Joe Lewis Barrow was the first black heavyweight boxing to win and hold the crown sin the great Jackson at the turn of the century. He held the world heavyweight boxing champion title from June 22, 1937, until March 1, 1949. Known as the Brown Bomber, Lewis held the title belt for nearly 12 years, a boxing record, longer than any other boxer the history of the game and posted 25 successful title defenses.
Lewis was widely considered one of the greatest and most beloved boxers in the sport’s history was May 13, 1914 in the cotton-field country near Lafayette, Alabama. The son of a sharecropper, and the great-grandson of a slave, he was the eighth child of Munn and Lilly Barrow. His family life was shaped by financial struggle. The Louis kids slept three to a bed, and Louis’ father was committed to a state hospital when he was just two years old.
Louis had little schooling and as a teen took on odd jobs in order to help out his mother and siblings. The family eventually relocated to Detroit where Louis found work as a laborer at the River Rouge plant of the Ford Motor Company. For a time, Louis set his sights on a career in cabinet making. He briefly attended the Bronson Vocational School for training and in his off-time took violin lessons. But it was while at school that a friend recommended he try boxing.
While not an immediate success he debuted as a lightweight and was knocked down three times in his first fight but in that fight he showed promise. By 1934, he held the national Amateur Athletic Union light-heavyweight title and finished his amateur career with an astonishing 43 knockout victories in 54 matches.
Louis bruised his opponents with a crushing left jab and hook. By the end of 1935, the young fighter was showing that his amateur success was no fluke. He fought 14 bouts that year, earning nearly $370,000 in prize money. On June 19, 1936, Louis suffered his first professional defeat, a 12th round knockout to Max Schmeling, a German fighter and former heavyweight champion who’d earned the adoring praise of Adolph Hitler.
The defeat stung Louis, but it was offset by the chance to fight Jim Braddock on June 22, 1937 for the heavyweight crown. The Brown Bomber knocked out the defending champ in the eighth round setting the stage for a 12-year-run as the heavyweight king all the while becoming a sports icon for blacks and white across America.
Part of it could be chalked up to the sheer fact that fans loved a winner. Of Louis’ 25 title defenses, only three went the full 15 rounds. But in winning, Louis also showed himself to be a gracious, even generous victor. Louis, who enlisted in the Army in 1942, threw his support behind the country’s war effort and went so far as to donate twice his purse money to military relief funds.
He officially retired on March 1, 1949. A short-lived comeback, owed more in part because he was broke, soon followed. But Louis failed to capture his earlier magic. On October 26, 1951 he called it quits for good after Rocky Marciano knocked him out in the eighth round at Madison Square Garden.
The years after his retirement from the ring proved uneven for Louis. He was still a revered American figure, but money was a constant issue for him. In an effort to find some footing, he tried out a number of careers. He wrestled and partnered with a rival in setting up a chain of interracial food shops.
Lewis was not allowed to show any anger or to be too exuberant during his victories over white opponents. It was required of him to be humble. In 1970, his wife Martha committed Louis to a psychiatric hospital in Colorado because of his cocaine addiction and paranoia. He was later confined to a wheelchair following surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm. Louis was inducted to the Ring Magazine Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1982, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
There is a sad footnote to the illustrious career of one of the greatest sports stories in boxing history. For all that Lewis sacrificed for the country – the government hounded him for taxes from the early part of his career until he died. Only in America! And that’s my thought provoking perspective…