Joe Louis Boxed Nazi Germany
But America repaid the black fighter with crippling debt
Joe Louis is one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. The white American public—thoroughly racist during Louis’ lifetime—loved him even though he was black. Most incredibly, Louis enlisted in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II, at the height of his boxing career.
How Louis’ country treated him afterward amounts to one of the greatest tragedies in American sports history.
Then-20-year-old Louis punched his way into the boxing world in 1934, a racially charged time for the sport. After Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion boxer, lost his title to the white Jess Willard in 1915, boxing authorities banned blacks from competing in the World Boxing Championship.
So young Louis could only fight other black boxers—that is, until a promoter named Mike Jacobs negotiated a compromise. Jacobs proposed that instead of Louis fighting the champion, he would only box a former champion or runner-up.
On Sept. 24, 1935, Louis stepped into the ring with ex-heavyweight champion Max Baer. Louis knocked out Baer in four rounds.
To convince the boxing federation to let him compete for a world title, Louis wanted to prove that he wasn’t like the divisive Jack Johnson, a braggadocios fighter who openly dated white women.
The authorities allowed Louis to go for world titles on three conditions. He wouldn’t gloat after defeating a white opponent. He’d never be photographed with a white woman. And he’d maintain a “clean lifestyle.”
After a quick succession of victories, Louis was boxing’s number-one contender—and a tempting but dangerous target for whites with something to prove.
Louis versus the Nazis
Max Schmeling was a former heavyweight champion from Germany—and a favorite of Adolf Hitler, who considered Schmeling proof of Aryan superiority. In a 1936 fight, Schmeling knocked out Louis in 12 rounds by exploiting Louis’ habit of dropping his left hand.
They rematched two years later. By 1938, tensions between Nazi Germany and the U.S. and its allies were at a boiling point. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt encouraged Louis to beat Schmeling for America, calling the black champ “the muscles needed to defeat Germany.” Louis himself said he was fighting for his country.
The same country that still viewed black athletes with racial skepticism, if not outright hostility.
Louis knocked Schmeling down three times in two minutes, compelling the German to throw in his towel. Louis went on to successfully defend his title 13 times. And then, in January 1942, he enlisted in the Army.
He never saw combat. Louis contributed to the war effort by fighting in 96 exhibitions before no fewer than three million soldiers. He donated two of his championship purses to the Army and Navy Relief Funds.
“We’ll win because God is on our side,” Louis said in a 1942 interview. His words become a national war-bond slogan.
But Louis had troubles with the IRS. The revenue agency arbitrarily decided that the fighter’s military donations were taxable. He owed more than a million dollars, the IRS claimed. Rather than retiring after the war, the 31-year-old boxer had no choice but to keep fighting and hosting events. He needed the money.
After every bout, he surrendered his purse directly to the feds. Agents waited ringside to “take it from him immediately,” according to Louis’ son, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr.
Louis never was able to get free from his debt. He died in 1981 just hours after making an appearance at a fight in Las Vegas. Shmeling, Louis’ old German rival, paid for his funeral. Shmeling had made millions investing in Coca Cola.
Louis, the indebted black sports star and war-funds hero, went to his grave with an outstanding record—66 wins and three losses.