How much was Joe Louis worth?
|Net Worth:||$1 Million
|Date of Birth:||May 13, 1914|
|Country:||United States of America|
Who Is Joe Louis
Joe Louis, a professional American boxer, was regarded as the most famous black person in his day after he became the World Heavyweight Champion in 1937. Louis kept the title for an astounding 12 years, only giving it up when he retired in 1949. Joe Louis was also considered the first black to achieve national hero status; a status he earned when he defeated German boxer Max Schemling in the famous 1938 rematch.
- Dates: May 13, 1914 — April 12, 1981
- Also Known As: Joe Louis Barrow (born as), Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber
Joe Louis Barrow, the seventh of eight children, was born on May 13, 1914, to rural Lafayette, Alabama sharecroppers Munroe and Lillie Barrow. Joe, who was one-quarter Cherokee from his mother’s side, weighed a whopping 11 pounds at birth.
Life was very hard for Joe’s family. When Joe was only two years old, his father was committed to the Searcy State Hospital for the Colored Insane. Soon thereafter, Joe’s mother received word that her husband had died. In truth, he had not. Munroe lived another 24 years, confined to an insane asylum and oblivious of his famous son’s successes.
Lillie, who believed herself a widow, embarked on a lonely life of working hard in the fields to support her large family. Four years later, in 1920, Lillie remarried. The Barrow family’s life improved a bit when Lillie married Pat Brooks, a local construction worker,
who was a widower with five children.
As a young boy, Joe suffered from a slight stammer, which made him quiet and shy. He spent a lot of time outside, climbing trees and playing. On Sundays, he would attend a small Baptist church with his family. During weekdays, Joe would try to skip school as often as he could.
In 1926, 12-year-old Joe and his family joined the Great Migration and moved to Detroit, Michigan, where factory work was abundant.
Due to his rural upbringing and very little formal education, Joe was painfully unprepared for Detroit’s public school system. After being placed in classes with much younger and smaller children, Joe was humiliated and began to hate school.
When Joe Louis was 16, a teacher recommended that a trade school might be a better choice for Joe; thus, Louis was enrolled in the Bronson Vocational School to learn cabinet making. Joe had a good start at the trade school, but the Great Depression changed everything. When Joe’s stepfather lost his job, the family was once again thrown into poverty. To help his family, Joe began to skip school and work odd jobs around town.
At a time when many were desperate, it was easy to fall into the wrong crowd to earn a little cash. And Joe had started to do just that. He had been hanging around the local Catherine Street Gang, using his fists when needed. Lillie was understandably worried. Surprisingly, her answer was violin lessons.
Somehow, each week, Lillie managed to give Joe 50 cents for violin lessons. Despite her best efforts, a violin was not exactly the right fit for a young boy that was large for his age and had strong hands.
After only a handful of violin lessons, an amateur boxer friend, Thurston McKinney, urged Joe to skip violin lessons and, instead, use that money to rent a locker at Brewster’s East Side Gymnasium. Joe did, carrying his violin with him. It was at this gym that Joe Louis was fortuitously introduced to boxing.
Becoming Joe Louis
Joe attempted to hide from his mother how his violin lesson money was being spent by dropping his last name — answering to Joe Louis at the gym. He would also hide his boxing gloves in the violin case when he went home.
However, as all mothers do, Lillie eventually discovered the deception. To Joe’s surprise, she was not mad at him; she was happy that Joe had finally found something he enjoyed.
From the start, Louis showed tremendous promise as a boxer. In 1932, at age 17, Joe had his first amateur bout, fighting against the well-trained, Olympic boxing team member Johnny Miler. Louis took a real beating. He was knocked down a total of seven times in the first two rounds and the match was ended. Louis was mortified. He decided to take his stepfather’s advice and work at keeping full-time employment rather than boxing.
Louis was lucky enough to be hired full-time at the Ford Rouge auto plant for $25 a week. That was good money at the time. The job at the auto plant was physical in nature too, but not something he enjoyed. After spending several months working at Ford, Joe Louis decided to leave his well-paying job and try his hand at being a real boxer – a very risky move during the Great Depression.
