“The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis carved out an all-time great career and gave light to the sport of boxing during an era plagued by Depression and war. Most casual boxing fans, and even some avid aficionados, may not have dug in the archives to find the myriad of fights in which Louis made his bones. That takes nothing away from his greatness by way of recency bias, and gives us a chance to illuminate everything about the former world champion.
Born in 1914, Louis entered the professional sport of boxing at the ripe age of 20 years and 55 days old. When looking at his prowess, a great place to start is his physical attributes.
Louis stood at nearly 6’2”, weighing in the high 190s. The Alabama native was as chiseled as they come, especially in the era in which he fought. He wasn’t your typical hairy-chested slugger, but rather a cut, muscle-bound, marble carving of a specimen, who didn’t let his mass disrupt his fluidity. He maintained his model physique throughout the duration of his career.
His 76-inch wingspan exceeded his height, and allowed for him to establish distance against other fighters, often by simple arm extension.
“The Brown Bomber” fought out of the orthodox stance, his posture was usually slightly crouched, feet not too far apart. He didn’t fight upright like a Larry Holmes, or shrunk and low like a Mike Tyson, but had good balance and positioning.
The longest-reigning heavyweight champion in history had a habit of positioning his head slightly to the right, probably as a defense mechanism. In many of his fights, if not all, he had a tendency to throw a jab, with his off arm up and out — elbow extended and all — and his right glove protecting his face. This often left his body wide open for counterpunches downstairs, although rarely did opponents have the pugilistic wherewithal to do so.
Louis wasn’t a dancer. He’d often stay on the balls of his feet, and would switch up his schemes by sometimes resorting to a flatfooted stance. He didn’t move his upper body around vigorously like a Joe Frazier, but made sure not to stay a stationary target.
Moving on from his tangibles, we look at four fights that showcased him in a variety of situations, against a plethora of opponents with differing fighting styles. To help fans become savants of the sport, four fights — a number that signifies “beyond” completion — provides a robust sample size. It highlights how a fighter performed under championship implications, in losses, against their first real test, and later in their careers, assessing longevity.
Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling I (1936)
Schmeling matched Louis’ energy from the onset. Neither fighter was necessarily the aggressor, although Schmeling’s attack seemed to throw Louis off a bit. By round four, Joe ate a flush right hand that made his knees and ankles buckle. He was then met with a seven-punch, Oscar De La Hoya-styled letting go of the hands from Schmeling, all of which the “Brown Bomber” recovered from nicely.
In the face of adversity, Louis exhibited toughness. However, in this fight, as well as others against aggressive, top-of-the-line foes, Louis seemed to struggle a bit in some rounds, fending off onslaughts.
On the positive side of things, Joe was not frazzled by hard shots upstairs, sticking with his game plan, not being tentative to throw, and maintaining his own level of aggression. It just so happened that the German boxer got the better of him, knocking him out in the 12th round.
Joe Louis vs James J. Braddock (1937)
In his first opportunity at a title, Louis did not fold like a lawn chair, or snap like crispy pizza crust. The 1934 Golden Gloves gold medalist faced yet another fearless aggressor in heavyweight champion James Braddock.
One could tell Louis was hungry for the title by the way he came out. His speed was blinding to the sight. He displayed textbook movement around the ring. His head movement was sharp, as well; sharper than in other fights.
Louis was impressive through the feel-out rounds, connecting on a right hand to the body, left hook upstairs, and right hook to the side of Braddock’s skull in successive fashion. Later, he did miss a right hook wildly, opening himself up to get knocked down by a smusher of a short right to the front of the face.
Louis, as a straightforward fighter, abstained from throwing feints. He was calculable, seizing perfect opportunities to land second and third blows after his jab. In this fight, he also showed off a double jab, especially in the middle rounds. By round eight, Braddock’s toughness and resilience could only go so far, as the superior Louis landed a combo that knocked him out.
Joe Louis vs Arturo Godoy I (1940)
Split decision victories, don’t we love them? Some of the closest, most intense fights in history have been determined in such fashion. Analyzing Louis against a South American boxer provides variation, as fighters from that continent have different training regimens, methodologies, and techniques compared to Americans.
Godoy provided just that. Headlong, Godoy moved around frantically, oftentimes getting extremely low — below the beltline low — looking to explode up from shallow ground to catch the reigning champion suddenly.
An unorthodox opposition style can be a great measuring stick of how sound a fighter is, and Louis showed great resolve. For one, he was pushed to the ropes throughout the bout, as Godoy looked to score in close while simultaneously neutralizing the “Brown Bomber’s” jab.
Louis showed patience. He didn’t allow an unorthodox stance, or a torrential downpour of hooks in the third round to rattle him.
Louis also dealt with ego. A rather confident, borderline haughty Godoy often punched after the bell, and seemed to have a word or two for the champion here and there.
In round five, Louis had a few seconds stretch where he knocked Godoy’s head around like a child keeping a balloon from touching the ground. He fought his fight, the way he usually did, and the results were reflective of that.
Joe Louis vs Rocky Marciano (1951)
By the time he fought Marciano, Joe Louis was 37 years old and past his zenith. However, he was still a capable fighter with flashes of his youth, despite adorning a bald spot that may have said otherwise.
The fight between the two giants of the division is akin to Sugar Ray Leonard’s first bout against Roberto Duran. Both fighters went toe-to-toe for most of the contest. Louis showed great ability to establish distance by throwing a flurry of jabs, aided by a three-inch height, and nine-inch reach advantage.
Louis also was good at making Marciano miss. Rocky was the aggressor for the preponderance of the fight, especially in the first two rounds. While Louis did eat a few powerful punches, including a couple of straight rights and jabs, he often made Rocky whiff at air. Admittedly, Marciano was headhunting all night, and Louis kept him at bay for as long as he could, before being knocked out in the eighth.
Louis was a master of ducking punches. His uncanny ability to time punches is up there with the best of them. Especially at the apex of his career, when his legs were young and spry, he was a deft defender who anticipated counters among the greats.
On offense, Louis threw mean uppercuts and sneaky shots to the body when in close; so sneaky, you might not have caught them at a first glance. He knew how to counter so effectively, and break down his adversaries, by throwing said uppercuts downstairs.
Louis kept his overhand right in his back pocket on most occasions, but when brought out, was a trap card that would usually land on defenders. He had deceptive speed and an ability to go from zero to 100, which made him a fighter who’d occupy mental space in opponents, waiting for a potential knockout shot.
This deceptive speed was very well exemplified in his second bout against Schmeling in 1938, where he got a measure of revenge and used Schmeling’s head as a punching bag.
Very rarely would you see Louis raise his hands up to protect his face. In today’s game, fighters might put both gloves to their temple when cornered or facing a barrage. Admittedly, the fight game was different back then, so much of his style was correlative with the times.
He’d usually keep his gloves by his midsection, with his right glove near his chin. When in close, he’d cross his arms to protect from uppercuts. In all four of the fights in focus, Louis took several shots upstairs.
In addition to this, Louis’ footwork, while fundamentally sound, wasn’t as active as fighters in more modern times. He was a rather flatfooted fighter who stood his ground.
Joe Louis rose to the occasion time and again, defending his championship for a 12-year record reign that may never be broken. He helped ease tensions in the midst of a World War, and was a cultural icon, regarded by many as the first Black American hero. His legacy lives on forever.