The Amateur Years
This time, Joe Louis quit his job and focused on his training. He returned to the amateur circuit, winning fifty of fifty-four matches over the next year, forty-three by knockouts. This impressive record soon brought him to the attention of John Roxborough, known throughout Detroit's black ghetto as the king of the numbers racket. Roxborough's other career was as a civic leader, sponsoring a number of charitable causes and helping local youngsters fulfill their dreams. He decided to take Joe Louis under his wing, even moving him into his house, putting him on a proper diet, and getting him some decent training equipment.
In June of 1934, on the verge of going pro, Joe Louis asked Roxborough to become his manager. To help fund Louis' career, Roxborough brought in Chicago numbers runner Julian Black, a longtime business associate. Together, they brought Louis to Chicago to train under Jack Blackburn, who had already taken two boxers to world championships. Those boxers, however, were white. The fact was that black boxers had very little chance of getting a shot at the title, particularly in the heavyweight division. Racism and segregation were endemic to American society, but in boxing there was a special reason that blacks were virtually ruled out as heavyweight contenders. That reason was Jack Johnson, who had held the heavyweight championship from 1908-1915.
Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion, and he reveled in the distinction, flouting white conventions by gloating over defeated white opponents, consorting openly with white prostitutes, and marrying white women. For seven years he defended his title against a series of "great white hopes," but in 1915 he finally lost to one of them, Jess Willard, in a match that may have been fixed. The white press openly rejoiced, and white boxing promoters and fighters vowed never to give another black man a shot at the title.
Given this history, Blackburn was reluctant to take on a black boxer, but he needed a job and Roxborough and Black promised him a "world beater." Blackburn put Louis on a strict training regimen, including running six miles a day, and trained him in a style that combined balanced footwork, a strong left jab, and rapid fire combination punches. At the same time, his management team carefully nurtured an image designed to draw a sharp contrast between Joe Louis and Jack Johnson. Louis was to be gracious before and after a fight, conform to an image of God-fearing, clean-living decency, and above all avoid outraging white opinion by dating white women. Together, training and image building would propel Joe Louis to a shot at the title.