Joe Louis, who 20 years after his death still stands astride heavyweight boxing like the Colossus over Rhodes, has been named the greatest athlete in Detroit history. The longest reigning world heavyweight champion of all-time was selected by a panel of sports historians - assembled by the Detroit News - as the greatest sportsman the 300-year-old Michigan city has ever produced.
Born Joseph Louis Barrow in Alabama in 1914, the man who would become known as the “Brown Bomber” moved to Detroit with his family aged 12. After leaving school, Louis worked on several motorcar assembly plants, including a spell at the Ford Motor Company for $25 a week, but destiny had a much greater purpose in mind.
A converted southpaw, Louis possessed one of the most feared left jabs in history and it helped him bang his way to the world heavyweight title within three years of turning professional. Louis would remain undisputed heavyweight champion of the world for 13 years, a feat likely to remain unequalled forever.
Of all his great battles, the Bomber explodes in the memory of sports fans most vividly for his June 1938 rematch with Germany’s Max Schmeling. A year earlier, the cerebral former world champion had taken the raw Louis to school, scoring an upset 10th round knockout over the American hero.
With Adolf Hitler using sport as Arian propaganda and the Afro-American now holding the richest prize in sport, the rematch became a contest of political ideology, a hint of the ugliness to come. After getting a pep talk from President Roosevelt, Louis attacked his conqueror like a raging inferno from the opening bell. Less than a round later, the decimated German lay smashed to pieces on the canvas.
When war broke out the patriotic Louis surrendered his athletic prime and served in the US Army as a motivational speaker and entertainer. After the war, he would cement his reputation as the one of the three greatest heavyweights in history (only Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali can he placed in his company) and retired as champion after a titanic struggle with Jersey Joe Walcott in 1949.
Of course, there are few happy endings in boxing and, of course, Louis later returned to the ring as a shadow of his former self. His career was finally ended when he was knocked out and onto the ring apron by a great champion of the future - Rocky Marciano.
In a bittersweet way it was a fitting end to the boxing career of the Brown Bomber. He had been the greatest fighter on Earth for so long and, in spending his last drops of greatness, Louis passed that torch to another in person.
Half a century later, his city has chosen to revel in who he was. Jerry Green - sportswriter for the Detroit News - reminded readers that Louis used to spend the money his mother gave him for violin lessons on tutorials in the sweet science. Writes Green: “When he died in 1981, Detroit and the entire nation felt the pain. Instead of a violin virtuoso, Detroit had produced a world champion.”
So, it did.
Joining Louis in the Top 20 were fighters Sugar Ray Robinson (No.11) and Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns (No.18).
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