The Brown Bomber
Jacobs promoted a few "tune-up" fights for Joe Louis out of town, while his secret partners in the Club began to churn out the publicity that would eventually make Louis a household name. Scouting around for an opponent for a big New York match, Jacobs hit upon Italian Primo Carnera, a former heavyweight champion. The match was scheduled for June 25, 1935—and the timing couldn't have been better. Throughout the summer, Mussolini had been threatening to invade Ethiopia, one of the very few independent black countries. Feelings ran high throughout the international community, and particularly among black Americans. In the prematch publicity, Jacobs sold Louis as a kind of ambassador for his race, and by the time of the fight, black as well as white were deeply curious about this heavyweight contender crossing the color line.
More than 60,000 fans, and 400 sportswriters, poured into Yankee Stadium that night to see six-foot, one-inch Joe Louis, weighing in at 197 pounds, take on the six-foot, six-inch, 260-pound Italian giant Carnera. After a few lackluster rounds, they saw something amazing. Starting in the fifth round, Joe Louis came out swinging, nailing Carnera with a right that bounced him off the ropes, then a left, and another right. Only hanging onto Louis kept Carnera from going down. In the sixth round, Louis knocked him down twice for a count of four, but each time Carnera staggered to his feet. Finally, Carnera had had enough, collapsing against the ropes. The referee called the fight.
Overnight, Joe Louis became a media sensation, and Americans awoke to a rare phenomenon: a black man in the headlines. Naturally, commentators focused overwhelmingly on his race, hauling out a seemingly limitless supply of alliterative nicknames to characterize the newly prominent contender: "mahogany mauler," "chocolate chopper," "coffee-colored KO king," "saffra sandman," and one that stuck, "The Brown Bomber." Sportswriters played up and exaggerated Louis' Alabama accent and limited education to convey an impression of an ignorant, lazy "darkie" incapable of anything but eating, sleeping, and fighting.
At the same time, many sportswriters peppered their columns with dehumanizing savage references. For Davis Walsh, "Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish Primo Carnera." Grantland Rice wrote in the Baltimore Sun, "His blinding speed, the speed of the jungle, and instinctive speed of the wild, was more than Carnera could face … Louis stalked Primo as the black panther of the jungle stalks his prey." Even New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico, widely viewed as a cultured liberal often sympathetic to black athletes, seemed overwhelmed and a little unhinged by Joe Louis. After watching a training session, he wrote: "I had the feeling that I was in the room with a wild animal…. Helives like an animal, fights like an animal, has all the cruelty and ferocity of a wild thing…. I see in this coloredman something so cold, so hard, so cruel that I wonder as to his bravery. Courage in the animal is desperation."