In the Beginning
After Louis quit his job and focused on training for a boxing career, he immediately compiled a long list of victories. Out of 54 amateur tournaments, Louis won 50 — 43 by knockouts. In April 1934, Louis won the United States Amateur National Champion tournament in St. Louis.
His record attracted the attention of John Roxborough, well known in Detroit’s black community as a numbers runner. Roxborough was also a civic leader, who enabled many Detroit youths to realize their dreams. Roxborough decided to mentor young Louis — moving him into his home. Roxborough placed Louis on a strict, proper diet, bought adequate training equipment, and made sure Louis had “pocket change” so he and his family could live comfortably.
Getting Down to Business
Grooming Louis for heavyweight contests, Roxborough took Louis to Chicago to meet colleague Julian Black and train under Jack “Chappy” Blackburn, who had made two white boxers into world champions.
Blackburn was hesitant to train a black boxer. Particularly because Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915), had shamelessly insulted white America by pulverizing white opponents and marrying outside his race. After Johnson’s defeat, promoters vowed never to allow another black man to win the heavyweight title.
But Blackburn liked Louis’ promise and started him on a stringent training regimen — introducing him to a style of boxing that combined balanced footwork, strong jabs, and lightning fast punches.
Seeking to distance Louis’ image from Jack Johnson, the management team drew up strict rules. Louis was never to throw a fight nor be seen publicly exulting in an opponent’s defeat. He was to appear God-fearing, clean-living, and gracious in public. Above all else, Louis was never to be seen with a white woman — not even in a picture.
The hope was that training and enhancing his image would catapult Joe Louis all the way to the top.
Joe Louis’ professional debut came on July 4, 1934, when he was pitted against Jack Kracken in Chicago. Louis made $59 for knocking Kracken out in the first round.
Roxborough received heavy pressure in September 1934 from the Michigan State Boxing Commission to have Louis sign with white management to contend for the championship. But Roxborough refused; he and Black continued to manage Louis.
In October 1934, Louis knocked out Jack O’Dowd in the second round and received $62. By the end of the year, Louis had won 12 pro fights — 10 by knockout.
Even though his managers had carefully selected legitimate heavyweight contenders, it was obvious that Louis had outgrown his opponents. Roxborough and Black began searching out tougher competition and found Charley Massera, who was the eighth-ranked top heavyweight contender. On November 30, 1934, Louis knocked out Massera in the third round.
In early December 1934, Louis fought Lee Ramage, considered to be a real threat. Ramage proved to be a challenge to Louis because of his defense measures and fast footwork. He was able to block Louis’ strong jabs until the eighth round, when he was knocked out.
Roxborough decided Louis was ready for New York and Madison Square Garden.
Hitting the Big Time
While training for a match against Lee Ramage, a beautiful, young secretary for the local newspaper, Marva Trotter, came into the gym to interview Louis. After Ramage’s defeat, Louis invited Marva to the victory celebration at Chicago’s Grand Hotel. The couple married a year later on September 24, 1935.
As his image grew, so did Louis’ professional purses. By the end of 1935, he had earned a whopping $371,645 — in the midst of the Great Depression. While all of America was struggling, Louis was making 300 times the average yearly salary.
Louis consistently sent money to his family back home, but he had also acquired a lavish lifestyle. In private, Joe Louis’ life was filled with excesses of every kind, forming habits that plagued him until he died. He loved Buicks, fancy suits, and consorting with women of all races — including stars Lena Horne and Lana Turner.
The Brown Bomber
The championship was in view, but Louis had to first prove himself a worthy adversary by defeating a list of “great white hopes” for the world title. Only then would he be given a chance against Heavyweight Champion James “The Cinderella Man” Braddock.
It is said that 197-pound Louis went through the heavyweight contenders like Sherman went through Georgia — the first being 6′ 6″, 270-pound, Italian Primo Carnera. The match’s timing was perfect since sentiments were running high worldwide — particularly among blacks — at news of an invasion of Ethiopia by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. In pre-match hype, Joe Louis was portrayed as an ambassador for his race and country. On June 25, 1935, in front of 60,000 fans in New York’s Yankee Stadium, Louis defeated Carnera in six rounds.
Louis had become an overnight headline maker. The media focused on Louis’ race, with some sportswriters exaggerating his lack of education to convey the image of an ignorant savage unable to do anything but sleep, eat, and fight. Nicknames such as “Mahogany Mauler,” “Saffra Sandman,” and the “Chocolate Chopper” were thrown around. One name stuck: “The Brown Bomber.”
Going for the Championship
The highly-sensationalized bout between Louis and Max Baer (who had lost his heavyweight title to James Braddock) took place on September 24, 1935. Baer’s reluctance to fight Louis was prescient. Louis’ brutal punches knocked Baer to one knee in four rounds, where he stayed. Legend states that Louis made quick work of Baer to be with new bride, Marva, whom he’d married earlier that day. Joe and Marva were to have two children together, Jacqueline (1943) and Joe Jr. (1947).
Max Schmeling, a German-born former heavyweight champion was on the comeback trail, looking to regain the title. However, with Baer’s defeat, Louis was now the top heavyweight contender. For a title shot, the boxing commission informed Schmeling he would have to fight Louis first. The two management teams agreed to a match in 1936.
First Bout With Joe Louis and Max Schmeling
Joe Louis had won all 27 of his professional fights, 23 by knockout, and was now deemed “an American idol.” Unfortunately, Louis was too busy enjoying his wealth and idol status to seriously train for the upcoming Schmeling fight; instead, he took up golf.
On June 11, 1936, a confident Louis was stunned when a well-conditioned Schmeling handed him his first professional defeat with a 12th-round knockout. The loss was likened to a funeral and proved especially devastating to blacks who had invested an irrational hope in Louis.
Louis later admitted to complacency, having cut his training short. But what Louis did not publicly admit was that while training for the Schmeling bout, he had ended an affair with Sonjia Henie, a Norwegian athlete-turned-star.
After his embarrassing defeat, Louis trained with one intent — to defeat Schmeling. However, first he was to fight James Braddock, the current World Heavyweight Champion. The much-hyped fight took place the night of June 22, 1937, with 45,000 spectators in Chicago’s Comiskey Park Stadium.
Louis was knocked down in the first round by the heavyweight champion, but Louis rendered a weary, bloodied Braddock an 8th-round knockout blow.
With his defeat of Braddock, Joe Louis had become the World Heavyweight Champion and the most famous black man in the country. Louis, however, did not have time to revel. He was too busy planning his defeat of Max Schmeling in a 1938 rematch.
Fight of the Century
Joe Louis’ rematch with Max Schmeling has been called “the fight of the century” because it was much more than just two fighters competing for a championship — it was a battle of two ideologies. Most Americans deemed the fight against Max Schmeling, Hitler’s poster boy for his much-touted Nazi and Aryan superiority philosophy, an opportunity to crush Hitler and avert war.
Louis felt the whole country was depending on his victory. President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House to tell him as much. It is reported that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler called Schmeling before the bout — first warning him he’d better win for the glory of the Third Reich, and then to remind him of his superior manhood.
On June 22, 1938, in New York’s Yankee Stadium, the fight of the century took place. When the two boxers left their dressing rooms to head to the ring, they knew there was no choice but to play the role assigned to them in history.
In front of 70,000 witnesses, Louis pounded the unwilling Aryan avatar into the mat. It took Louis only 124 seconds to obtain vindication for himself and his country — finally feeling like an undisputed heavyweight champion.
After the Schmeling match, Louis continued to defend his title. The first 15 times were against opponents so unworthy they were called “Bums of the Month.”
After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, 27-year-old Louis enlisted in the Army. He fought nearly 100 exhibition matches to raise money for America’s armed forces and boost morale among troops.
Twice, Louis donated the purses from two title bouts to the Navy Relief Fund — further cementing his good reputation in white America. Louis also participated in interracial causes, working quietly to desegregate the military.
When he returned home from service in October 1945, Louis was highly popular. The press now used words like “integrity” and “all-American hero” when covering stories about Louis.
Louis broke the color barrier in boxing for all time, successfully defending his world championship 25 times — earning enormous purses.
Joe Louis retired undefeated in 1949, holding his title for 12 years — longer than anyone before or since.
Down and Out
While things appeared rosy on the surface, Louis’ private life was spiraling out of control. His discreet but constant womanizing broke up his marriage to Marva in 1945. Even though they remarried in 1946, the couple divorced for good in 1949.
