After a simply incredible, never to be beaten heavyweight championship reign of 11 years and nine months, during which time he successfully defended the crown no less than 25 times (just let that sink in!), the one and only Joe Louis announced his retirement from the ring. It was on this day of March 1st, in 1949, when the beloved “Brown Bomber,” decided to call it a career.
Aged 35 and sporting an almost flawless record of 58-1 – the sole loss, to Max Schmeling, brutally and clinically avenged – Louis announced at a press conference how he was done fighting, that he would now enjoy himself on the golf course. Nobody wished Joe anything but the best. Well, not quite everybody. The folks at the I.R.S. wanted Louis to pay back the taxes his unimaginably generous war efforts had served to bill him with – Joe boxing exhibitions and also taking fights where all the proceeds went to aid his country during WWII – and the sum was a hefty $500,000.
Louis was forced to return to the ring; how else could he settle his debt with Uncle Sam? This was no ego-driven ring return. Louis had no other means with which to earn the vast sums he should never have been taxed with in the first place. Indeed, younger fans rightfully point to the injustice an at his peak Muhammad Ali had to face this when he was stripped of his title and the ability to earn a living, when it comes to one of the darkest chapters in US sports history. But the shoddy, you can call it evil, treatment Joe Louis was given ranks way higher in terms of shameful activity.
Joe, knowing his best days had passed him by, with him having had trouble with the craftier than crafty Jersey Joe Walcott in his final two title defences, had done his thing. He had served his time. Louis had fought with pride and with honor for his country, never once disrespecting the title or the US. Now he had a long and happy retirement to look forward to. Or so he thought.
With the I.R.S. debts hanging over him, Joe was forced to fight again. Setting up a new management team, Louis was soon granted a shot at new champ Ezzard Charles. The September 1950 fight was no match; Louis soundly thrashed over the course of 15 rounds, with Charles perhaps carrying his hero at times, perhaps not.
That hard and punishing loss should have been the end of it, with Louis’ debts paid in full. But no, the unstoppable foe that was the US government proved to be one far more frightening than any Joe had met in the ring, and on he had to fight. It wasn’t until a young Rocky Marciano smashed a 37-year-old Louis out of the ring in October of 1951 that the former champ was finally able to hang up the gloves. But even then, Joe was forced to wrestle, to appear on second-rate TV shows, to try his hand at various business ventures (a hair product, a ‘Joe Louis Punch’ drink, and other things) in an effort to clear his seemingly unpayable debts.
If ever an American hero should have been afforded far better, far superior treatment, it was Joe Louis.
Had he not been so disgracefully treated, Louis would almost certainly have never launched a comeback; his boxing record left almost perfect at 58-1, his goal of spending many years on the golf course whilst left alone achieved. Unfortunately, history had a different plan for the man who many say deserves to be called the greatest heavyweight champion of them all.