His six-round destruction of the 6-6, 265-pound former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, known as "The Ambling Alp," stamped Louis as a title contender and a major new star. In his defeat of the Carnera, who was viewed as Benito Mussolini’s emissary, Louis represented blacks who identified with ‘little’ Ethiopia in its struggle against the bullying Italian aggressor.
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Sept. 24, 1935: Won by KO over Max Baer
The white press and fans generally embraced Louis, whose managers, conscious of the traditional racial prejudice against the prospect of a black heavyweight champion, had crafted an image of him as a modest, clean-living young man, dubbing him the Brown Bomber. Still, there were many that hoped a white fighter could derail Louis's obvious ascent. That fighter was not former champion Max Bear. Though a feared puncher, Baer never hurt Louis, who chopped him down in four rounds before a crowd of 95,000 in Yankee Stadium.
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June 19, 1936: Lost by KO to Max Schmeling
Louis, with a record of 27-0 and ranked No.1, Louis signed to fight 30-year-old former champion Max Schmeling of Germany in what was regarded as a mere tune-up bout for Louis before he would face heavyweight champ James J. Braddock. Schmeling, though, was still a smart and dangerous fighter. Before the bout, he told reporters that he had watched films of Louis, adding cryptically, "I see something." (Printed in the papers, of course, as "I zee zome-ting." What he saw was Louis's tendency to drop his left hand after jabbing. Schmeling exploited that opening to land repeated right hands. He knocked Louis down for the first time in his career in the fourth and finished him off in the 12th in a finish that rocked the boxing world.
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June 22, 1937: Won by KO over James J. Braddock
Despite his win over Louis, Schmeling was frozen out of a title shot. Louis, meanwhile, went back to his winning ways and the match was made with champion James J. Braddock, boxing's Cinderella Man, who'd upset Max Baer to win the championship two years before. Though Braddock fought courageously, and even dropped Louis for a flash knockdown in the first round, he couldn't hold off the relentless challenger. Later, Braddock would describe Louis's power in awed terms. "His jab," he said, "was like someone jammed an electric light in your face and busted it." Louis finished it in the eight round. Said Braddock, "I couldn't have got up if they'd offered me a million dollars." At 23, Louis had become just the second black heavyweight champion in boxing history.
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June 22, 1938: Won by KO over Max Schmeling
The new heavyweight king had unfinished business. "I don't want to be called champ," Louis said, "until I whip Max Schmeling." Louis would get his chance in a match that took on international significance far beyond boxing. With Hitler in power and a second world war looming, Louis was cast as the defender of democracy against Schmeling, the hero of Nazi Germany. Louis trained with determination for the bout and when he entered the ring in Yankee Stadium, he was at his peak. He unleashed a frighteningly effective attack on Schmeling, dropping him three times before referee Arthur Donovan stopped the fight just 2:08 into the first round. Wrote poet Maya Angelou of black America's reaction to Louis' victory, "Champion of the world. A Black boy. "
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June 28, 1939: Won by TKO over Tony Galento
From January 1939 through May 1941, Louis would defend his title 13 times. The parade of vanquished challengers became known as the Bum of the Month Club. Among the more colorful of these contenders was "Two-Ton" Tony Galento, an Orange, N.J., bartender who trained on beer and cigars and was famous for wrestling an alligator and boxing a kangaroo. He found himself in against something very different against Louis. Though he famously promised to "moida da bum," and did rock Louis with a left hook, Galento should have stuck to the zoo. Louis battered him into a KO in the fourth round.
7 of 12Charles Gorry/AP
May 23, 1941: Won by DQ over Buddy Baer
Though at 6-6 he had a few inches on his brother, Buddy Baer was not the fighter Max was. Still, he gave Louis trouble for the first six rounds of their bout at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., before Louis caught up to him. Baer survived the round, but was disqualified by referee Arthur Donovan for stalling at the bell for the next round. The two would meet again in a rematch in January 1942. That time Louis ended it in one round.
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June 18, 1941: Won by KO over Billy Conn
In one of boxing's most dramatic encounters, former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn, the popular Pittsburgh Kid who had given up his crown to campaign as a heavyweight, took on Louis at the Polo Grounds in New York City. At a reported 174, Conn was giving up at least 25 pounds to Louis, but he made up for it with speed and style. A gifted boxer, Conn circled, moved and jabbed constantly, befuddling Louis at times. "He was like a mosquito," Louis would later say of Conn. "He'd stick and move." At the end of 12 rounds, Conn was ahead on two of the three judges' scorecards, and Louis was tiring. "Box him, Billy!" his corner implored, but Conn told them he was going for the knockout. That was just the opportunity Louis needed. Two minutes and 58 seconds later, Conn was counted out.
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June 19, 1946: Won by KO over Billy Conn
After the dramatic end to their first bout, Louis and Conn were signed for a rematch right away. Conn, however, whose enthusiasm for fistic engagement extended beyond the ring, broke his hand in a fight with his father-in-law, forcing a postponement. It would have to wait nearly five years, as World War II intervened. Their second meeting drew a $2 million gate at Yankee Stadium. Asked beforehand what he would do to counter Conn's footspeed, Louis famously observed, "He can run, but he can't hide." The intervening years had taken something from both men, but Conn had clearly lost more. There would be no near-upset this time. Louis won easily on an 8th-round KO.
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Dec. 5, 1947: Won by SD over Jersey Joe Walcott
Louis made his 24th title defense against 33-year-old Jersey Joe Walcott, a 10-to-1 underdog. It was clear this was not the Louis of old. Walcott knocked down the champion down twice and seemingly dominated the bout, though Louis got the win by split decision. Chagrined by the outcome, Louis gave Walcott a rematch six months later. Weighing 213½, the heaviest of his career to that point, Louis weathered another knockdown but mustered just enough of his old firepower to knock Walcott out in the eleventh. It would be his record 25th and final successful title defense. He would retire three months later.
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Sept 27, 1950: Lost by UD to Ezzard Charles
Unfortunately, Louis' retirement did not last. Broke and hounded by the IRS, he returned to the ring after little more than a year to face Ezzard Charles, who had acquired the title Louis had vacated in a decision over Jersey Joe Walcott. Perhaps the greatest light heavyweight of all time (though he never held that championship), Charles was undersized as a heavyweight. Louis, though, was at 36 only a shell of the fighter who had ruled the division for so long, and Charles easily outpointed him.
12 of 12NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Oct. 26, 1951: Lost by TKO to Rocky Marciano
Call this Exhibit A for the old boxing adage that it never ends pretty. Fighting on only for the money, Louis beat a series of lesser fighters before signing to face undefeated up-and-comer Rocky Marciano. The crude but brutally strong and powerful Marciano reportedly hated the thought of having to fight his aging hero, but when the moment came in Madison Square Garden, he didn't hold back. Marciano battered Louis throughout, finally knocking him through the ropes to end it in the eighth round. Red Smith's column on the fight ended with this memorable paragraph: "An old man's dream ended. A young man's vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire."
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