million during his career, Louis found himself in serious financial trouble due to his spending habits. Things got worse when the Internal Revenue Service assessed him more than $1 million in back taxes and penalties. To earn the money, Louis returned to boxing. He lost a 15-round fight to the new champion, Ezzard Charles, on Sept. 27, 1950. On Oct. 26, 1951, he was knocked out in eight rounds by future champion Rocky Marciano. It proved to be his last fight. In a 17-year career, Louis had compiled a 68-3 record, 54 of his wins coming from knockouts.
After several hospitalizations from cocaine addiction and paranoia, Louis took a job as an "official greeter" at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He died of a heart attack in Las Vegas on April 12, 1981, at age 66. President Ronald Reagan's efforts allowed Louis to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. On Aug. 26, 1982, Louis received a Congressional Gold Medal.