Despite having made $5 million, Louis’ financial situation was a complete mess. Part of the problem was Louis’ extreme generosity, to family, friends, strangers, and every black cause. He even paid the city of Detroit back for welfare money his family received during the Great Depression.
Another part of the problem was that Louis made a number of bad business decisions — acquiring several businesses that failed and trusting in people that deceived him.
However, the most devastating blow to Joe Louis’ finances came from the IRS. Louis owed $500,000 in back taxes (this eventually grew to over $1.2 million with added fines). Shoddy bookkeeping, an incredibly high tax rate of nearly 90%, and expensive living all led Louis to this fate.
Since Joe Louis did not have the money to pay his back taxes, he reentered the ring to try to earn some money. Just a year after retiring, Louis fought new heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles, but lost by call in the 15th round. (The purse for this bout was only $100,000, leaving Louis with very little after taxes.)
Joe Louis tried again. In a bout with Rocky Marciano on October 26, 1951, Louis showed his age. Louis was getting old and tired, while his opponent was neither. Louis was utterly defeated in an 8th-round knockout by Marciano.
Joe Louis was done with boxing. The IRS, however, was not done with Joe Louis.
Hero’s Life in Decline
With the IRS constantly hounding him, Joe Louis tried just about everything to earn money. He lectured, made personal appearances, and endorsed products. He also suffered humiliation through a brief stint as a pro wrestler, but had to stop after a serious injury.
On December 25, 1955, Louis married Rose Morgan, a successful black woman who owned a beautician business in Harlem. She tried desperately to help Louis get out from under his IRS mess, but he just kept spending his money. Louis’ late nights and womanizing eventually took their toll and the marriage was annulled in 1958.
In 1959, Louis married Los Angeles criminal attorney Martha Malone Jefferson, who catered to Louis’ every whim. She believed Louis had been terribly used, and despite his philandering, money woes, and irrational behaviors, Martha stayed with him until his death.
Also in 1959, the IRS finally realized that Louis would never be able to pay off the full amount that he owed to the government. Thus, they made an arrangement with Louis to pay a still unaffordable $20,000 annually on his tax debt.
In 1967, a prostitute (given the pseudonym “Marie” in Louis’ autobiography) introduced a baby boy to Louis, claiming it was his son. When Martha found out about the baby, she decided the couple should adopt it. In addition to Joseph, as the baby was named, Louis and Martha later adopted three more of Marie’s children whose paternity was unknown.
Louis spent much of the 60s golfing, womanizing, and doing drugs, especially cocaine. It was about this time that he also began showing signs of mental illness. At one point, Louis was committed to a mental institution in Colorado for several months.
With Martha’s help, Louis eventually kicked his cocaine habit, but he continued to have paranoid delusions.
The Last Years
Things started shaping up towards the end of Louis’ life. In 1970, he became a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, signing autographs and using house money to bet with the casino’s special guests. Louis was paid $50,000 a year by the casino and provided housing.
But years of boxing, excess, and abuse had taken a toll on Louis’ health. He suffered from a heart ailment and underwent surgery in 1977 to correct an aortic aneurysm. A series of strokes confined Louis to a wheelchair during the last four years of his life.
Louis made his last public appearance on April 12, 1981, at a heavyweight championship bout between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. A few hours later, after suffering a massive heart attack, 66-year-old Louis died at Desert Springs Hospital near his Las Vegas home.
At the request of President Ronald Reagan, Joe Louis Barrow was interred into Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors.
back in 1938…
“Listen to this buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling. It was a shocking thing, that knockout – short, sharp, merciless, complete,” so wrote a young Bob Considine on a warm New York June night in 1938.
