America’s Great Black Hope
When Joe Louis of the United States met Max Schmeling of Germany for the Heavyweight Championship of the World in 1938, politics and ballyhoo turned it into a battle between Freedom and Fascism—a foreshadowing of World War II
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
A Braddock-Schmeling fight was slated for New York—on June 3,1937. It never took place. The full details of Max Schmeling’s shoddy treatment by the American boxing establishment during the next year are too complex to unravel here; but not even the outraged howls of Goebbels’ writers exaggerated greatly. In spite of his clear victory over Louis, Schmeling was denied a shot at Braddock’s championship title. Louis got it instead. Why? An untangling of the charges and countercharges, the publicity and pleas, the court decisions and appeals, suggests one answer: money. Braddock’s manager and the fight’s promoters ultimately feared that anti-Fascist boycotts would hurt the gate, while a Braddock-Louis fight would draw well. On Janury 9,1937, the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights announced a boycott of the ticket sales and of the proposed fight itself. By January 30 a host of other organizations had joined the boycott and threatened to picket bouts on Schmeling’s proposed exhibition tour of several Southern states, where his win over Louis had been especially well received. Anti-Fascist groups decried the tour as “a piece of Nazi propaganda” designed to stir racism.
On January 31 Joe Gould, Braddock’s manager, called a press conference to announce his acceptance of a $500,000 offer for a Braddock-Louis fight to be held in June in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. “I have taken a poll of boxing writers all over the country,” said Gould, “and the consensus is that a Braddock-Schmeling fight would draw only $200,000. Braddock is not responsible for political conditions that have arisen and will affect the drawing power of a fight with Schmeling.”
Schmeling repeatedly said that he was a fighter, not a politician. He had never been close to the Nazi leaders, and he had a Jewish manager of whom they were known to disapprove. Publicity-wary promoters refused to listen.
So it was that on June 22, 1937, a new world’s heavyweight champion sat in his dressing room in Comiskey Park. Joe Louis had knocked out Jim Braddock in the eighth round. It had been ten minutes before the loser was able to walk out of the ring. Years later Braddock would tell British boxing writer Harry Carpenter that he had never fought better than he did against Joe Louis. “But this … Louis was young, strong, and good. Oh, he was good . And I did my best, but come the eighth round, I was finished. I just hadn’t anything left. And so when he hit me with that right, I just lay there. I couldn’t have got off that floor if they’d offered me a million dollars to stand up.”
As the South Side of Chicago and the black districts of other American cities and towns exploded in celebration (one estimate puts the Harlem crowds at one hundred thousand), the new champ was quietly opening one of the great publicity campaigns in sports history. Said Joe Louis to the scribbling reporters, “My only regret is that I did not have Max Schmeling in the ring tonight instead of the man I knocked out.” After each of his three title defenses that year—and at some point during most interviews of any sort—Louis would repeat some version of that line. His sincerity was evident. He did not regard himself as the true champion until he had defeated the only man who had ever beaten him.
Schmeling also kept himself in the news during the year that passed between Louis’ ascension to the championship and their rematch. After a visit to the Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, camp where the champion was preparing for his bout with Tommy Farr, Schmeling told the interviewers, “I want Louis.” Once again he claimed that he “saw something” and that he was now “more eager than ever to fight him.” He added, “I can lick him again.” He shrugged off questions about his age: “Max has always lived a good, clean life. I can fight good when I’m thirty-five.”
On December 13 Schmeling was in New York for a fight with a strong but undazzling journeyman named Harry Thomas. Despite the mediocre opponent and the inevitable boycott by the Anti-Nazi League, Schmeling’s popularity and the aura beginning to surround the anticipated title bout drew a crowd of eighteen thousand, the largest gathering to see an indoor fight in New York in two years. Wrote one reporter, “Seven times Thomas went down under that short, flashing, paralyzing right-hand punch to the jaw with which Schmeling hammered Louis into submission.” Joe Louis—always Joe Louis. Rarely was he absent from any press commentary on Schmeling as 1938 came in and the German went home to chop down two more opponents. Everything for both men was pointing toward their second encounter. The date finally was set for June 22, 1938. At least five American cities bid for the bout, but again Mike Jacobs lured the show into New York and Yankee Stadium.