The Time Tunnel: Joe Louis Barrow
By Alfie Wilkinson - A birthday is a celebration of life – and never has a life been more worthy of celebrating. But for his passing in 1981, today, May 13th, would have been the 95th birthday of Joseph Louis Barrow one of the greatest pugilists ever to ply the trade of the sweet science of boxing and I feel it my duty to inform the world of this great man’s life.
Article posted on 14.05.2009
Barrow, known to the world simply as Joe Louis, was more than a boxer, he transcended the sport and brought hope and joy to those who needed it most. His superhuman skills in the ring were only surpassed by his fame out of it.. Boxing at a time of heightened racial and political tension, Joe became only the second African American to win the heavyweight championship of the world and to this day holds the record for the longest reign as champion and most defences.
Louis was often begrudgingly, pushed into the political arena and used as an icon of African Americans, and a symbol of the west’s fight against fascism.
Born on May 13, 1914 in La Fayette, Alabama, in America’s Deep South, times were hard and in 1926 the Barrow family moved north to Detroit in search of work in one of the city’s Ford car plants, and the promise of $5 a-day wage. While a young teen, Louis secretly took up boxing, pretending to his mother, who at first hated the idea of her son participating in such a violent sport, that he was learning the violin. At this time Joe was working for Ford pushing 200lbs truck bodies onto conveyer belts and as a delivery boy, humping big bags of ice up flights of stairs. This hard manual labour was the making of Louis and built up his already impressive physique.
Joe had a magnificent amateur career and turning pro beckoned – there was however a problem. With his ever growing bulk there was only one weight division for him - heavyweight. The heavyweight championship of the world was, and to some extent still today is, sports greatest prize. Competing in a sport which tests its participant’s mental as well as physical strength like no other, the heavyweights are the biggest and strongest boxing has to offer and the world title had belonged to such celebrated names as Jack Dempsey, Gentleman Jim Corbett and John. L. Sullivan. But at this time, to be the world heavyweight champion was an honour solely open to white boxers. Before Louis only one black boxer, Jack Johnson, had ever held this crown, reigning from 1908 to 1915. So shocking were Johnson’s antics both in and out the ring, that white run America vowed never to again allow a non-white the chance to gain the sports greatest prize. The legacy of Johnson followed Joe wherever he went. After a hugely successful amateur career, Louis turned pro and under the guidance of manager John Roxborough and trainer Jack Blackburn (both African Americans) the pair set out to mould Joe an acceptable public image. A list of rules were drawn up, among other things Louis was prohibited from acting brash and arrogant, from cavorting with white women and from gloating over defeated opponents – all things which Johnson had done. Louis’ management team knew if he was to make it all the way they had to portray him as a nice African American – the type white people wouldn’t mind living in their neighbourhoods. Banned from ever speaking his mind Joe was often wrongly perceived as being slow and lacking intelligence.
In his pro debut in 1934, Louis KO’d Jack Kracken within two minutes of round 1 and a star was born. Louis went on to win his next 16 bouts and was attracting media attention right across the States. He soon found himself taking on the biggest names the division had to offer – literally. In June 1935 he was pitted against the Italian giant, and former pro wrestler, Primo Carnera. Not only was this Joe’s first big match up, at Yankee Stadium in front of more than 60, 000 people, against a former world champion, but it was also the first time Louis was used as a symbol of a wider conflict. At this time the Abyssinian crisis was in full flow, the giant and powerful Italian army, under the leadership of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, was engulfed in a military occupation of Ethiopia and the American media quickly latched onto the idea of Louis vs Carnera being Italy vs Ethiopia. After this victory Joe, who was already in the media spotlight, crossed the sporting - divide becoming more than a sportsman he was a symbol of hope for millions of oppressed African Americans.
Joe defeated another former champ, Max Baer, and was seemingly unstoppable. Then came a defying moment in Louis’ life. In 1936 Germany’s former heavyweight champion Max Schmelling, was pitted against Joe. Schmelling had been used by Germany’s now powerful Nazi party as a symbol of Aryan strength. In one of boxings greatest upsets Schmelling defeated Louis by way of knock out in the 12th round. This defeat was a blow not only to Joe’s career but was an embarrassment and a failure, felt right across America – black and white. In Germany, however, they celebrated, Nazi officials basked in the glory saying the fight was proof of a superior Aryan race. This followed Joe wherever he went and he wouldn’t be content until he had revenge.
The defeat also gave the boxing authorities a headache. The then champ James. J. Braddock was expected to fight the winner, but there was a real possibility that should Schmelling win the Nazi government would never allow the belt out of German hands. To the despair of Schmelling, and the Nazi party, a bout was arranged between Louis and Braddock in June 1937. As expected with his eyes now firmly on the prize Joe, despite a poor start, destroyed Braddock with an eighth round KO. Joe Louis was now the world heavyweight champion. African Americans celebrated like never before, street parties were held right across America from the rural South right up to the hustle and bustle of Harlem, New York. The only person not celebrating was Joe. He wanted Schmelling and now could force the German into a re-match with sports greatest prize used as bait. This bout is the biggest and most famous in the history of boxing. It was a German with strong links to Hitler and the Nazi’s fighting an African American who, despite racial injustices at the time, symbolised a new fairer society which would soon blossom. It was democracy vs fascism. The fight was broadcast right across the globe and Yankee Stadium was packed to the rafters. Yet no one could have predicted the outcome. Joe obliterated Schmelling with a devastating knockout with just a few seconds remaining in round one. The fight was a massive embarrassment to the Nazi’s who never again used Schmelling to advertise their beliefs. As for Joe he had now firmly crossed the divide. He was universally loved and adored in a country firmly split along the lines of race.
Louis joined the army during WWII and was used as a poster boy to promote the war. During this time, he continued to box and retired in 1948 still champion. His reign lasted almost 12 years and included 25 title defences, a record which still stands to this day. It is regrettable however that despite his loyal service to America he was hounded for tax offences amounting to close to $100, 000. Because of this Louis was forced out of retirement in 1950, losing a title fight to Ezzard Charles. In 1951, his last bout, an overweight and slow Louis was mauled by the young and hungry Rocky Marciano. The fight was a brutal one sided affair and in round 8 Joe was punched through the ropes, ending the fight. So upset was Marciano that he had effectively finished his idol’s career that post bout he actually cried. In his later life Joe suffered from poverty and drug addiction. Louis died of a heart attack in 1981.
It is such a shame that Joe was not allowed to end his career in 1948 as the champ, and even more of a shame that many people made lots of money out of Joe yet he struggled to survive, especially just after retirement. Those however who know and study the sport consider him possibly the greatest boxer ever to have lived. He was the most significant and prominent African American of the 1930s and 40s who gave so much hope to his race and proved that whether black or white a deeply divided America could come together in a common course.
Happy birthday champ and rest in peace.
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