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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
May passed into June as the two boxers trained. Fight talk blended with war talk, and the New York papers were filled with correspondence on whether or not the bout should be stopped. Promoter Mike Jacobs informed President Roosevelt that 10 per cent of his net profit would go to the Refugee Aid Committee. A nice gesture, but hardly enough to stem the flow to editors of letters concerned about Schmeling’s share of the take. One from a Benjamin Solomon, of Port Jervis, New York, printed in the May 28 New York Times , was typical: To buy a fight ticket, said Mr. Solomon, was equal to buying goods made in Germany. “I don’t see how anyone with a sense of decency would willingly do anything that helps the continuance in power of this regime of mass lying, mass tyranny, mass torture and mass murder!”
Schmeling looked sharp in training, the sports writers said. He was running ten miles a day (to Louis’ six) and banging his sparring partners around. Louis looked poor; rumors had it that his intimates were troubled by his performance. On June 5 Mike Jacobs announced that reserved seats were moving to the tune of ten thousand dollars a day.
Retired ex-champion Braddock visited Louis’ camp and picked the Bomber to win by a seventh-round knockout. “Joe seems to be concentrating on infighting and body punishing. Those are the tactics that should whip a veteran like Schmeling,” said Braddock. But then Gene Tunney had gone to watch the contender and pronounced him to have the “finest right in the world today.”
On the twelfth a crowd of 3,794 jammed Louis’ camp at Pompton Lakes and paid $1.10 each to watch him in action. Jack Blackburn, the champ’s trainer, said the fight would go one or two rounds if Max would stand up and slug. He added that Joe was a much better fighter for having taken a licking.
On June 19 the Hamburg docked with a party of twenty-five German fans, and more were due soon on the Europa ; but the rumors of a huge contingent of German or German-American storm troopers seemed to be false. Mike Jacobs denied that the boycott by the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League had done much damage at ticket windows.
Louis continued to look bad in training. Sparring partners were bouncing rights off him. One raised a welt under his left eye. Steve Dudas, the last man to fight Schmeling, had no doubts: Schmeling possessed “a left hook that no one in this country has ever seen. … It will be easy for Max.”
June 22, the day of the fight, was hot and humid in New York, with a chance of rain. Louis weighed in at 200 pounds, Schmeling at 193. The champion was favored at two-to-one, but all seventeen experts polled by a German boxing paper picked Schmeling. NBC had combined its Red and Blue Networks to carry the broadcast on 146 stations. There was to be short-wave coverage and delayed broadcasts in several European countries. The usual 3 A.M. curfew was suspended in Germany so that cafés and bars could carry the fight for their patrons. Schmeling’s wife would hear it as a guest in Goebbels’home.
All New York Central trains from the Midwest arrived carrying extra coaches, and the Pennsylvania line had also, braced for a heavy passenger load. There would be thirty-six extra IND subways that night on the run to Yankee Stadium. Fifty Mexicans arrived in a private bus. Celebrity spectators would include six mayors and several governors. The police announced that three thousand men would be specially deployed, including one thousand in uniform at Yankee Stadium, and another thousand added to the regular Harlem night shift.
On the comic page, Jeff, who had taken a beating that week as Louis’ sparring partner, managed to defeat his opponent in a preliminary bout and now shouted to Mutt that he was ready to whip Louis and Schmeling simultaneously. Restaurants advertised quick prefight dinners for the fans. At Longchamps the boxing buff would find that it was “19 Minutes to Ringside from the Finest of Dinner Thrills.” Loew’s informed the public that all its theaters would announce the fight results, and the Palace promised to show a movie of the contest the next day.
It turned out to be a short film—two minutes and four seconds. Wrote Harry Carpenter, “No one can ever say for certain, but it is probable that in all of two and a half centuries of prize-fighting, those 124 seconds which Louis spent on Schmeling were the most concentratedly destructive.”
In truth, Louis’ onslaught lasted closer to ninety seconds. For the first half-minute the two men merely fenced and feinted. Then came two decent left jabs by Louis, seemingly a taunt to the challenger—a dare to use the right as he had done in the first fight. And the right came. It landed a little high on Joe’s head, but solidly. It was Schmeling’s first good punch—and his last.
Louis retaliated with a series of hard left hooks. A right hand slammed against Schmeling’s head. Schmeling reeled into the ropes, his right arm hanging over the top strand. Louis raced in with a series of body blows, mainly rights, one of which landed far back on the left rib cage. After the fight Schmeling would say he’d been fouled, but no formal claim was filed and he soon withdrew the accusation. The films show that the punch was clean by New York rules. It fractured Schmeling’s third lumbar vertebra and likely drove it against his kidney. The shock half paralyzed Schmeling’s legs. His scream of pain was audible many rows from ringside above the uproar of the seventy thousand shouting spectators.