4 minute read

Joe Louis

Turning Pro

Joe Louis' first pro boxing match took place on July 4, 1934, when he knocked out Jack Kracken in the first round. By October 30th of that year, when he knocked out Jack O'Dowd in the second round, he had won nine straight matches, seven of them by knockouts. Along with his reputation, his payments were growing, from $59, to $62, $101, $250, $450, in the midst of the Depression when most of his old neighborhood was struggling on relief and occasional work. Louis was conscientiously sending money home to support his family, but he also began to develop spending habits that would plague him in later years, buying expensive suits and a shiny black Buick he would use to cruise for girls on visits home.

Chronology

1914 Born May 13 in LaFayette, Alabama
1926 Moves to Detroit, Michigan
1932 Fights first amateur boxing bout
1934 Moves in with John Roxborough, asks Roxborough to become his manager
1934 First professional boxing match, July 4
1935 Defeats Italian Primo Carnera, June 25, and becomes media sensation
1935 Marries Marva Trotter, September 24
1935 Defeats Max Baer to become top heavyweight contender, September 24
1936 Loses to German Max Schmeling, June 11
1937 Becomes World Heavyweight Champion, defeating James Braddock on June 22
1938 Defeats Max Schmeling in rematch, June 22, becoming national hero
1942 Enlists in U.S. Army
1945 Enlistment ends in October
1945 Divorces Marva Trotter
1946 Remarries Marva
1949 Divorces Marva
1949 Retires as undefeated World Heavyweight Champion
1950 Loses comeback attempt against new heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles, September 27
1951 Last professional boxing match, loses to Rocky Marciano, October 26
1955 Marries Rose Morgan, a successful beauty shop operator, on December 25
1958 Divorces Rose
1959 Marries attorney Martha Malone Jefferson
1967 Louises adopt a baby boy, naming him Joseph. Apparently, this the child of Joe Louis and a New York City prostitute, identified as "Marie" in Louis' autobiography. Martha would go on to adopt three more of Marie's children, of unknown paternity.
1970 Committed temporarily to Colorado state mental institution
1970 Takes position as greeter at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada
1981 Dies of massive heart attack on April 12

It was soon clear that Louis had outgrown these carefully chosen opponents designed to nurture his early career. Louis' managers began to look around for tougher competition, and soon settled on Charlie Massera, ranked eighth in Ring magazine's survey of top heavyweight contenders. On November 30, 1934, Louis met Massera, knocking him out in the third round. Two weeks later, he went up against Lee Ramage, another up-and-coming heavyweight, and a real challenge for Louis. Ramage was quick on his feet and accomplished in defense. For the first few rounds he managed to fend off Louis' powerful jabs, and between rounds Blackburn advised Louis to start hitting Ramage's arms, if he couldn't reach anything else. Eventually, Ramage was too tired to lift his arms, and Louis got him against the ropes, knocking him out in the eighth round.

Roxborough decided Louis was ready for the big time, and that meant New York's Madison Square Garden, which had controlled big-league boxing since the 1920s, when it sewed up contracts with all the major heavyweight contenders. And that presented a major difficulty. Jimmy Johnston, the flamboyant manager of Madison Square Garden, said he could help Louis, but Roxborough had to understand a few things. As a Negro, Joe Louis wouldn't make the same as the white fighters, and more ominously, he "can't win every time he goes in the ring." In effect, he was telling Roxborough that Louis would be expected to throw a few fights. That went against one of Roxborough's commandments: no fixed fights, and he hung up on Johnston. Fortunately for them, Johnston's monopoly was getting a little shaky.

A man by the name of Mike Jacobs would prove their salvation. Passed over for leadership of the Madison Square Garden Corporation, Jacobs had been looking for a way to break the Garden's monopoly, and in a bizarre series of maneuvers surrounding a New York charity, he found it. Traditionally, Madison Square Garden had hosted a few boxing competitions for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst's Milk Fund for Babies. The Fund got a cut of the profits, and Garden boxing got good publicity from Hearst's powerful papers. When the Garden decided to raise the rent on Milk Fund events, some enterprising Hearst sportswriters, including Damon Runyan, decided to form their own corporation to stage boxing matches in competition with the Garden, with a share of the proceeds to go to the Fund. They could provide the publicity, but they needed an experienced promoter, so they brought in Jacobs, forming the 20th Century Club. Officially, Jacobs held all the stock, as the sportswriters didn't want to be publicly identified with matches they'd be covering.

In the meantime, Joe Louis' winning streak continued. On January 4, 1935, he defeated sixth-ranked Patsy Perroni, and a week later he beat Hans Birkie. Mike Jacobs needed a serious contender to get his Club off the ground, and before long the name of Joe Louis came to his attention. He went to Los Angeles to witness a rematch between Louis and Ramage, and this time Louis knocked Ramage out in the second round. Impressed, Jacobs invited Louis to fight for the 20th Century Club, assuring his managers that "He can win every fight he has, knock 'em out in the first round if possible."

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsBoxingJoe Louis Biography - Growing Up, The Amateur Years, Turning Pro, Chronology, The Brown Bomber, Awards And Accomplishments - SELECTED WRITINGS BY LOUIS: