Heavyweight boxer Joe Louis (Joseph Louis Barrow; 1914–1981) became the first black of his rank to score a first-round knockout when he defeated Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938, immediately becoming the first black national sports hero. He was the first black to hold a boxing title ten years or more, maintaining the title of world champion for almost twelve years. He was also the first black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson in 1908. Universally loved, Louis fought Max Baer in New York on September 24, 1935, and became the first black fighter to draw a million-dollar gate. The following year he was the first black to win Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year award. By 1949 Louis had become the first black to defend his title successfully twenty-five times, and in 1954 he became the first black heavyweight and one of the first three boxers elected to Boxing’s Hall of Fame. Born in Alabama, this son of a sharecropping cotton farmer fought often as a child. At the age of eight he knocked out four boyhood tormentors, and by 1934 he turned professional. A folk hero, his success broke down many barriers to black participation in athletics. Louis’ personal integrity contributed to his popularity, and so did his service to the armed forces during World War II. He volunteered for the army in 1942, received the Legion of Merit medal when he was discharged in 1945, and had fought title matches for the benefit of army and navy relief funds. In his later years, problems with the Internal Revenue Service plagued him. He was charged with having an enormous unpaid tax bill but was eventually able to negotiate a settlement. After suffering an aneurysm in 1977, Louis was paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. There are many tributes to Louis’s memory: The U.S. Mint struck a coin with his face on one side and victories on the other in 1982, and he was the subject of a Postal Service commemorative stamp in 1993.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” that was the style of Muhammad Ali, the first heavyweight boxing champion to win the title three times.