How History's Greatest Boxer Ended up in a Circus Ring

Joe Louis and Jack Sharkey, Aug. 22, 1936.

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Why you should care

Because he fought to the bitter end.

“Stay away, Joe! Stay away, Joe!” screamed ringside observers and fans of Joe Louis, whose collapse in the 14th round appeared imminent. Moments before, his younger opponent, Ezzard Charles, landed a right cross followed by a right uppercut that initiated Louis’ instinctive retreat. “His eyes went slightly glazy on that one as if he were tired,” the commentator remarked as Louis hugged Charles, trying to slow his opponent’s punches.

Louis survived that round and, as a cruel reward, earned himself three more minutes of punishment. Boxing historian and host of Knuckles and Gloves podcast Patrick Connor describes Louis as someone who became “perhaps the most powerful man in the world.” But that was in the pugilist’s prime; by 1950, when he faced Charles, Louis was well on his way to becoming “another fighter gobbled up by the most wicked of sports,” Connor says.

Louis was no longer the same “Brown Bomber” who rose from the poverty of Alabama’s cotton fields and Detroit’s Black Bottom …

The judges scored the fight unanimously for Charles, and as Louis’ cornermen wiped blood from his face and placed a robe on his back, they looked despondent. Louis was no longer the same “Brown Bomber” who rose from the poverty of Alabama’s cotton fields and Detroit’s Black Bottom — part of the Great Migration — to become a national hero. With World War II as a backdrop, his fights against Italian Primo Carnera and German Max Schmeling became symbols of something greater — metaphors for democracy’s fight against fascism in “the good war.” But those had been different times, and Louis, along with everyone around him, knew it. In fact, Louis needed money so badly that he had joined the circus.

Professional boxing is a wretched way to make a living, even for the best fighters. When age begins blunting the reflexes, the already high level of danger increases. The emotional toll, unsurprisingly, is hard on the athletes as well as their loved ones. In Louis’ case, his mother, Lillie, worried about her son’s health as he continued boxing on the downside of age 30. When Louis joined the circus, the Chicago Tribune described Lillie as “the happiest woman in the world.” “Now I can stop fretting,” she said, noting how her son’s gifting her a home “isn’t as nice a present as [Joe] … not fighting again.”

Joe Louis

Joe Louis rocks Jersey Joe Walcott with a powerful right.

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But Louis didn’t pull all his punches. As he toured with the Dailey Bros.’ Circus in 1950, he put on boxing exhibitions as he had during World War II. While in the Army, Louis traveled more than 21,000 miles, entertaining 2 million soldiers with nearly 100 exhibitions. These were controlled fights, free of danger, that offered fans a chance to see, up close, the great Joe Louis do his thing. From Canada to Texas and into South America, Louis mimicked punches and feints for circusgoers, moves that, in earlier years, had relegated his opponents to the “Bum of the Month” club, a list of those he’d beaten during his 12-year reign as world heavyweight champion.

Even with the circus paying him $1,000 a day, it was not enough for the deeply indebted Louis. Poor money management and failed investments pushed him into the red. He also owed back taxes to Uncle Sam, including IRS penalties linked to disallowed deductions he claimed from buying tickets for soldiers to attend his exhibitions. In a New York Times article on his economic difficulties, Louis noted, “I made $5 million … and wound up broke, owing the government a million.” Like many pugilists, Louis returned to professional boxing because he couldn’t afford the luxury of retiring, even to circus events. His spending ways didn’t help matters, Connor says, but it was Louis’ “tax debt [that] spurred on his comeback and the punishment he absorbed during it.” Risking his health, Louis fought on, never seeing most of the money he earned.

Joe Louis

Jersey Joe Walcott faces off with champion Joe Louis at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

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A year after fighting Charles — who also could not afford to stop fighting and would eventually suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease — Louis again retired from boxing, following his loss to Rocky Marciano. After that bout, Louis wondered whether the loss jeopardized his plans for another boxing exhibition tour, telling the Montreal Gazette, “I don’t know whether the party will want me anymore.” As boxing exhibitions became a less believable option, he joined the wrestling circuit.

Two decades later, when he wasn’t working as official greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas — “a roulette table ornament,” as Connor calls him — Louis also wrestled to bring in extra money. One August night, according to the Los Angeles Times, the 59-year-old was set to referee the main event and was having a quiet moment in the locker room when a man ran toward him with his young son in tow. “I want you to meet Joe Louis, champion of the world,” the father told his 10-year-old son.

Joe Louis

A young Joe Louis.

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Louis died April 12, 1981, of a massive heart attack. Lewis Erenberg, author of The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs. Schmeling, described Louis as someone whose “body had atrophied, his fortune had disappeared and his fame had dwindled.” Max Schmeling — who after the war had become a wealthy Coca-Cola executive — helped pay for his former opponent’s funeral.

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