“Everyone Knows It Was Age:” Joe Louis and His Final Fight Fifty-Five Years Later


    At times, the hurt from boxing can come from failed hopes. October 26, 1951 proved this when many hoped that Joe Louis’s height, weight, and reach advantage would be enough to defeat Rocky Marciano. With a win, Louis would have become heavyweight world champion and the first to recapture the title which he relinquished as part of his retirement two years earlier.

    But since boxing retirements rarely last, Louis went back to work against a younger opponent. Louis’s many fans hoped his experience and class would be enough to defeat Marciano whose perfect record and high knock-out percentage came against “Humpty Dumpty opponents.”[1] But as hope does, it ignored that Marciano was in the prime of his career with Louis ten years his senior at age thirty-seven. Marciano dashed all hopes of a Louis victory and the hurt that followed came in various forms. For Louis it was both physical and emotional, battered while feeling his once-great talent reduced to “blunt reflexes and only mechanical motions.”[2]

    “Joe Louis begins to sink through the ropes to an eighth-round knockout from the hammering fists of Rocky Marciano in Madison Square Garden” (Library of Congress).
    “Joe Louis begins to sink through the ropes to an eighth-round knockout from the hammering fists of Rocky Marciano in Madison Square Garden” (Library of Congress).

    The loss marked not only the end of his professional career but Louis also wondered aloud whether his post-career of traveling the country, performing boxing exhibitions was also in jeopardy, saying of the planned tour, “I don’t know now. I don’t know whether the party will want me anymore.”[3] For his fans, the pain was emotional seeing Louis pummeled in the 8th round and falling to the ring apron, a foot away from completely falling out of the ring. As he hit the floor for a second time in the round Louis’s defeat was clear with the referee not bothering to count him out. Ironically, the one who appears to have taken Louis’s loss the hardest was Rocky Marciano who in beating Louis, defeated his boyhood idol. “I’m glad I won,” Marciano said after the fight, “but sorry I had to do it to him.”[4] This regret extended into Louis’s dressing room where Marciano showed up crying, telling Louis, “I’m sorry, Joe.” Louis responded, “What’s the use of crying…The better man won. That’s all…I’m not too disappointed. I only hope everyone feels the same way I do about it.”[5]

    But not everyone felt the same way as apart from Marciano, the great Sugar Ray Robinson arrived in the locker room to comfort Louis only to begin crying. Standing by Robinson was another boxing legend Ezzard Charles, who a year earlier had beat Louis. He too also had trouble keeping his composure. Reporters asked questions with lumps in their throats and their voices breaking.[6] Even The New York Times stated, “record books will say it was Marciano who beat Joe, but everyone knows it was age.”[7]

    Celebrations in Harlem after Louis defeated Carnera. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).
    Celebrations in Harlem after Louis defeated Carnera. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

    Joe Louis was a sporting hero to many, including white America—an incredible achievement for a black man in the 1950s. Two fights that aroused the country’s patriotism helped forge Louis’s acceptance and legacy. The first came in 1935 with his victory over Primo Carnera, a giant Italian who after becoming champion in 1933 received a telegram from Benito Mussolini that read, “My congratulations, Fascist Italy and its sports-loving people are proud that a Blackshirt has become boxing champion of the world.”[8] More important than the bout against Carnera was Louis’s second fight against Max Schmeling in 1938. Schmeling was a Nazi-backed German and Hitler’s favorite boxer who, so long as he was champion, epitomized the Nazi’s notion of Aryan supremacy. The United States celebrated both fights as symbolic triumphs of democracy over fascism. Like Carnera and Schmeling before him, Louis’s respective government used him as a propaganda piece with the military printing posters of him during his service in World War II with the words: “Pvt. Joe Louis says, ‘We’re going to do our part…and we’ll win because we’re on God’s side.” In fact, the poster was rare as most featuring black men, portrayed them in acts of sacrifice and racial harmony. But with Louis as a national hero, posters could present him aggressively, in “ways that no other black man could” with little fear of angering white southerners.[9]

