Cowboy Rocky Lee squeezed his arm around Joe Louis' head and leaned into the ropes, then steered him toward the other side of the wrestling ring. The portly grappler in all-black reared back and fired off a theatrical punch to Louis' face.
The boxing legend spun around cartoonishly—feigning dizziness, shaking off imaginary stars.
When Louis balled up his own fist, Lee skittered away. The big man darted around the referee and sought refuge in the ropes, the crowd groaning at his cowardice.
Louis now existed in an alien world.
The ring was the same shape. His in-ring arsenal was much the same. Ropes encircled him just as they had in his old life. But the Brown Bomber wasn't where he belonged.
As a pro wrestler, he was a lion plucked from the savanna and placed on AstroTurf.
For years, there was no argument—Louis was the best heavyweight fighter in the world. He held the heavyweight title for over a decade, from 1937 to 1949.
Louis floored Max Baer in 1935. He outlasted Max Schmeling in 1938. And as Matt McGrain wrote for Boxing.com, "He defeated an unprecedented six lineal heavyweight champions. Every single one of those heavyweight champions was destroyed."
The king of the sweet science had moved on, though, to a new kind of battle. A canyon-like tax debt had him in a frantic search of ways to make money. Wrestling was one of them.
When he debuted in this new arena in 1956, boxing ruled the sports landscape. Where it was mainstream, wrestling was niche. Where boxers were revered gladiators in gloves, wrestlers were seen as participants in a low-culture endeavor.
Even so, other boxers had made this same transition.
The massive former heavyweight champ Primo Carnera moved to the wrestling mat. Carnera battled Antonino Rocca, among others. Loudmouth, cigar-smoking Tony "Two Ton" Galento wrestled following his boxing career, too.
Louis knew both of these men well.
He boxed Carnera in 1935, finishing off the powerhouse in six rounds. As for Galento, Louis bested him in 1939.
For Louis to trade uppercuts for headlocks, though, was different. Many viewed this move as a legend lowering himself. As seen in the biography Joe Louis by Rugio Vitale, the Brown Bomber's then-wife, Rose Morgan, said of Louis' new gig, "It's like seeing President Eisenhower wash dishes."
Louis had little choice.
Regardless of how he felt about wrestling, he needed it.
Famed wrestling promoter Bob Geigel told wrestling historian Greg Oliver of SLAM! Wrestling, "Joe Louis was the nicest guy in the world. He didn't have much money when he got out of boxing, after they robbed him blind."
The IRS Provides the Impetus
Louis spent money like it might rot shortly after going into his pockets.
He doled out cash to family, friends and military relief funds. He invested in businesses, like Joe Louis Punch, that flopped. The boxer owed promoters like Mike Jacobs thousands of dollars.
When Louis returned from serving in the army during World War II, he found an overwhelming debt waiting for him.
A major part of that came from unpaid taxes. The men he hired to handle his money often only made things worse.
As he remembered in his autobiography, Joe Louis: My Life, "One tax guy went over my finances and found out I had been borrowing money from my own companies and hadn't paid taxes on the money I borrowed. I don't know, he might as well have been talking Greek to me. What I did know was I had no money."
The numbers started off staggering, only to grow worse. As Henry D. Fetter wrote for the Atlantic, "An initial assessment of half-a-million dollars ballooned to over $1,250,000 by the mid-1950s as interest and penalties accumulated."
Louis soon snatched any opportunity he could to pay the government back.
At first, that meant a return to boxing despite long passing his prime. On Sept. 27, 1950, Ezzard Charles pounded on a 36-year-old Louis. A year later, Louis stepped into the ring with the young, powerful and undefeated Rocky Marciano.
Marciano decimated the former champ. Louis looked like he was wading through mud as his opponent hammered away on him.
The lasting image from that fight was Louis lying on the edge of the ring, one foot on the bottom rope, the press at ringside helping lift the dazed boxer to a sitting position.
It couldn't have been clearer: Louis was done.
With his debt still looming, he had to seek out new ways to generate income. He appeared in advertisements for cigarettes and a legal firm. As ill-fitting as it was, he starred in his own stage show. None of it proved enough.
Bills streamed in. The IRS kept battering away.
As Randy Roberts wrote in Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, "Attempts to recover the money between 1951 and 1962 made Louis' life a financial hell. Agents wrote him letters and called him on the phone. They attacked trust funds set up for his daughter and son, and swooped in to garnish the lion's share of any money he earned."
Fans even began to send him money. He sent it all back, but it had to affect him. Here was the once-king of the boxing world getting kids' allowances in his mail.
