America’s Great Black Hope

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They almost didn’t. By June, 1936, Louis had won four more fights, all by knockouts, including a four-round victory over Max Baer. Max Schmeling, who was making a comeback, was to be Louis’ third ex-champion victim, and the fight was popularly regarded as Joe’s last test before a title battle with Braddock. Schmeling would be the most skilled boxer Louis had yet faced; he was seasoned, intelligent, and professional, and he commanded a respect the crowds had never given the lumbering Camera or the slapstick Baer. Some writers and fans believed there might be more than publicity behind Schmeling’s cryptic comment that he had “seen something” to take advantage of in Louis’ style. Nonetheless, Schmeling’s record was marred by some losses, while Louis now had twenty-seven straight wins behind him and, at twenty-two, was Schmeling’s junior by nine years. The powerful, beautifully built young slugger from Detroit appeared unstoppable. If the ten-to-one odds on Louis obtainable here and there seemed silly to those in the know, eight-to-one looked about right.

The Nazis were not happy about the match. To them, the notion of a competition between an “Aryan” and a Negro was dubious in the first place, and the likelihood of a Louis win did not improve matters. Reich authorities forbade a proposed excursion of German fans who planned to come to New York for the fight, and substantially the same Nazi attitudes toward Negroes that would flare up a few months later during the Berlin Olympics were smoldering when Schmeling left for the United States. There was no official send-off, and the fighter departed under a cloud of Party disapproval.

When the men entered the ring in Yankee Stadium, the ex-champion got more applause than the young contender. Max had always drawn well in New York, and few blacks could afford tickets for a big fight in 1936. This night Schmeling seemed cool, calm, every inch the old pro as he glared from under his thick, black eyebrows at Louis. More than one writer would remark the next day on the German’s uncanny facial resemblance to Jack Dempsey.

That night Schmeling fought with care and precision—a style very different from Dempsey’s furious attack, but, this night, at least, just as damaging. For three cautious rounds, neither man hurt the other. The fourth round was the turning point. Louis connected sharply with the already famous left jab, only to have Schmeling cross above it with a smashing right to the head. Another right followed, and Joe Louis was on the canvas for the first time in his professional career. Schmeling had indeed “seen something”: he had seen that Louis tended to drop his right hand when he threw the left jab, thereby leaving his head unprotected.

The young boxer rose at the count of three, but the real contest was over. Although Louis would later say that he remembered little after the fourth round, he doggedly fought on, demonstrating the conditioning that would carry him through so many later years and fights; but it was all Schmeling’s show. Time and again the right fist crashed on target and Louis was unable to retaliate save through occasional foul punches that he was perhaps too groggy to prevent. Well ahead on the judge’s scorecards, Schmeling seemed resigned to plod through the full fifteen rounds, piling up points over his bewildered opponent, whose quivering legs refused to buckle. Then in the twelfth round, calling on some reserve of strength (and, he later claimed, fearing injury from Louis’ low blows), Schmeling bore in with renewed vigor, caught the younger man cleanly on the jaw with a final right-hand blow, and the fight was over. Louis was still on his back, rolling from side to side, when referee Arthur Donovan’s count reached ten.

The next morning, as the smiling winner chatted with the press, the Hitler regime suddenly changed its stance. From Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda and National Enlightenment, came a cable to Schmeling: “To your wonderful victory my best congratulations. I know you fought for Germany; that it’s a German victory. We are proud of you. Heil Hitler. Regards.” Hitler himself sent Schmeling a telegram bearing his “felicitations,” and to the fighter’s wife, Czech-born film actress Anny Ondra, he sent a weighty basket of flowers. The day after that, the German press began demanding a Braddock-Schmeling championship bout in Germany. Within a week the same papers were explaining that Schmeling’s victory demonstrated the supremacy of the Aryan race and that he had been inspired to fight his best through conversations with Hitler, Goebbels, and other Party leaders. Schmeling shortly returned home to be greeted by a large reception—at the Frankfurt airport—complete with speeches and circling Luftwaffe planes. It was announced that he would vacation as Hitler’s guest. When the fight films were shown in Austria—where the Nazis were then struggling for power—cheering demonstrators surrounded the theaters. They shouted “Heil Hitler! Heil Deutschland! Heil Schmeling!” as, magnified on screens in Vienna and Salzburg, the right fist again and again smashed the Negro’s jaw.