Every once in a while, a sports match is more than a test of physical agility and mental alertness. A few contests have been freighted with larger meanings and symbolism and have captured audiences’ attention in ways that go much deeper than rooting for a favorite team or player. It’s events like these that become part of the history of who we are as human beings.
The heat of the moment
That was certainly the case in 1938, when the German heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling, an icon in Nazi Germany extolled by those who believed in the long-discredited fantasy of a “master race,” was set to face off against African American Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber.”
The 24-year-old Louis carried into the ring not only his personal ambition to remain the heavyweight champion of the world. On his shoulders also rested the hopes of millions of Americans—even those who supported the country’s then nearly universal system of racial segregation. The Americans wanted to deal a symbolic patriotic blow to the Nazi menace as they saw Europe hurtling toward war.
In that summer of 1938, German Fuhrer Adolph Hitler had only recently annexed Austria to the German Reich. In a few months, Czechoslovakia would also fall to the Nazis. A year later, Europe would be in flames.
The big rematch
When the bell rang to announce the start of the match on June 22, 1938 in Yankee Stadium in New York, an estimated 70,000 people were in the audience. Countless millions of others leaned close to their radios to listen to every move of what would be only a two minute, four-second fight. Historians believe the event drew the biggest audience ever for any radio broadcast in history.
The two men had met before. In 1936, Schmeling had famously beaten Louis, who had until that point never even been knocked out, let alone defeated. When Schmeling went home to Germany after that victory, the Nazi leadership turned him into a hero.
But Schmeling was no Nazi. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels put words into his mouth, making it out that the boxer held himself out as an example of the superiority of the “Aryan race” after conquering his Black American opponent.
Schmeling, nine years Louis’ senior, simply wanted a second victory over the American to put him back on track to regaining the heavyweight championship he had lost to Jack Sharkey in 1932. The German fighter had devoted himself to intense study of film footage of Louis’ matches and believed he’d found his opponent’s vulnerability: He noted that Louis would typically drop his guard for an infinitesimal pause between lefts. Schmeling figured that, assuming he could withstand Louis’ fists at close range, he’d be able to get into that vulnerable space with his signature quick right.
Louis, for his part, had recently been feeling ebulliently confident. Leading up to the match, he sometimes lost focus, missed trainings, and wasted time golfing and hanging around with many adoring female fans, despite his trainer’s best efforts to scare them away.
There were plenty of people—including the world’s most virulent racists—who were fully anticipating a Schmeling victory.
Louis’ wife remembered long afterward that her husband was devastated by his 1936 loss to Schmeling. He felt that he had let down not only his country, but in particular the African American fans who wanted him to be their hero and a living refutation of the lie of racism. In 1938, he wanted to secure beyond doubt the heavyweight championship he had earned by beating Jim Braddock in 1937, as well as avenging his honor when it came to Schmeling.
In the audio and video recordings of the contest, we can hear NBC announcer Clem McCarthy’s words follow Louis around the ring as he pummels and quickly corners his opponent: “Louis with the ol’ one-two.” Louis rallied his professionalism and concentration to the task and dropped the German boxer three times. And then, we hear the technical knockout as the German giant falls and stays down: “Max Schmeling is beaten in one round.”
Schmeling, who suffered serious injuries from the encounter, returned quietly to Germany and faded from public view. He died in 2005, aged 80.
Joe Louis cemented his status as an American icon. He himself considered the win over Schmeling to be the point at which he genuinely assumed the title of world heavyweight champion. He went on to defend his championship seven times over the six months from December 1940 to June 1941.
The following year, he enlisted in the Army, serving in the same segregated unit as soon-to-be baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Louis participated in close to 100 exhibition bouts to entertain his fellow soldiers and contributed more than $100,000 to military relief efforts.
He retired undefeated in 1949, but soon found money troubles forcing him back into the ring, until he lost his last big fight to Rocky Marciano in 1951. Later in life, he found work as a professional wrestler and a casino greeter in Las Vegas. He died there of cardiac arrest in 1981. He was not quite 67 years old. Max Schmeling was one of his pallbearers.