Louis vs. Schmeling was hardly the first time race and racism mattered in boxing (see Jack Johnson, among others), and it wouldn’t be the last. But the stakes both in this fight and in their rematch two years later, were unique in boxing history. These two athletes became avatars for not only black vs. white, but also democracy vs. fascism, and good vs. evil.
As is often the case, both filled their roles uneasily.
Joe Louis’s rise to heavyweight boxing champion was cause for great celebration among African Americans of the 1930s. Anxious to avoid the controversies that had dogged the career of Jack Johnson, Louis worked to present himself as a simple, diligent fighter with no connection to gambling interests. Still, white America was cool toward him. In the Jim Crow south, bouts between black and white fighters were still against the law. Northerners, though willing to allow Louis to ply his trade, vented their racism on him at every opportunity.
“The northern press freely employed demeaning language, including the frequent use of ‘darky’ and the black athlete’s stereotypical image ran the gamut from ‘animal’ to carefree ‘sambo,'” wrote Jeffrey T. Sammons in “Beyond The Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society.” Nigel Collins ESPN.
Still, U.S. boxing had been suffering for a dearth of marketable champions ever since Jack Dempsey retired, and Louis’s 1935 defeat of Italian boxing champion Primo Carnera, which, like his later bouts with Schmeling, had political overtones that elevated public interest, made Louis a hero in a sport desperate for one.
Like many European boxers, Max Schmeling came to the United States in search of better purses. He’d been a successful boxer in his native Germany, becoming well known enough that he spent his time consorting with the Weimar Republic’s rich, famous, and talented. Because he’d never been well educated, Schmeling worked hard to catch up culturally with his new friends, reading widely and deeply.
When he came to the U.S., Schmeling changed promoters, choosing Joe Jacobs. Because Jacobs was Jewish, Schmeling’s move would prove controversial in his increasingly anti-semitic homeland. When the Nazis took over in 1933, many of Schmeling’s artist friends were under increased pressure to conform or emigrate. Schmeling’s success abroad insulated him from this pressure to a large degree, and the new regime treated him from the start as a national hero.
This favorable treatment did come at a price for Schmeling. Adolf Hitler summoned Schmeling to a meeting in the summer of 1933 and said to him: “When you go to the United States, you’re going to obviously be interviewed by people who are thinking that very bad things are going on in Germany at this moment. And I hope you’ll be able to tell them that the situation isn’t as bleak as they think it is.” (David Bathrick) Schmeling did as he was told, which scored him enough points with the regime that he was later able to get the Interior Ministry to ignore his Jewish promoter and his violations of Nazi currency regulations.
Schmeling wasn’t seen as a serious threat to Louis. The odds against him were 10-1, and the Nazis, uncomfortable on racist principle about a white man fighting a black man and probably fearful that Schmeling was about to get his clock cleaned, tried to downplay the significance of the bout on June 29th, 1936. Unfortunately, Joe Louis believed his own press clippings and failed to train properly. Also, Schmeling, a smart student of boxing, studied Louis and noticed a weakness in Louis’s technique. Louis tended to drop his left hand slightly after throwing jabs, and Schmeling, whose signature punch was a powerful right, figured he could capitalize.
And so he did.
Schmeling knocked Louis down in the 3rd round (the first time Louis had been down in his professional career), injured Louis’s eye, and finally knocked out the weary champion in the 12th.
Langston Hughes described reaction in New York this way:
I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting in the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried.
The Nazis, who up to this night had been worried, were jubilant. From Joseph Goebbels’s diary:
Yesterday: Schwanenwerder. We were waiting for Max Schmeling’s fight with Joe Louis. We were on tenterhooks the whole evening with Schmeling’s wife. We told each other stories, laughed and cheered. … In round twelve, Schmeling knocked out the Negro. Fantastic, a dramatic, thrilling fight. Schmeling fought for Germany and won. The white man prevailed over the black, and the white man was German. I didn’t get to bed until five.
The Nazis were especially pleased to have this victory as the prelude to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were to start two months later. They flew Schmeling back to Germany on the airship Hindenburg and feted him like royalty. Schmeling played along, giving this quote to the German press:
At this moment I have to tell Germany, I have to report to the Fuehrer in particular, that the thoughts of all my countrymen were with me in this fight; that the Fuehrer and his faithful people were thinking of me. This thought gave me the strength to succeed in this fight. It gave me the courage and the endurance to win this victory for Germany’s colors.
Joe Louis was, of course, distraught. He knew he’d blown it, and that his loss had dashed a lot of hopes, both of African Americans and Americans generally. After subsequently winning the title from James Braddock, Louis pressed for a rematch with Schmeling.
Schmeling, despite the quote above, became increasingly uncomfortable with his role in Nazi propaganda. He refused both party membership and Hitler’s “honor dagger”, but his resistance could go only so far. The Nazis made sure that his family never travelled with him, and placed a minder in his entourage to see to it he never defected or made any statements against Hitler and the regime. Schmeling was to be a symbol of Aryan supremacy, whether he liked it or not.
I’ll leave the story there. If you’d like to read more about this fight, the rematch, and its significance in and beyond the sport of boxing, I suggest you start with The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis v. Schmeling by Lewis A Erenberg.