In a sport built on titles, statistics, and records, no champion reigns supreme more than Joe Louis. “The Brown Bomber” was Heavyweight Champion of the World for a staggering 11 years and 10 months, defending his title successfully 25 times! In the 6+ decades since his reign, no one has matched this amazing record.
The country boy from Alabama discovered boxing the way so many of his generation did: as a way out of the hardships brought on by the Great Depression. Though his reasons for fighting were personal and his manner quiet, Louis could not avoid his fights becoming symbolic of the era’s politics. And this made him a national hero. The first black heavyweight champion since the hugely unpopular Jack Johnson, Louis defeated Primo Carnera, who was seen as representative of Mussolini’s regime in Italy. Later, his legendary defeat of Max Schmeling – representing Hitler’s Germany – solidified Louis’ status and his title. A black American had defeated the fascism and bigotry of the Old World as his people were on the brink of war.
During World War II, Louis served in uniform with two other sports legends, fellow boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and a young man who would later go on to break baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson. The three remained great friends.
After the war, Louis remained in the ring longer than he had intended, fighting his way out of financial troubles until his final retirement in 1951. He would go on to enjoy a second career as a professional golfer, a sport he loved.
Louis died of a heart attack in 1981 at age 66. He is buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.