Joe Louis wanted redemption, to remain the heavyweight boxing world champion and avenge his only defeat. Max Schmeling wanted repetition, the chance to regain the title he had lost and defeat the younger one, just as he had beaten him two years earlier. As the bell rang and they walked towards the center of a 20 square foot boxing ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium in New York City, all every man wanted was to have his hand raised in victory. athletic.
But for the more than 70,000 people in attendance and the millions of radio broadcasters around the world, the stakes were far greater. It was 1938, and as storm clouds gathered over Europe, African-American Louis and German Schmeling were unwitting fighters in a preliminary proxy skirmish.
Schmeling was born in Klein Luckow, Germany, in 1905; Louis in Lafayette, Alabama nine years later. Schmeling made his debut as a professional boxer in 1925 and began fighting in the United States – then the sport’s undisputed world epicenter – in 1928. In 1930, he won the heavyweight championship against Jack Sharkey, before to lose it to the same man two years later.
In 1936 he had seven losses with his 48 wins, and at 31 he was considered old for a heavyweight boxer. He seemed the perfect foil for the undefeated and promising American phenomenon Louis.
The 1936 match: 12 rounds, then a knockout
But Schmeling had studied Louis and noticed flaws in the American’s technique, particularly the way, after throwing his left hand down, he briefly let it drop, leaving his chin exposed to Schmeling’s powerful right hand. Schmeling exploited this error mercilessly, beating Louis for 12 rounds until finally knocking him out and inflicting his first loss.
It would be the culmination of Schmeling’s career. Although he was a popular figure in the New York fighting community, by the time he and Louis fought again two years later, he and the country he represented were seen in a much darker perspective. . It was becoming impossible to ignore the growing threat that Nazi Germany posed to those within and beyond its borders.
Schmeling never joined the Nazis, but neither did he reject them
While Schmeling did not support the Nazis and never joined the party, he “had a comfortable relationship” with them. He gave the Nazi salute in the ring after beating American Steve Hamas in Munich. He went hunting with Nazi military leader Herman Göring and attended the annual rallies in Nuremberg.
After his victory over Louis, he watched films of the fight with Adolf Hitler, who insisted that they be shown across Germany. Joseph Goebbels publicly praised him. Hitler’s future wife, Eva Braun, confessed privately in her diary to her obsession with him. (Conversely, Schmeling resisted pressure to part ways with his American Jewish manager and housed two young Jewish boys during Kristallnacht.)
After James Braddock (known as “Cinderella Man”) won the heavyweight championship in 1935, he refused to give Schmeling a chance to win his crown. Instead, he defended against Louis in 1937, who knocked him out in the eighth round to become the heavyweight world champion. But Louis insisted his victory was incomplete.
“I’m not a champion until I beat Schmeling,” he said.
And so, on June 22, 1938, the two men clash again.
Louis vs. Schmeling: second game
American sports audiences eagerly devoured the news of the fight’s build-up, seeing it as an opportunity for an American sports hero to stick a thumbs up in Hitler’s Aryan dreams. The irony, of course, was that while African Americans rightly revered Louis as a hero, much of white America draped its support in racist disdain. Marguerite Garrahan of the Birmingham News, for example, felt that Louis was a “return to the tanned skin of the primitive swamp creature who glory in battles and blood”.
Writing in 2007, boxing historian Thomas Hauser noted that “this was the first time that many white Americans openly rooted for a black man against a white opponent. It was also the first time many people had heard of a black man referred to simply as “the American”. Louis himself pierced the hypocrisy of the situation more prosaically: “White Americans, even though some of them were still lynching blacks in the South – depended on me to KO Germany.”
The fight itself was dramatic but brief. Louis poured everything into his preparation, while Schmeling has said publicly that he sees no way for the American to correct his previous mistakes. The German was wrong. Louis tore Schmeling from the opening bell, dropping him three times and knocking him out in the very first round. The fight lasted only two minutes and four seconds.
“Now I feel like the champion,” said Louis, who would go on to make a total of 25 consecutive title defenses, a record that still stands. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest professional boxers who ever lived.
“Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost this fight,” Schmeling said in 1975. “Imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal.
Louis and Schmeling reunited at the end of World War II and became friends, bound in perpetuity by the intensity of their rivalry. Louis died in April 1981 at the age of only 66. Schmeling was among its carriers.