"Even kids were sending me dollars out of the little money they saved. One little kid even mailed me a dime," he recalled in his autobiography.
Dejected, stressed, fearful of ending up in jail, he signed a deal to become a wrestler.
His boxing skills had deteriorated, but he could still use his name to attract crowds. He could begin a new life in wrestling, boxing's bastard cousin.
It didn't matter how the press would skewer him. It didn't matter what kind of rumblings awaited him. Good money was there for the taking.
In the documentary America's Hero Betrayed, Louis' friend, Dorothy Mann, remembered asking him how he felt about this move onto a new mat. He told her, "It beats stealing."
On a snowy, damp Friday night in Washington, D.C., crowds slipped into their seats at the Uline Arena.
A standard wrestling card had become something far different with the addition of Louis. On March 16, 1956, the great boxer was set to make his wrestling debut against Cowboy Rocky Lee.
Curiosity surely bubbled in the 4,000 fans in attendance. Louis was a celebrity, a transcendent star and a cultural icon. And he was now set to bring his famed fists to the carnival that is pro wrestling.
Promoter Ray Fabiani had signed Louis, per the Associated Press, to an exclusive deal that sent him on a wrestling tour that included a $100,000 guarantee. Taking on Lee was the first leg of that tour.
Behind the curtain, dressed in navy-blue trunks, Louis prepared himself. Donald McRae detailed the scene in Heroes Without a Country:
Joe hated the way his paunch hung over the elastic. He stared at his sagging rolling flesh. His once flat chest had swollen into two soft brown bags, his nipples making them look even more like small breasts in the smeared mirror. He hitched up his wrestling briefs in an effort to hide at least some of his stomach. The bulge spilled out over both sides.
Louis could at least take comfort in having one familiar face in the ring with him. Jersey Joe Walcott served as the match's referee.
Walcott was a former heavyweight pugilist himself. And Louis had twice defeated him, last knocking him to the canvas in the summer of 1948.
The boxer-turned-wrestler soon found himself opposite the rotund Lee. The big man wore a black singlet underneath a tasseled cowboy shirt.
Louis did his best to be a showman, but he wasn't used to having to entertain. His only goal as a fighter had been to win. Compared to his new peers, he was robotic, wooden, deadpan.
The Brown Bomber flipped Lee onto the canvas, forcing the cowboy to reach for the small of his back. Louis hit his foe with controlled, half-speed punches. Walcott was twice sent tumbling backward amid the chaos.
The climax came when Louis hit his opponent with a held-back blow made 10 times bigger by Lee selling it as a haymaker. Rolling through the ropes, out of the ring and onto a row of folding chairs, the heel had been vanquished.
Louis earned a count-out victory and a much-needed paycheck.
He wrote in his autobiography that he took his wife, Rose Morgan, out that night, sharing a drink at Red Randolph's bar. He had about $150 left after paying off some of his debt and enjoying an evening with his lady.
When a friend asked if he could borrow 100 bucks, Louis lent it to him.
A Career Ends in Broken Ribs
Fabiani placed Louis' name on marquees in the Midwest and across Florida. However, the boxer never became the sensation in his new home as the promoter might have envisioned.
Sure, the Brown Bomber was famous. But he wasn't hammy enough and wasn't a good enough actor to make a lasting impression in wrestling.
Louis didn't adopt a new arsenal. He still relied on punches, but restrained versions of his famous right cross and watered-down shots to the body. Playing to the crowd proved to be far from his forte.
It almost didn't matter. The media made it clear they were more interested in his transition to wrestling than his wrestling itself.
Louis often fielded questions about his motives for becoming a wrestler. Was this simply a means to pay back his debt to the government? Did he feel that he was demeaning himself?
"When they present me with a bill I can pay, I want to do it," he explained to John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News (h/t Spokane Daily Chronicle).
In the interview below, a reporter asked him his thoughts on the criticism he had received since turning to wrestling. Louis told him, "Everyone don't agree with what I've done, but I'm sure that more people do agree with me than the ones who don't."
As detailed in McRae's Heroes Without a Country, criticism of another kind soon arrived.
In early April 1956, Louis prepared for a match backstage in St. Petersburg, Florida. Buddy Rogers, the first man to win what is now the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, did the same. Just as the other boys in the locker room did, Louis listened attentively to one of Rogers' many tales of the road.
On this night, the narrative ended suddenly.
Milton Gross of the New York Post entered and asked the Brown Bomber his thoughts on wrestling in an arena that didn't allow black fans to attend. The information stunned Louis. He had no idea.
