Joe Louis is one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport. But his contributions to American life went beyond the ring. In an era when, as ESPN.com says, “his people were still subject to lynchings, discrimination and oppression, when the military was segregated and African-Americans weren’t permitted to play Major League Baseball, Joe Louis was the first African-American to achieve hero worship that was previously reserved for whites only.”
Part of Louis’s success came from a wise public relations approach. White America still had bad feelings about black boxers due to Jack Johnson’s flamboyant lifestyle. Louis followed a strict set of rules designed to give him a clean image, and it worked.
He even became a symbol for America and freedom, in addition to his race. He fought a famous bout against German Max Schmeling in 1938. The Nazis promoted this as another proof that Aryans were superior to other races. They even said that Schmeling’s prize money would be used to build tanks in Germany. In front of 70,000 people at Yankee Stadium, Louis knocked the German out in two minutes and four seconds.
Louis had several other major rivalries during his career. He beat Jim Braddock (“The Cinderella Man”) to win the title initially, and he had two celebrated fights with Billy Conn, winning both. “The Brown Bomber” finished his career with a record of 65 wins and 3 losses. It was said that he was a credit to his race. Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon had a response to that: “Yes, Louis is a credit to his race – the human race.”