    As much as white America rejoiced in Louis’s accomplishment, the black community took even greater pride—clear by the massive celebrations across the country, especially in Harlem. Even Malcolm X in his autobiography wrote, “every time Joe Louis won a fight against a white opponent, big front-page pictures in the Negro newspapers…showed a sea of Harlem Negroes cheering and waving and the Brown Bomber waving back at them.”[10] And no Harlem celebration topped the one after Louis beat Schmeling with The New York Daily News simply stating, “There was never a Harlem like the Harlem of last night. Take a dozen Christmases, a score of New Year’s Eves, a bushel of July 4th’s and maybe—yes maybe—you get a faint glimpse of the idea.”[11]

    World War II poster featuring Joe Louis. University of North Texas, UNT Digital Library, World War Poster Collection.
    World War II poster featuring Joe Louis. University of North Texas, UNT Digital Library, World War Poster Collection.

    All of this history added to the hurt of seeing Marciano defeat Louis. Making matters worse, the fight should have never occurred. Louis did not want to fight, having already retired twice only to realize that boxing was his only way out of massive debt. In fact, before returning to box, Louis toured Canada, the United States, and South America as part of the circus that paid him $1,000 a day.[12] That was not enough to get Louis out of financial problems. Bad advice and failed investments caused his economic woes that when mixed with nearly four years away from boxing during the war, resulted in Louis taking loans from his managers. Financial matters worsened with Louis owing taxes to the IRS. As a result, Louis fought on after he had any wish to, continually borrowing against future loans to keep the IRS at bay. While Louis’s fights still drew near record-breaking crowds, all the money went to his managers and the IRS. Desperate to get out of debt, Louis risked his health against boxers like Rocky Marciano, a fight that would symbolize a boxing era’s transition. For his efforts, Louis received $300,000 that went towards his debts. Understanding the boxing business, Louis must have known “he was being set up for a fall, but he could not afford to turn down a big money fight.”[13]

    After the fight Louis retired but still in need of money, tried his hand at wrestling and referring for a paycheck that the IRS picked up before he even saw.[14] Louis paid back taxes until the early 1960s when his wife—an attorney—negotiated with the IRS to only have his current earnings taxed. By that time Louis was in bad physical and mental shape. The physical damage came from boxing past his prime, being unable to protect himself due to his slowed reflexes. But Louis had few options besides at making serious money as IRS penalties and interests mounted daily that at their worse, they “cost Joe Louis at least $250 to get up each morning.”[15] Mentally, Louis became paranoid believing the IRS and the mafia were out to get him. Addiction to cocaine and alcohol made his physical and mental problems worse. Increasingly paranoid, in 1970 Louis spent three months in a psychiatric facility. Once out of the hospital Louis became a greeter at Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas.[16] Louis, whose “body had atrophied, his fortune had disappeared, and his fame had dwindled,” died on April 12, 1981 of a massive heart attack.[17] Max Schmeling, who after World War II became a wealthy Coca-Cola executive, helped pay for Louis’s funeral.

    [1] Jack Hand, “Youthful Power Stops Former Champ,” The Montreal Gazette, October 27, 1951.

    [2] Ibid.

    [3] Ibid.

    [4] Ibid.

    [5] Chris Mead, Joe Louis: Black Champion in White America (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 259.

    [6] Randy Roberts, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 247.

    [7] Joseph C. Nichols, “Marciano Knocks Out Louis in Eighth Round of Heavy weight Fight in Garden” The New York Times, October 27, 1951.

    [8] Patrick Myler, Ring of Hate: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling, the Fight of the Century. eBook.

    [9] Lewis Erenberg, The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis Vs. Schmeling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 186.

    [10] Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1965), 73.

    [11] Emmett Berg, “Fight of the Century,” Humanities 25 no. 4 (July/August, 2004).

    [12] “Joe Louis Quits Ring for Boxing,” Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1950.

    [13] Mead, Joe Louis: Black Champion in White America, 258.

    [14] Ted Thackery Jr., “Joe Louis, Boxing Great, Dies at 66: ‘Brown Bomber’ Won 68 Bouts, Hearts of Millions With Dignity,” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1981.

    [15] Ibid.

    [16] Erenberg, The Greatest Fight of Our Generation, 211.

    [17] Ibid., 222.