"You know they don't allow colored people in here tonight?" he asked Rogers.
The arena didn't have enough room to house separate facilities for white and black patrons. Management then chose not to integrate the audience. The situation sent Louis spinning.
He wanted to refuse his paycheck. He wanted to give it to the NAACP. He wanted to simply not step through the ropes.
"I don't want to go out there," he said.
Rogers, who was married to a black woman, tried to pacify this situation. He told the rookie wrestler that they could refuse to perform at future places that excluded black fans. For now, though, they should wrestle as advertised.
Louis eventually did so with a towel wrapped around his neck.
He took on Shag Thomas that night. The mustached Thomas had a wide, flabby frame, much like Lee. The wrestler displayed a melodramatic fear of Louis' fists, cowering between the ropes several times.
The Brown Bomber wouldn't have to play this game much longer. His wrestling career ended abruptly on May 31 in Columbus, Ohio.
Cowboy Rocky Lee, the man who wrestled him in his first match, also did the honors in his last. The big man injured Louis when he lunged onto him with both feet, his boots colliding with Louis' torso.
The crash cracked three of his ribs. It left him with a cardiac contusion and officially ended his stint as a wrestler. The Illinois State Athletic Commission denied him a wrestling license afterward.
It was not yet time to leave wrestling, however. Louis shifted over to the role of official.
Donning a Striped Shirt
Louis followed Jersey Joe's lead, sliding into a striped shirt and doing his best to maintain order in a purposely chaotic environment. After his last match as a wrestler, he stuck to refereeing well into the '70s.
Buddy Rogers got him his first gig. The offers came flooding in afterward.
The Brown Bomber wrote in his autobiography that he was getting up to $1,500 a night.
Canadian grappler Reggie Love remembered Louis reffing one of his bouts. He told SLAM! Wrestling's Oliver, "In my very first match in a tag team [in Detroit], with Bull and I, who do you think was the referee? Joe Louis, my favorite. My first match! He hit Frenchy in the neck, Frenchy had a 40-inch neck if you remember. It made a big smack."
Love recalled fighting with Jim Bernard in the corner when Louis tried to pull them apart. Bernard fired a four-letter word to the boxing champ.
In that way, at least, Louis was being treated like a regular referee, not an invading celebrity.
Again, his boxing skills didn't transfer. He was out of his element once more. A 1954 edition of the Daily Reporter panned his reffing exploits.
The writeup read, "Louis is not a good rassling [sic] referee, however, mainly because he is no part a Thespian."
Promoters didn't care. They wanted to lean on the value of his name, not his adeptness at telling the grapplers to break. In an act symbolic of his star status, Star-News placed a photo of Louis atop the preview for the event he worked in 1973, not one of the Royal Kangaroos, Art Nelson, Johnny Weaver or any of the other wrestlers on the card.
He was the draw.
That was true even when he was just trying to grab a bite in between bouts. Grappler Pampero Firpo told Pat Galbincea of the Plain Dealer a story of fans flocking toward the former champ as the two snacked in the street.
After Louis refereed one of his matches, the two hit it off. The bushy-haired bruiser referred to Louis as "a real man and a real genuine champion."
Firpo recalled, "Joe loved peanuts, so we stopped at a supermarket in Cleveland so I could buy him peanuts. What a pair we must have made...the greatest boxing champion and me, with my long and wild hair. People couldn't stop looking at us, and when they figured out who we were, they came and asked for autographs."
Louis' star power was still strong. Crowds still came to see him.
Still, his heart couldn't have been in it. Entering the wrestling world was a money-driven act, and it was certainly not his calling.
Eventually, the debt driving him to work in a striped shirt in the squared circle dissipated. The IRS finally eased off. As PBS.org noted, "The government agreed not to collect on the back taxes, and he lived comfortably among friends."
In 1970, he went to work at Caesars Palace as a casino host. The gig allowed him to interact with fans and to see old friends like Frank Sinatra. Tourists asked him about his boxing days and if he thought he could beat Muhammad Ali, but they didn't ask him about his days in the other kind of ring.
Louis' wrestling days have mostly faded from our collective memory. Those battles on sweaty mats are a blip in his biography. It's his exploits as a boxer that we remember.
It's better that way. No one wants to recall a legend flailing and fumbling in a world not his own.
A special thanks to SLAM! Wrestling writer and wrestling historian Greg Oliver, who shared several firsthand quotes from his interviews. The biography Heroes Without a Country: America's Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens by Donald McRae proved invaluable as well.