In 1933, Joe Louis won the Detroit-area Golden Gloves Novice Division championship against Joe Biskey for the light heavyweight classification. He later lost in the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. The next year, competing in the Golden Gloves' Open Division, he won the light heavyweight classification, this time also winning the Chicago Tournament of Champions against Max Bauer. However, a hand injury forced Louis to miss the New York/Chicago Champions' cross-town bout for the ultimate Golden Gloves championship. In April 1934, he followed up his Chicago performance by winning the light heavyweight United States Amateur Champion National AAU tournament in St. Louis, Missouri.
By the end of his amateur career, Louis's record was 50-4, with 43 knockouts.
Joe Louis had only three losses in his 69 professional fights. He tallied 52 knockouts and held the championship from 1937 to 1949, the longest span of any heavyweight titleholder. After returning from retirement, Louis failed to regain the championship in 1950, and his career ended after he was knocked out by Rocky Marciano in 1951.
If Louis were to rise to national prominence among such cultural attitudes, a change in management would be necessary. In 1935, boxing promoter Mike Jacobs sought out Louis's handlers. After Louis's narrow defeat of Natie Brown on March 29, 1935, Jacobs and the Louis team met at the Frog Club, a black nightclub, and negotiated a three year exclusive boxing promotion deal. The contract, however, did not keep Roxborough and Black from attempting to cash in as Louis's managers; when Louis turned 21 on May 13, 1935, Roxborough and Black each signed Louis to an onerous long term contract that collectively dedicate half of Louis's future income to the pair.
Black and Roxborough continued to carefully and deliberately shape Louis's media image. Mindful of the tremendous public backlash Johnson had suffered for his unapologetic attitude and flamboyant lifestyle, they drafted "Seven Commandments" for Louis's personal conduct. These included:
- Never have his picture taken with a white woman.
- Never gloat over a fallen opponent.
- Never engage in fixed fights.
- Live and fight clean.
As a result, Louis was generally portrayed in the white media as a modest, clean living person, which facilitated his burgeoning celebrity status.
With the backing of a major promotion, Louis fought thirteen times in 1935. The bout that helped put him in the media spotlight occurred on June 25, when Louis knocked out 6'6", 265 pound former world heavyweight champion Primo Carnera in six rounds. Foreshadowing the Louis-Schmeling rivalry to come, the Carnera bout featured a political dimension. Louis's victory over Carnera, who symbolized Benito Mussolini's regime in the popular eye, was seen as a victory for the international community, particularly among African Americans, who were sympathetic to Ethiopia, which was attempting to maintain its independence by fending off an invasion by fascist Italy. America's white press began promoting Louis's image in the context of the era's racism; nicknames they created included the "Mahagony Mauler", "Chocolate Chopper", "Coffee-Colored KO King", "Safari Sandman", and one that stuck: "The Brown Bomber".
Helping the white press to overcome its reluctance to feature a black contender was the fact that in the mid 1930s boxing desperately needed a marketable hero. Since the retirement of Jack Dempsey in 1929, the sport had devolved into a sordid mixture of poor athletes gambling, fixed fights, thrown matches, and control of the sport by organized crime. New York Times Columnist Edward Van Ness wrote, "Louis is a boon to boxing. Just as Dempsey led the sport out of the doldrums, so is Louis leading the boxing game out of a slump." Likewise, biographer Bill Libby asserted that "The sports world was hungry for a great champion when Louis arrived in New York in 1935."