June 22nd, 1938 was the night that Joe Louis took his perch atop the sport world, a perch he would enjoy for the next decade. Even before that he had enjoyed legendary status as he cut a swath through the heavyweight rankings beginning on the 4th of July in his debut when Louis knocked out one Jack Kracken in one round. Even in his professional debut Louis was breaking records (To this day Joe Louis is the only heavyweight champion of the world to debut as a Main Event fighter). With a start like that, why slow down was apparently the motto of Louis’ out of the ring team, for before 1934 was finished Louis was in the ring with his first top 10 opponent, Lee Ramage. The bout ended in three and after six months of fighting for money Louis was 12-0 with 10 knockouts. The learning curve continued upwards in 1935, a mere three weeks after fighting Ramage, as Louis would rid the heavyweight division of another top-ten contender when he decisioned Patsy Perroni in 10 rounds. A month later Ramage gave Louis another try and was even less successful than he was two months earlier, this time going in two. A month later, Louis won a decision over contender Natie Brown. While a W10 on Louis’ record didn’t look as good as the KO 1’s and KO 2’s, sandwiched between the Brown fight, it was probably the most crucial bout of his young career for it was immediately after the Brown fight that Louis and his team met Mike Jacobs.
Who knows how far Louis would have progressed without Mike Jacobs and who would have known on that March night in 1935 how much money they were going to make one another. Louis and Jacobs signed a three-year contract with an option for a fourth. Jacobs guaranteed Louis a then unheard of 37 1/2% of the gate even though up until then the industry standard between a fighter and his promoter was 12 1/2%. But more importantly, Jacobs offered him the Carnera fight in New York for later that year. That was music to Louis and his team’s ears, because they knew that if it’s one thing a black heavyweight needed in what was still the post-Jack Johnson-era was a break, and with Mike Jacobs aboard that break became a springboard. As promised, Louis got Carnera in the ring in June of 1935 and disposed of him in six. A quick visit to Chicago then saw him stop the ever polite King Levinsky in one round. Levinsky was so polite that after a Louis volley of punches separated him from his senses, he turned to the referee and said, “Please sir, don’t let that man hit me again.” A month later it was back to New York and Max Baer fell in four. Louis finished 1935 with a four round knockout of Paulino Uzscudun who had failed in a bid for Carnera’s title a couple of years prior. The Uzcudun fight was noteworthy for two reasons. After the fight Whitey Bimstein who was in Uzcudun’s corner, described the punches Louis used to stop Uzcudun as the hardest he had ever seen a heavyweight land, and secondly Louis drew an interested spectator to his training camp, the former Heavyweight Champion of the World, Max Schmeling.
Louis-Schmeling I was signed for June 18th, 1936, but was postponed one day due to rain. On June 19th, 1936, Max Schmeling, eight years Louis’ senior, did the unthinkable and knocked out Louis in twelve rounds. It was a fight that is steeped in rumor and innuendo as to how exactly Schmeling beat Louis. Among the most popular stories tended was that Louis spent too much time on the golf course. Others point to a punch that Schmeling landed at or after the bell to end the third round, or it was just a case as Schmeling said after watching Louis train in preparation for Uzcudun. “I see something. He hasn’t forgotten his amateur mistakes”.
Personally, I have another theory as to why Louis didn’t look like the Louis we had seen before. Going into the Schmeling fight Louis had been an extremely active fighter engaging in close to thirty fights before signing to fight Schmeling. Contracts were signed in December of 1935 to fight Schmeling and one of the clauses that Schmeling’s people wanted inserted into the contract was that neither fighter was to engage in a fight before June. Louis had already signed to fight in January and Schmeling’s people conceded that to go ahead. After that January fight against Charley Retzlaff, Louis had to contend with something he had never had to contend with in his short career as a professional fighter, inactivity. Run a car everyday for 18 months and it runs like a charm and starts at the first turn of the key. Walk away from it for six months and then come back and turn the key and it may take a second or two for it to turn over. Whatever the reason, there was the first blemish on Louis’ record, a blemish he would have to wait two years almost to the day to get rid of. Stung by the loss but hardly discouraged Louis was back in the ring two months later kayoing former heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey in three rounds and would remain active at a clip of a fight a month until signing to fight James Braddock for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
While Louis was doing what Louis did best inside the ring, outside of the ring managers and promoters were doing what they do best. And it can be safely said that seeing Louis do what he did best was certainly prettier to watch. When Jimmy Braddock defeated Max Baer, he signed a contract with Madison Square Garden to have them promote his first defense of the title. Schmeling defeated Louis and signed to fight Braddock in September 1936. Thankfully for Louis, that fight was postponed with Braddock claiming arthritis in his left hand and the fight was put off until June 1937. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Braddock had no interest in fighting Max Schmeling, so obvious in fact that Madison Square Garden ordered Braddock and Schmeling to put up $5,000 a piece to guarantee that their fight would go through. That may have been the best $5,000 Braddock ever parted with in his life for not long after Braddock signed to fight Louis. The Garden balked and tried to enforce their contract for Braddock-Schmeling. In fact, Schmeling had already opened up a training camp for his upcoming title fight with Braddock. The dispute wound its way through the legal system all the way to the Court Of Appeals where the court ruled that the Garden had no right to enforce the contract of Braddock-Schmeling. Schmeling himself took the case to the Supreme Court and they in turn told Schemling in their judgment, “It appears Mr. Schmeling, you have been training for a phantom fight”.
