Sportsmanship in Black: Joe Louis

My mom wasn’t much of a sports person.  She didn’t know Dr. J. from Dr. Spock.  However, she had an odd affinity for a certain boxer.  It still makes me semi-nauseous to recall my mom’s voice when she said his nickname – “The Brown Bomber.”  If you’ve ever seen your mom get giddy over a celebrity, you know what I mean.  Her celebrity crush was Joe Louis.  He was the Heavyweight Champion of the World during her teenage years.  That title meant a lot in the 1930s and 1940s.  The NFL was in its infancy, the NBA didn’t come along until after World War II, and blacks were not allowed in Major League Baseball.  Imagine Joe Louis as Jordan, Tiger, and Vick in terms of celebrity.  Now multiply that by 1,000 and you’ll have an idea about his popularity.

Joseph Louis Barrow was born May 13, 1914 in Lafayette, Ala. to Munroe and Lillie Barrow.  Munroe Barrow had been committed to a mental institution by 1916 and Lillie remarried soon after.  Louis’ stepfather, Pat Brooks, moved the family to Detroit in 1926.  Louis started boxing at a local recreation unbeknownst to his mother.  Lillie wanted her son to learn to play the violin.  He hid his boxing gloves in his violin case; spending his afternoons in the gym rather than practicing the violin.  Louis began his amateur boxing career in 1932 and eventually won the AAU National Championship in 1934.  He finished his amateur career with a record of 50-4 with 43 knockouts.

Louis rose quickly through the heavyweight ranks.  This was a result of Louis’ ability as well as careful handling by his promoters.  No African-American had challenged for the heavyweight title in more than 20 years.  There were plenty of good black fighters, but everyone lived under the spectre of Jack Johnson.  Johnson was champion from 1908-1915 and held the distinction of being the first African-American heavyweight titlist.  One would think such a thing would be good for black fighters.  Well, not so much.  Remember, the heavyweight champion used to be the most visible athlete in America.  Johnson made sure people saw him.  He didn’t necessarily break laws as much as he broke decorum.

Johnson gambled, drank, and wore flashy clothes.  He stood over fallen white opponents and gloated after a knockout.  He broke a cardinal rule for the time in that he dated white women almost exclusively.  Louis’ team made sure he would be viewed in the most positive light by white and black fans alike.  They established rules for him  Here are just a few.

  • Never be photographed with a white woman.
  • Never taunt a fallen opponent.
  • Live and fight clean.

Louis had earned the number one contender spot by 1936 and fought Max Schmeling of Germany in June of that year.  Schmeling handed Louis his first professional loss by knockout in the 12th round.  Schmeling’s defeat of Louis put him in line for a title shot against James Braddock.  However, the Louis and Braddock camps had been planning a Louis-Braddock showdown for months.  Both teams knew that a Schmeling victory against Braddock would be devastating for Louis.  German officials would never allow Schmeling to fight Louis for the championship.  In what can only be described as one of the most lopsided financial deals in sports history, Braddock made the fight with Louis.  Braddock would receive 10% of Louis’ earnings over the next decade.  Louis completed his ascent to the heavyweight crown on June 22, 1937.  He knocked out Braddock in the eighth round.

Memories of his defeat against Schmeling still haunted Louis.  The Schmeling-Louis rematch would mark one of the few times in history that a champion actually pursued a challenger.  Louis got his wish in one of the most famous sporting events in history.  It wasn’t just Max Schmeling against Joe Louis.  It was Germany vs. the United States.  It was Hitler’s Aryan race against my mom’s beloved “Brown Bomber.”  The fight itself did not live up to the hype.  Louis knocked Schmeling down three times in the first round.  Schmeling’s trainer threw in the towel as his fighter only managed to throw two punches.  Louis was recognized as a national hero.  He held the heavyweight title longer than any fighter – 11 years, 10 months.

Louis’ fighting career and the challenges he faced afterward are expertly chronicled in the HBO film Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed.  Below is an excerpt from the film featuring Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. talking about his famous father (Email subscribers click here).  Joe Louis tore down a near three decade wall when he claimed the heavyweight championship.  He proved that a good man and great athlete can exist in the same person.  Until next time…

Be a Good Sport!


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