Joe Louis is regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time. A luminary figure that paved the way black boxers to flourish in the sport. But boxing was more than a sport for Louis, it was a gateway to financial freedom that he never fully achieved.
On Oct. 26, 1951, Louis faced off against Rocky Marciano in one of the most polarizing fights in boxing history. The fight offered Louis a chance to reclaim his prominence and earn money to settle his looming tax debt.
Marciano, a.k.a. the “Brockton Blockbuster,” was nine years Lous’ junior and more agile, compared to the then 37-year-old former world heavyweight champion. Louis was four years removed from the sport and noticeably heavier than his prize fighting years.
The Brown Bomber tried his best to keep up but Marciano was relentless, knocking him to the floor in the eighth round.
Louis made a quick $300,000 from the match, but the embarrassment of losing to Marciano didn’t help his confidence, and he quit boxing for a final time. The once lauded fighter had fallen on hard times, both financially and emotionally. It’s estimated that Louis brought in $4 million at throughout his career, and only pocketed around $800,000. A good amount of his fortune had been eaten up by bad management and investment deals.
Two decades before his match against Marciano, Louis was crowned heavyweight champion of the world. He became the second black boxer to earn the title behind Texas-born boxer Jack Johnson. Boxing was heavily dominated by white fighters, due in part to segregation tactic that made it harder for black fighters to rise up the ranks, and actually make a living off the sport. Louis didn’t just claim the world heavyweight title, his championship reign lasted 12 years.
The road to heavyweight champion featured a host of obstacles for Louis, one of which was defending champion Max Baer. The Nebraska-born boxer had a reputation for being deadly after one of his opponents died.
Louis’ match against Baer marked the first time that a black boxer led a main event that made $1 million at the gate. Thousands poured into Yankee Stadium to see the fight, and Louis certainly gave them their monies worth. The odds were against him, but Louis never broke focus — even while being heckled by the boxing announcer before the match even began.
Racism was hardly new to Louis, who was born in Alabama in 1914. Intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan drove his family out of Alabama and up to Detroit, where Louis launched his boxing career at age 17.
Boxing kept Louis out of trouble and despite losing his debut match, his amateur boxing record caught the attention of John Roxborough, a business-man and gambler from Detroit. In Roxborough, Louis found a manager and a mentor.
He severed ties with Roxborough in 1935, and signed with boxing manager Mike Jacobs. Louis became heavyweight champion two years later a championship title that he would defend an unprecedented thirteen times between 1939 and 1941. The consecutive winning streak came to an end during a match against light heavyweight contender Billy Conn.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was entering World War II. Louis put his boxing career on ice and enlisted in the Army. His enrollment day was a staged spectacle that flipped the media’s portrayal of Louis from a racial stereotype, to an American hero.
During the war, Louis was assigned to the Special Services Division. He fought in charity boxing matches that raised approximately $90,000 for the Navy Relief Society, but never entered combat. He also worked with the Army’s media recruitment division to encourage black men to join the military, despite the segregation and racial bullying that he and fellow enlistees endured in the service. In 1945, Louis was awarded the Legion of Merit for exemplary conduct, which earned him an immediate military discharge.
Like many veterans, Louis found himself broke after the war. To make matters worse, the IRS targeted him over monies raised for the military charity (Louis never received a penny from the fundraisers).
Money troubles persisted throughout Louis’ career. It also didn’t help that his finances were being handled by Jacobs’ personal accountant at one point. Louis’ management team negotiated a deal with the IRS forcing him out of retirement, to pay back money that he “didn’t remember earning.”
Louis was perhaps more gullible than he was willing to admit. He did catch a break though, in the form of his good friend Frank Lucus. The former Harlem drug lord believed that Louis was being exploited by the government, and paid off one of his tax liens.
Though Louis was a celebrated figure in black America, he wasn’t absolved of critique. Muhammad Ali, a onetime “rival” of the boxing great, called Louis an “Uncle Tom” for criticizing his stance on the Vietnam War. Ali was openly charismatic and unabashed in speaking out on socio-political issues, whereas Louis may not have been as willing to risk his potential earning power.
Nonetheless, it can be argued that Louis was an activists in that he opened doors for black athletes in boxing and golf, the latter of which was a lesser-known passion of his.
After losing the match against Marciano, Louis made history as the first black golfers to be allowed into a PGA tour event. Louis financially supported several professional black golfers including Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller, both of whom sued the PGA of America to end their “Caucasians only” rule.
Louis died in from cardiac arrest in 1981.
Check the video below for his fight with Marciano.