Whilst on the subject of Braddock-Louis, let’s clear up once and for all the issue of Jimmy Braddock getting 10% of Louis’ ring earnings for the remainder of his championship reign. The whole story is this. One evening John Roxborough who was Louis’ manager was “abducted” and asked to go for a ride and that ride ended up at a nightclub where he was met by Joe Gould, the manager of Braddock. Gould laid it out plain and simple. Braddock wasn’t going to beat Louis and that to get the fight Roxborough would have to give up 50% of Louis. Roxborough didn’t budge and the offer after a few stops whittled its way down to 20%. Roxborough again wasn’t biting and told Gould it might be a good idea to go see Mike Jacobs. With that, Roxborough turned and left leaving an incredulous Gould to ask him, “Where in the hell do you think you’re going?” To which, Roxborough replied, “Uptown and get a double scotch on the rocks.”
Gould took his advice and went to see Jacobs. Gould wanted 10% of Louis, but Jacobs said no can do but promised 10% of himself and so it was. Braddock would get 10% of Mike Jacobs’ profits from heavyweight title fights that Jacobs promoted. With that out of the way Louis-Braddock was signed on February 19, 1937. As heavyweight fights go, Louis-Braddock was a good one. A short right uppercut from Braddock dropped Joe in the first and it was even up after the fourth. Louis began to pick it up in the fifth until Braddock was finally knocked out in the eighth. Louis would write years later in his autobiography that after referee Tommy Thomas counted Braddock out until the time he left the stadium everything was a blur, but he could remember saying one thing over and over again, “Bring on Max Schmeling, Bring him on.”
“Bring on Max Schmeling, bring him on.” From the moment that Referee Tommy Thomas counted out James J. Braddock until he left Comiskey Park and walked out into the Chicago night, that was all Joe Louis remembered saying. He would have to wait one year, and what happened in that one year when studied closely is as fine as an example that one would find into how dirty and cut throat the business of boxing was some 70 years ago, and I dare say little has changed since.
When Schmeling kayoed Louis in the summer of 1936, Louis wanted to have an immediate rematch and more importantly so did Mike Jacobs. In July of 1936, not even a month after their fight, Jacobs offered Schmeling $300,000 to step back in the ring with Joe. Feeling he was in the catbird’s seat, Shmeling said he wanted double that, $600,000. After all, Schmeling had a signed agreement in principle contract to fight James J. Braddock for the title, and if Mike Jacobs and Louis wanted in it was going to cost them. We now know from Part 1 that Joe got the title shot instead of Max, and it was Joe Louis who now occupied the catbird’s seat. “Bring on Max Schmeling, bring him on.” It was now Mike Jacobs’ turn to deal with Max and let me tell you it wasn’t pretty. Jacobs offered Max 20% of the gate, but Max asked for 30%. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Max effectively told Jacobs that he didn’t need a Louis fight right now as he was going to fight Tommy Farr in his next fight. The meeting came to a close, and Schmeling left with the feeling that he had Mike Jacobs exactly where he wanted him. In reality it was just the opposite. Schmeling set sail for Germany and the Farr fight.
