The fight lasted a measly 124 seconds and proved to be the most one-sided rematch in boxing history. But the outcome impacted an entire generation from a cultural standpoint and helped to shift the political landscape prior to the Second World War. Joe Louis and Max Schmeling represented opposing sides in, and out, of the ring. This was more than just a fight for the world heavyweight championship.
The rivalry began in June of 1936 when Joe Louis and Max Schmeling met at the Bronx Stadium – home of the famous New York Yankees. “The Brown Bomber” was rapidly rising through the ranks, knocking out everyone who obstructed his path to greatness. He was closing in on boxing’s most sought-after prize; the world heavyweight championship – but would have to overcome former holder, Schmeling, to earn the opportunity.
Louis was looking to follow in the footsteps of previous black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, by becoming just the second African-American to win the title. Whilst his predecessor was controversial and outspoken, Louis was viewed as clean-cut and wholesome.
Having grown up in the South (before moving to Detroit) he’d developed aspirations of campaigning for racial equality and becoming a focal point for the African-American community. He’d amassed a twenty-three-fight unbeaten record and was deemed near-invincible by the boxing fraternity.
Although still climbing his way to the top, his opponent, Schmeling, had previously reached the summit of the heavyweight division by defeating Jack Sharkey for the title in 1930. He was the dark-eyed, bushy-browed German, recognised as Europe’s leading heavyweight and most popular fighter during the late 20s and early 30s. He wore the crown from 1930 to 1932, before losing to Sharkey in their trilogy fight.
Despite being the more experienced combatant and having proven himself at world level, Schmeling entered the first fight with Louis as a 10-1 underdog. Few anticipated that the German would cause one of the most shocking upsets in sporting history.
Schmeling trained diligently and spotted chinks in Louis’ armoury, specifically his tendency to drop the left-hand, which left him wide open for the counter right-hand. In June of 1936, the German exposed an ill-prepared Louis, by dominating him for eleven rounds before halting the powerful prospect in the twelfth with a series of counter right-hands.
Louis had become a victim of believing his own hype. He had adopted a relaxed approach to his pre-fight preparations, which saw him spend more time practising his swing on the golf course than rehearsing combinations in the gym.
His popularity with the ladies also proved to be a major distraction, and he could often be seen with a female companion by his side. Whilst married to Marva Trotter, he enjoyed an affair with Norwegian actress and Olympic ice-skating champion, Sonja Henie.
After the contest, it was expected that the winner (Schmeling) would be fast-tracked towards the world heavyweight strap. However, political tensions had risen considerably since Adolf Hitler was announced as the Chancellor of Germany. The United States, amongst other countries, were vehemently opposed to Hitler’s fascist ideologies and anti-Semitic agenda.
Meanwhile, the American had rebounded with seven straight victories, the most noticeable being the aforementioned former champion, Jack Sharkey. With promoters in the States reluctant to award Schmeling an opportunity, Louis was presented a clear path to the title.
On the 22nd June 1937, Louis picked himself off the canvas early in the fight to regain control and knock out the “Cinderella Man” James Braddock in the eighth round to become king of the heavyweight division.
Despite fulfilling his destiny and reaching the summit of the heavyweight division, “Joltin” Joe was not content. During the post-fight interview, he expressed a desire to avenge his only career defeat: “I want Schmeling” followed by “I ain’t no champion ‘till I beat Schmeling” made his intentions crystal clear.
After making three successful defences against Tommy Farr, Nathan Mann and Harry Thomas, Louis was handed his shot at redemption exactly a year after winning the title from Braddock. The fight was signed and sealed for 22 June 1938, with tickets for the event being sold in record time – the most expensive being ringside seats at $40 a pop.
During this time, Americans were still feeling the devastating effects of the Great Depression. The economic struggle represented one of the most difficult periods throughout the nation’s history, made even tougher by the rising political concerns and impending war with Nazi Germany.
Schmeling was well-received during the build-up to the first Louis fight but since then his image had been severely tarnished. He was publically seen enjoying lunch with Hitler and joined in a Nazi salute after his victory against Steve Hamas in Hamburg. Although he never expressed allegiance to the Nazi regime or supported their pro-Aryan ideology, he was widely considered a Nazi figurehead by the American public.
As with Sam Langford and Jack Johnson, many white Americans took issue with black fighters competing for the heavyweight championship. Despite Louis being a hero to the African-American community, their white counterparts failed to embrace the sporting icon with the same love.
However, the rematch with Schmeling helped to bridge the divide and forge new relationships between the two communities. The majority of Americans were rooting for Louis because a victory over Schmeling would be seen as a victory for the US over Nazi Germany. Skin colour was temporarily overlooked and Louis would have the overwhelming support of his nation.
