Joseph Louis Barrow was born on May 13, 1914, in a shack outside of Lafayette, Alabama. The grandson of slaves, he was the seventh of eight children born to a sharecropper father, Munn, and wife Lillie, a laundress.
Louis's early life was shaped by financial struggles. He and his siblings slept three and four to a bed, and Louis was just 2 years old when his father was committed to an asylum. Shy and quiet, his development was stymied by limited education, and he eventually developed a stammer.
Not long after Lillie Barrow remarried, to widower Patrick Brooks, the family migrated north to Detroit. Louis attended the Bronson Trade School, where he trained as a cabinet maker, but was soon forced to take on odd jobs after Brooks lost his job with the Ford Motor Company.
After Louis began hanging out with a local gang, Lillie sought to keep her son out of trouble by having him take violin lessons. However, Louis had also been introduced to boxing by a friend; he began using the violinmoney to train at Brewster Recreation Center.
Fighting under the name “Joe Louis,” reportedly so his mother wouldn't find out, Joe Louis began his amateur career in late 1932. While not an immediate success—he was floored several times by 1932 Olympian Johnny Miler in his debut—Louis soon proved he could hit harder than anybody else. His all-around skills eventually caught up to his punching power, and in 1934 he won Detroit's Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title in the open class and the national Amateur Athletic Union championship. He wrapped up his amateur career with 50 wins in 54 matches, 43 of them by knockout.
Joe Louis hit the ground running as a professional in 1934, obliterating opponents with his powerful jab and devastating combos. By the end of 1935, the young fighter had already dispatched former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer, accumulating some $370,000 in prize money along the way. However, he reportedly did not train hard for his first fight against former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling of Germany, and on June 19, 1936, Schmeling scored a 12th-round knockout to hand Louis his first professional defeat.
On June 22, 1938, Louis got the chance at a rematch with Schmeling. This time the stakes were higher: With Schmeling hailed as an example of Aryan supremacy by Adolph Hitler, the bout took on heightened nationalistic and racial overtones. This time Louis annihilated his German opponent with a first-round knockout, making him a hero to both black and white Americans.
One of the world's best-known athletes, Louis's enduring popularity was partly due to his sheer dominance: Of his 25 successful title defenses, nearly all came by knockout. But in winning, Louis also showed himself to be a gracious, even generous victor. He also drew praise for his support of the country's war effort, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and donated prize money to military relief funds.
After reigning as heavyweight champion for 11 years and eight months, a record, Louis retired on March 1, 1949.
Saddled with financial problems, Louis returned to the ring to face new heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles in September 1950, dropping a 15-round decision. He compiled a new winning streak against a series of lesser opponents, but was no match for top contender Rocky Marciano; following their bout on October 26, 1951, which ended in a brutal eighth-round TKO, Louis retired for good with a career record of 68-3, including 54 knockouts.
The years after his retirement from the ring proved uneven for Louis. He was still a revered public figure, but money was a constant issue for him due to unpaid taxes. He briefly wrestled professionally in the mid-1950s, and later served as a referee for both wrestling and boxing matches. The IRS eventually forgave his debt, allowing the former champ to regain some financial stability while he worked as a greeter at the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas.
Louis suffered from his share of health problems as he aged. After battling a cocaine addiction, he was committed to psychiatric care in 1970. He was later confined to a wheelchair after undergoing heart surgery in 1977.