By the time Schmeling got to Germany, he was in for a big surprise. Mike Jacobs got to Farr, offered him $60,000 plus 25% of the radio and movie profits, and Farr jumped at it, thus, Louis-Farr was signed for August 26th 1937. In what would become commonplace during Louis’ reign, the fight was delayed four days because of rain, and Louis broke his hand in the 4th round which led to a less than scintillating Louis performance in his first title defense. Louis wasn’t a happy camper coming off a so-so effort, and with his hand in a cast but 3 days later he was on cloud nine. Jacobs had got Schmeling to meet him the following June. However, this time Jacobs called the shots. And although there wouldn’t be a no-fights-in-between clause, Max would get 20% of the gate and 20% of the radio and movie profits. Every time Max balked, Jacobs threatened to make him wait even longer. Max signed.
Louis and his management had no intention of sitting around waiting for next June to come around with no fights in between and on February 27th, 1938, he defended his title against Nathan ”Natie” Mann and kayoed him in 3. In December 1937, Schmeling fought fringe contender Harry Thomas and stopped him in 8 rounds, and as if to plant a further seed of doubt in Schmeling’s mind, Louis defended his title on April 1st, 1938, against the same Harry Thomas and stopped him in 5. The message of the press the next day wasn’t on how good Louis looked or the details of the fight but they all had one prevailing theme, it took Louis 3 less rounds to get rid of Thomas than it had taken Schmeling. The world could hardly wait for June 22nd to roll around and neither could Louis. In his autobiography Louis would say that after the Thomas fight he felt perfect, an absolutely perfect fighter and was finally the fighting machine that Jack Blackburn had promised to turn him into 4 years earlier. Shortly after the Thomas fight, Louis and Schmeling would come face to face when they met at the Boxing Commissioner’s office to sign the official contracts for June 22nd, 1938. No words were exchanged between the two, only a slight nod and the obligatory smile and handshake for the cameras.
It wasn’t smooth sailing for the fight to take place. The Anti-Nazi League and The American Jewish Committee threatened boycotts and picketed Jacobs’ office, Madison Square Garden, and Yankee Stadium in an effort to have the fight cancelled. This was all too much for Jacobs and he sat down with all parties concerned and promised that Louis would beat Schmeling. The promise worked and the threatened boycott was called off, and the very next day $100,000 worth of advance tickets were sold. Jacobs sat down with Joe not long after and gave him all the gory details, explaining to Louis that if he lost to Schmeling both their careers would be over. “Murder that bum, and don’t make an asshole out of me,” said Jacobs. “Don’t worry about a thing Mike. I ain’t going back to work for Ford and you ain’t going back to selling lemon drops on the Staten Island Ferry,” assured Louis. While Louis’ career may have been over had he lost to Schmeling, Jacobs’ wouldn’t have been, since unbeknownst to Louis, Jacobs had already signed Schmeling in the event that he were to defeat Louis again. Like I said in the first paragraph, there was a lot of dirty business leading up to Louis-Schmeling II.
We often read and have heard that sometimes training camps can descend into a circus and the bigger the fight sometimes the bigger the circus, Louis-Schmeling II was no exception. Bundists would show up at Louis’ training camp in Pompton Lakes day after day wearing swastikas on their arms whilst generally making an ass of themselves. Max Machon, who was Schmeling’s trainer would parade around in a Nazi uniform babbling on about the superior race. Word from Germany came that Schmeling would be the Third Reich’s Minister of Sport upon his triumphant return home, and from Germany not only did Schmeling have to battle Louis but also the Jewish governor of New York, Herbert Lehman who was doing everything in his power to assure a Louis victory in his home state. The opening line in Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem reads, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” could very well have been written with Louis and Schmeling in mind, because no matter how low the circus descended around them, Max and Joe never uttered a word in disrespect to the other. In the days leading up to June 22nd, fight fever swept the United States, Buick paid an unheard sum of $47,000 to air advertisements during the fight, and even though the fight only lasted 2:04 and Buick only aired two ads, Buicks CEO called it the best $47,000 that Buick had ever spent up to then. My, how times have changed. NBC would broadcast the fight on close to 150 radio stations and you could buy a brand new Zenith radio for only $14.95 which you could take home with a $1.50 deposit. “Bring on Max Schmeling, bring him on.”
