BASN Book Excerpts: Boxing In The Shadows

By Tom Donelson
Updated: February 11, 2007

NOTE: Later this month, boxing contributor Tom Donelson will be releasing a book entitled “Boxing in the Shadows”, a history on the plight of African-American fighters. Over the next three weeks, BASN will be featuring excerpts from Donelson’s book.

TODAY: Louis vs. Schmeling: A Shift In The Winds.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Joe Louis first met Max Schmeling in 1936, he was an undefeated prospect preparing for his eventual shot at the world heavyweight championship.

Schmeling was 31 years old and hoping for another shot at a world championship, and as a 10 to 1 underdog, very few gave the German a chance. Louis began this fight at a strong pace as he dominated the early rounds.

In the fourth, a Schmeling right hand put Louis on the canvas for the first time in Louis’ career. Louis tried to brush himself off after that right but had very little memory of the rest of the fight. That punch changed the fight.

Fighting by instinct, Louis could no longer keep the Teutonic pugilist off him. The fight ended with yet another Schmeling right hand in the twelfth round, and Louis lost for the first time in his career.

As for Schmeling, he became a hero in Nazi Germany. With the Nazis rejoicing in the apparent victory of the Aryan race, Schmeling became a symbol of Germany’s athletic supremacy. This would set up the rematch, two years later.

One year after Louis claimed the heavyweight championship, a rematch with Schmeling was a natural. Louis wanted a rematch to avenge his only loss. Schmeling wanted to be World Champion again.

The fight seemed less a sporting event than a political event. By 1938, Adolf Hitler’s vision was becoming obvious as the policy of appeasement failed to contain the dictator’s appetite. Winds of war spread through all of Europe .

All across Germany, Jews and political opponents were being round up. Schmeling became the darling of the Nazi media. On the American side, this fight was billed as the defense of freedom and liberty.

President Franklin Roosevelt told Louis, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” Louis remarked after that statement, “I don’t think America was thinking too much about war, at least the American public didn’t know too much about it, how close we were to war.”

“But the President must have known. That’s why he made the statement.”

As the fight date approached, the pressure on both fighters built up. Louis remembered, “The press and radio made the Schmeling second fight a little more than just another fight. Country against Country.”

For Louis, this was not a fight for God and Country, since he felt that as long as the Schmeling defeat was not avenged, he did not feel like the true champion. He wanted revenge over the German challenger.

As for Schmeling, the pressure was just as intense. The Nazis looked at this fight as the national referendum of Germany’s superiority. Schmeling, like other Germans, was proud of the German progress in the 1930’s as Germany began to rebuild its military and its pride.

While many felt that Schmeling was a willing pawn in Hitler’s schemes, Schmeling himself was not a Nazi or anti-Semite. His own manager was Jewish, and he refused to fire his manager despite pressure from the Nazi hierarchy.

Schmeling also aided in the flight of Jewish families out of Germany during the 30’s at great risk to himself. Before the fight, the Gestapo detained Schmeling’s parents and family.

The message was clear, ‘defect and your family marches to a concentration camp.’ Schmeling was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, between Joe Louis and his Nazi masters.

The fight began with Louis jabbing into the challenger’s face, and Schmeling attempting his patent right hand over the top to no effect. Joe Louis took command almost immediately.

Within the first minute, Louis effectively compiled brutal body shots that cracked Schmeling’s ribs. Schmeling went down for the first time, but Louis was not finished as he propelled a picture perfect right hand to Schmeling’s face.

Schmeling picked himself up at the count of three after the second knockdown before facing the inevitable. Louis punished Schmeling with five straight headshots before the German slipped into the rope.

Louis finally finished Schmeling off with his fourth knockdown as the referee counted Schmeling out. Schmeling managed to get off only two punches, while catching 50 punches from Louis.

Not since Jack Dempsey pummeled Willard eighteen years earlier, has boxing seen such a one sided affair. Schmeling went straight to the hospital from the savage beating from Louis.

All of Germany was listening to the fight, but the Nazis pulled the plug before the conclusion of the fight. Schmeling ceased to be a German hero.

The aftermath of the fight had immediate repercussions. This fight represented a milestone for African-Americans, and for Louis in particular. To have an African-American defending the honor of America at a time when many African-Americans were barred from voting and were living under Jim Crow, the implications become very clear.

Many Americans found themselves forced to examine their own attitudes, and for some, attitudes did change. This fight became the first step in the modern day civil rights movement. Louis became champion a full decade before baseball became integrated, and an African-American heavyweight held the most recognizable title in all of sports.

Louis became an American hero, as Jimmy Cannon would write that Joe Louis “was a credit to his race — the human race.” Louis, in his own quiet way, fought for Civil rights.

When he toured during World War II, he insisted that his bouts be integrated at a time when the American armed forces were still segregated. The slow step to equality began when Louis defeated Schmeling.

As for Schmeling, he served with honor during World War II. In spite of his positive feelings toward Jews and his own desertion by the Nazis after his loss, Schmeling still served the homeland.

After World War II, he became a sports hero for his first victory over Louis and his hold over the heavyweight championship in the early 30’s. His second bout with Louis was no longer an albatross around his neck, and he became a successful businessman.

He also became friends with his conqueror as he helped pay for Louis’ funeral in 1981. Both men learned to respect one another and, after the war, the animosity that existed between the men disappeared as quickly as the animosity between the new Germany and America .

Two warriors became the symbol of struggle to come, and in the end they became symbols of a new friendship between new allies after the war.

NEXT WEEK: The Story of Walcott vs. Charles.