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Fight of the Century

By Emmett Berg | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

On the evening of June 22, 1938, the world turned towards two fighters in a ring in Yankee Stadium. Movie houses paused their films and broadcast the event over loudspeakers. In a country of 130 million people, seventy million Americans listened to the boxing match. "Everyone stopped and listened to the fight. Even the streetcars stopped," remembers Ferdie Pacheco.

The bout pitted the twenty-eight-year-old son of an Alabama sharecropper against the son of a Hamburg sailor. On the eve of the fight, American champion Joe Louis visited the White House, where President Roosevelt gripped his arm and said, "These are the muscles we need to defeat the Germans." Across the Atlantic, Joseph Goebbels had invited boxer Max Schmeling's wife to listen to the fight as it was broadcast live in the middle of the night. It was to be the second shortest championship match in history.

While the world listened, Louis knocked out just over two minutes. One hundred thousand people poured into the streets of Harlem to celebrate Louis's stunning victory. "It was like we had defeated the Nazis then and there," says trainer Steve Acunto. Patriotism overcame prejudice that night and Americans, white and black, cheered together in Louis's corner.

A new NEH-funded documentary tells the story of Louis and Schmeling and the event that tied them together in history. The Fight will air on PBS's The American Experience in the spring of 2005. They both "came from nothing, and each did what he had to survive," says the film's narrator Courtney Vance. Schmeling adapted himself according to his surroundings: from the intellectual circles of the Weimar Republic, to the scrappy New York boxing scene, to the landscape of fear in Nazi Germany. In a segregated America, Louis broke down racial barriers to become a national hero.

Joe Louis Barrows was born in Alabama and moved to Detroit with his family when he was twelve. With a friend's encouragement, Louis used his weekly fifty cents for violin lessons to rent a locker at Brewster's Eastside gymnasium, where he developed an athlete's physique and a competitor's instinct. Louis dropped Barrow from his name and began boxing full time. Coming off a strong showing in the 1934 Golden Gloves final, he attracted an ambitious manager and trainer, who thought he could be the next world champion.

No black boxer had had a shot at the world title since Jack Johnson had beaten Jim Jeffries in 1910. Johnson had antagonized the white boxing establishment, first by mercilessly pummeling his white opponents and second, by cavorting with white women and disregarding the racial boundaries of the era.

The generation of boxers that followed paid a price for Johnson's boldnessblack boxers were shut out from the big fights. Louis's managers began a public relations campaign to sell Louis as a 'good Negro,' a black man whose humility and forbearance were of highest priority. "He had to be seen as a Bible-reading, mother-loving, God-fearing individual. And not to be too black," says historian Jeffrey Sammons. "They set out deliberately to create somebody precisely the opposite of Jack Johnson," says writer David Margolick.

Louis won his first twenty-three fights as a professional boxerone every two weeksand became a folk hero in the black community. "We invested so much in Joe Louis," says writer Vernon Jarrett. "He was our nonviolent, violent way of expressing ourselves." In North Carolina, legend holds that an inmate on his way to the electric chair cried out, "Save me, Joe Louis! Save me!"

"In the 1930s, New York was the capital for boxing, the Mecca," says sportswriter Jack Newfield, and Louis had yet to prove himself there. But the biggest venue, Madison Square Garden, would not allow black boxers. Louis's new promoter, Mike Jacobs, finagled a way to stage top-rank interracial boxing in New York by ingratiating himself with the Hearst publishing family and forming the 20th Century Sporting Club; the club promoted Louis's New York debut at the Hippodrome against the Italian giant Primo Carnera.

Louis knocked out Carnera in the sixth round and overnight became the biggest draw in boxing. Twenty thousand fans showed up at the Savoy Ballroom after the fight because Louis said he would be there. Over the next year, "Louis was going through the heavyweight division like Sherman through Georgia," says historian Herb Goldman. All Louis lacked was a world title. There were two boxers looking to take it from James Braddock in 1936: Louis and an older German fighter named Max Schmeling.

Schmeling found fame first as a fighter in Weimar Berlin, where he was the darling of the avant-garde circle of artists, homosexuals, Communists, and Jews. With a German and European boxing championship under his belt, Schmeling set out in 1928 for New York and promptly fired his German manager in favor of a New Yorker named Joe Jacobs. "He was the guy who opened doors," says boxing promoter Don Majeski about Jacobs. After two years in the U.S., Jacobs got Schmeling a fight against Jack Sharkey for the vacant heavyweight title. Schmeling won the title on a technicality and became a laughing stock in Germany; in the rematch he lost in a disputed decision but became a hero in his homeland because he was "seen as a victim of a political decision," says Margolick.

Schmeling was popular again, but in a Germany very different from before. The decadence of the twenties was gone, the economy was dismal, and the Nazi party was gaining power. In January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor and by May, books deemed subversive were being burned in the streets. Schmeling stood by as his former friends were blacklisted and persecuted--at the same time he and his new movie-star wife were embraced by the new regime.

