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Editor's Note, July/August 2004

The Fight of the Century

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

By all accounts it was a memorable moment in American life. On a cool June night, the son of a black Alabama sharecropper and a hero of the Third Reich squared off in a brightly lit sixteen-by-sixteen-foot boxing ring.

The year was 1938 and the drama in Yankee Stadium played against a darkening world scene: Adolf Hitler was in power; "non-Aryans"--any person with one Jewish parent or grandparent--had been banned from the practice of law, banking, or medicine in Germany; and troops from Hitler's Wehrmacht and SS had annexed Austria.

On that night, seventy thousand people crowded Yankee Stadium and another seventy million listened to the radio--half the population of the United States. Movie houses stopped their projectors and broadcast the match.

"It was the important event of my growing up," fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. "This nation was at the height of segregation. . . . But in this fight, for the first time the black people represented America. They represented Americans against the Nazis, who were coming here with their idea of racial superiority. Joe Louis had the effect of putting a drop of chemical into the water and all the color goes out."

The bout was over so quickly--Louis won in two minutes and four seconds of the first round--that some who tuned in overseas did not have time to realize it was already over. One hundred thousand people poured into the streets of Harlem and the police obligingly closed off thirty blocks for the celebration. It was like "a bushel of July Fourths," the New York Daily News reported.

Louis and Schmeling. Their names would remain linked in history. Both served in World War II. Joe Louis defended his title twenty-four times and gave a substantial portion of his winnings to Army and Navy Relief. But he ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service and wound up working as an official greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Max Schmeling joined Coca-Cola after the war and purchased a bottling plant. He became a millionaire, and in 1981, helped pay for Joe Louis's funeral.

In this issue of Humanities, we look at ambiguities in the world of boxing, from Louis and Schmeling back to the time of the Greeks. The summer games return this August to Greece, where they were inaugurated nearly twenty-eight centuries ago. The inscriptions and shards that remain give us glimpses into the values of that world.

As the centuries passed and the heroes of the Iliad were replaced by the ranks of the hoplite phalanx, the warrior hero was supplanted by the athlete hero.

Pindar writes of one athlete, Arrichion, who won a match even as he died during the Olympic Games of 564 B.C.E.

Though it is indeed a great thing that he already won twice at Olympia, what has just now happened is greater: he has won at the cost of his life and goes to the land of the Blessed with the very dust of the struggle.

Competition is ingrained in humans, in the view of Irving Finkel of the British Museum. He is co-curating an NEH-supported exhibition, "Asian Games: The Art of Contest," which opens in October at the Asia Society Museum in New York City. "The hunt, the race, the fight are deep-seated in the human mind," he says. "There is a school of thought that believes the origin of games was a way of reducing everything to a miniature scale, where the danger of it, the true violence, was diminished."