A lot has been written about Louis-Schmeling II in the almost 70 years since it took place, and to go over it in detail here would maybe be a tad counter-productive. Louis and Schmeling would meet face to face only one more time before they stepped in the ring that night and that was at the weigh-in the morning of the fight. Again no words were spoken between the two, only a slight nod. Schmeling weighed in at 193, Louis at 198 1/2. After the weigh-in Louis had a meal of steak, black eyed peas, and salad and went for a walk along the Harlem River with Blackburn and Freddie Wilson the trainer of Light Heavyweight Champion, John Henry Lewis. They walked in silence for a long while and finally Wilson broke the silence and asked Louis how he felt. “Scared,” was Joe’s reply. “Scared?” Wilson asked. “Yea Scared I might kill Schmeling tonight.” They walked the rest of the way in silence. Louis arrived at Yankee Stadium at 7PM and promptly fell asleep.
I’m going to leave the story for a moment and pardon the pun which will soon be revealed. I’m going to go off on a different track. Anyone who knows me, knows that besides an affection for boxing, I have a soft spot in my heart for the big red chestnut, Secretariat. And with that affection in mind allow me to quote from an article that appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1990 following the death of Secretariat entitled Pure Heart written by William Nack. It describes Secretariat the morning he captured the Triple Crown. “I awoke to the crowing of a cock and watched as the stable workers showed up. At 6:07 Hoeffner strode into the shed, looked at Secretariat and called out to Sweat. ‘Get the big horse ready! Let’s walk him for about 15 minutes’. Sweat slipped into the stall, put the lead shank on Secretariat and handed it to Davis, who led the colt to the outdoor walking ring. In a small stable thirty feet away, pony girl, Robin Edelstein, knocked a water bucket against the wall. Secretariat, normally a docile colt on a shank, rose up on his hind legs, pawing at the sky, and started walking in circles. Davis cowered below, as if beneath a thunderclap, snatching at the chain begging the horse to come down. Secretariat floated back down to earth. He danced around the ring as if on springs, his nostrils flared and snorting his eyes rimmed in white. Unaware of the scene she was causing, Edelstein rattled the bucket again and Secretariat spun in a circle, bucked and leaped in the air, kicking and spraying cinders along the walls of the pony barns. In a panic, Davis tugged at the shank, and the horse went up again, higher and higher and Davis bent back yelling, ‘Come on down! Come on Down!’ I stood in awe, I had never seen a horse so fit. The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat. I had no idea what to expect that day in the Belmont, with him going a mile and a half, but I sensed we would see more of him than we had ever seen before.”
Blackburn woke Louis at 9PM and got him ready to go to the ring. Normally Louis would shadow box for 10 minutes but on this night he would shadow box for a full half hour. Those that were their swear that they could hear Louis’ punches blasting the air. On the way to the ring Louis’ manager John Roxborough nervously took a cigar out of his pocket and bit the end off it. He normally had a stash of 20 with him, but this time Louis reached into Roxborough’s pocket grabbed the rest and threw them on the floor and said quietly, “You will only need one in your mouth tonight John.” In his autobiography Louis would say, “Before the bell rang, I felt like a racehorse in the starting gate. Chappie kept me moving, kept me dancing, the sweat was pouring, but my body was warm. The muscles were dancing too. I was rarin’ to go.” 2:04 later the fight was over. In that time frame, there was a standing 8 count, three knockdowns, 50 punches were landed and Louis had landed 49 of them. There were claims of a foul from Schmeling’s manager Max Machon alluding to a crushing blow that Louis landed on Schemling’s lower back as Schmeling tried to twist out of the way causing so much pain that Freddie Guinyard a close friend of Louis who was in Schmeling’s corner as an observer described Schmeling’s cry of pain as “sounding like a stuck pig” and referee Arthur Donovan, many years later said it was the most terrifying sound he had ever heard in his life. For his part Louis put it into perspective. ”But I remember when I was giving him my all, he’d turned when I hadn’t expected him to, and I landed that punch on his back because his body wasn’t where it was supposed to be. That’s perfectly legal: I feel no guilt about it.” Thus ended a fight that would become the most written about, most read and most talked about fight in the history of this sport, and what better way to put it to bed than to repeat the words of that young reporter Bob Considine. “Listen to this buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet whose throat is still dry and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling. It was a shocking thing, that knockout—short, sharp, merciless, complete.”