According to the film there was an unwritten contract between Schmeling and Hitler: Hitler would not interfere with Schmeling's career and Schmeling would be an informal spokesman for the fatherland. When Schmeling went back to New York for his upcoming fight with Louis, he gave optimistic interviews according to Hitler's instructions: the newspapers ran the headline, "Max Schmeling Says Germany Is Not Cruel to Jewish Folks."

"He was loyal to his government," says German sportswriter Volker Klug of Schmeling, "but that loyalty had a high price. He had to burden his conscience with the dark side of the regime." Schmeling's special status allowed him otherwise impermissible acts, such as having a Jewish manager and fighting against blacks.

The first time Schmeling met Louis in the ring, he was the underdog. Joe Louis had won his first twenty-seven fights as a professional boxer and the German was expected to become the next to fall.

"It was really the fight for the world championship," says Margolick. It was understood that either boxer could beat Braddock.

During their fight in 1936, Schmeling found a weak spot in Louis's jab and pounded Louis again and again. Midway through the match, Louis's mother had to be led from the stadium crying, "Don't let them kill my son." Louis was counted out in the twelfth round.

"An idol fell," said the New York Post, "and the crashing was so complete, so dreadful and so totally unexpected that it broke the hearts of the Negroes of the world." Louis's loss was a vindication for boxing fans who disliked the prospect of a black champion and had been looking for a great white hope. "Louis the flawless fighter was a myth, .a delusion and a legend that never happened," wrote David Walsh for the Hearst Newspapers.

Louis returned to Detroit in humiliation while Schmeling rode home in a private berth on the Hindenburg and was invited to dine with Hitler. While Schmeling socialized with Nazi leaders, he never became a party member and the hierarchy apparently preferred it that way. "He was very useful as an apolitical, because he would be more believable," says scholar David Bathrick. A few months later, Schmeling was sent to convince the U.S. Olympic Committee not to boycott the summer games in Berlin.

Schmeling was to fight Braddock for the title, but Louis's promoter gave Braddock an offer he couldn't refuse: if he fought Louis instead, he was promised 10 percent of the purse from all of Louis's fights for the next ten years. Louis knocked out Braddock in the eighth round and became heavyweight champion of the world. He was ready to take on the German.

It was a time when sports were a respite from an epoch of national hardship and more was at stake than the world championship. The world was grim in 1938. America was staggering through the Depression. Three months before the fight, Hitler had annexed Austria and was now threatening Czechoslovakia. Faced with a growing Nazi threat abroad, many white Americans joined black fans and rallied around Louis for the rematch. Seventy thousand people were at Yankee Stadium to watch the fight, some throwing garbage and spitting on Schmeling as he made his way to the ring.

The fight was broadcast in four languagesEnglish, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. In Germany, soldiers woke up at 3 a.m. to listen. Louis staggered Schmeling with twelve blows to the chin in less than a minute and a punch to the body that made him scream. "He screamed like a woman screams. His scream went all through the stadium," remembers Truman Gibson, Louis's attorney. Louis won in two minutes and four seconds. Fred Morton remembers himself as a young Jewish boy in Austria, hearing the fight with his father and cheering for Schmeling's defeat: "For the first time there was an inkling that Hitler might somehow be stopped."

Thirty blocks were sealed off in Harlem for the night's celebration. "There was never a Harlem like the Harlem of last night," reported the New York Daily News. "If you take a dozen Christmases, a score of New Year's Eves, a bushel of July Fourths and maybe, just maybe, you'd get a faint glimpse of the idea."

The next morning, Heywood Broun wrote in the New York World-Telegram, "One hundred years from now some historian may theorize, in a footnote at least, that the decline of Nazi prestige began with a left hook delivered by a former unskilled automotive worker who had never studied the policies of Neville Chamberlain and had no opinion whatever in regard to the situation in Czechoslovakia . . . ."

Schmeling would never fight again in America and his popularity in Germany dissolved overnight. Out of the limelight, Schmeling took more risks. During Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues, he hid two young Jewish boys, sons of a friend, in his hotel room and later helped them escape to America. Schmeling was conscripted into the German Army; he survived the war to become the owner of a Coca-Cola plant in Germany. Schmeling, who is 98 and still lives in Germany, was exonerated of any ties to Nazi crimes.

Louis would go on to defend his world champion title twenty-four more times. "I think what happened to Joe Louis after 1938 could have been another film," says the documentary's director, Barak Goodman. Louis served in the army during the war and later ran into financial troubles--he donated large amounts to the Army and Navy relief funds but ran into problems with the Internal Revenue Service. To make money he fought too long, finally losing a devastating match to Rocky Marciano in 1951. Afterward, Marciano cried in his dressing room at what he had done to his boyhood hero.

Schmeling and Louis would see each other a dozen more times. Schmeling gave Louis financial assistance and helped cover expenses for Louis's funeral; Schmeling was one of his pallbearers. "It has become convenient to say that Joe Louis and Max Schmeling ended up as great friends. I don't think they were great friends," says Margolick. "They barely knew each other. They spent only forty minutes together in the ring. History brought them together and in history they will always be together."

About the Author

Emmett Berg is a writer in Los Angeles.