A few weeks before the eagerly-anticipated rematch, Louis was invited to the White House to visit President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President famously said: “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat the Germans.” The pressure was mounting but Joe appeared relaxed and extremely focused. This time around, he ditched the beautiful women and the fresh air of the golf course, for the sweat-stained gym and intense workout routines prepared by his team.
Schmeling arrived in the States with his entourage, which included a spokesperson for the Nazi party, who made comments suggesting that a black man couldn’t possibly defeat Schmeling and declared that Schmeling’s fight purse would be used to build more tanks for the German army. He became loathed by the American public, who weren’t shy in letting the German feel their hatred. Belongings were stolen from his hotel room and he received extensive hate mail.
A couple of days before fight night, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended Schmeling’s manager, Joe Jacobs, rendering him ineligible to be a part of his corner team – or even share his locker room on the night. His usually dependable corner-man, Doc Casey, feared attracting further negative attention, so also relinquished his role in the corner team.
In total, the event generated a million dollars’ worth of receipts at the gate, with over seventy thousand spectators squeezing into the New York Yankee Stadium. A record audience of seventy million people gathered around their radio sets to follow the blow-by-blow commentary. Back in Nazi Germany, Hitler himself lifted the 3:00 am curfew to allow cafés and other establishments to broadcast the action.
On the night of the fight, Louis was confident and reportedly enjoyed a two-hour-long nap in his changing room. Schmeling, in stark contrast, was made to wait anxiously while his usual team of trusted people were noticeably absent. Louis received a champion’s welcome upon his entrance to the ring, whilst spectators hurled lit cigarettes and insults at the challenger.
Considering the hype, excitement and attention surrounding the rematch, people didn’t have much time to enjoy the contest because Louis was simply too good, too skilled and too powerful for the older Schmeling. The champion was intent on hurting the man who had stolen his unbeaten record and represented a despised fascist cause.
Louis pounced on the challenger from the opening bell, unloading with bone-crushing left-hooks, before forcing Schmeling into the ropes with a thunderous straight right hand that scattered his senses. The German was clinging onto the top rope for dear life, while the younger champion pummelled him into submission. Ringsiders claim you could hear the thud of each shot, followed by a wince or cry of pain from the challenger.
Schmeling hit the canvas twice before rising on wobbly legs for Louis to finish spectacularly. A beautiful left-hook, right-hand combination launched Schmeling across the canvas and a white towel was thrown in to save him from further punishment.
Speaking to the press afterwards, Louis smiled and said: “Now I feel like a champion.” The victory signalled a subtle shift in the racial landscape in the States, with many white people becoming more accepting of a black sporting figurehead.
The fight was awarded Fight of the Decade by Ring Magazine and famous historian, Bert Sugar, labelled it “The greatest sporting event of the 20th century.”
That night, Americans across the country partied the night away, proudly singing the name of Joe Louis. Schmeling later recounted that during the post-fight ambulance ride to the hospital, he witnessed thousands of people on the streets of Harlem celebrating his defeat – but more importantly – the Louis victory.
Things were to never be the same for Schmeling upon his return to his home nation. In a boxing sense, he rebounded well by winning knocking out Adolf Heuser in one round for the European title in 1939. However, Hitler and the Nazi party had withdrawn their endorsement and no longer recognised him as a national hero.
This was partly due to Schmeling’s insistence on retaining his Jewish manager and his defiance of the authorities in November 1938, when he safeguarded two young Jewish boys in a Berlin hotel room during the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
During WWII, Schmeling served as a paratrooper in the Luftwaffe but when hostilities ended, he was once again held in high regard by the German public for the compassion he had shown. A brief return to the ring in 1948 was swiftly followed by his official retirement.
Louis, on the other hand, became a national superstar and his popularity soared. He became a poster boy for the US Army, whom he served by visiting soldiers in Europe to show support and raise morale.
He would make a further fifteen consecutive title defences, the most of any heavyweight champion in history, before losing in 1949 to Ezzard Charles. He eventually retired in 1951 after being brutalised and defeated by Rocky Marciano.
Interestingly, both Louis and Schmeling later confirmed that neither had felt any real animosity towards the other and they formed a surprisingly close friendship after the Second World War had concluded.
Louis squandered his career earnings during the 1950s, his financial problems exacerbated by drug addiction. He even worked as a greeter at Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas, to make ends meet. Schmeling assisted his former foe financially and visited him every year, right through to Louis’ death in 1981. The German was one of the pallbearers at the funeral and he also helped Louis’ family pay for the arrangements.
In hindsight, both men fought for freedom and equality in their own way. Their unlikely post-career friendship endured until the end – something even more valuable than the most prestigious title in world sport.