Unforgettable 124 seconds
It lasted only 124 seconds but it is still regarded, after more than 70 years, as one of the most memorable fights in the history of boxing.
The bout – on June 22, 1938 – had created enormous anticipation almost all over the world. It was, after all, the return match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.
Even now, after all these years, the memories live on and the story is often retold, as in Lewis Erenberg’s book The Greatest Fight of our Generation – Louis vs Schmeling.
The story opens with the Great Depression, the most powerful influence on the careers of both men, and also in the cultural and political history of Germany and the United States.
Erenberg describes the impact of the two fights between the two heavyweights: “In the annals of boxing the two Louis-Schmeling bouts are considered amongst the most exiting and intense sporting dramas of the Great Depression era, and the entire twentieth century. These matches defined the careers of the two combatants and transformed them from individual athletes into national icons.”
In the early 1930s, boxing was an extremely popular sport and big fights attracted huge crowds. A poll among 14-year-olds in Germany showed that Schmeling was better known than were statesmen, writers and even Henry Ford.
Schmeling had become the first, and still the only heavyweight to win the world title on a foul when, at a sold-out Yankee Stadium in New York on June 12, 1930, Jack Sharkey was disqualified for a low blow in the fourth round in match for the vacant title.
American boxing enthusiasts, and many Germans too, were dissatisfied with the result. They questioned Schmeling’s right to hold the title.
Even Jack Dempsey did not rate Schmeling as No 1 heavyweight in the world. When the German was introduced as the world champion at the Berlin Sportpalast on October 31, 1930 the crowd booed him.
KNOCKED DOWN 7 TIMES
The American, born on May 13, 1914 in Alabama and named Joe Louis Barrow, was knocked down seven times in his first amateur fight. But in 1933 he won the Detroit area Golden Gloves novice division light-heavyweight class.
In April the following year he won the American amateur title. He went on to compile an amateur record of 50 wins, 4 losses and 43 knockouts.
Managed by Julian Black and John Roxborough, Louis turned professional and stopped Jack Kracken in the first round in Chicago on July 4, 1934.
Black and Roxborough did not want Louis to be as arrogant and boastful as Jack Johnson had been after becoming the first black fighter to win the heavyweight championship. They taught Louis not to bad-mouth his opponents, not to gloat and not to smile when he beat a white boxer.
But Louis had a weakness outside the ring. Even though he was married, he was drawn to other women. After some fights he disappeared for days with women who were equally drawn to him.
SCHMELING’S UPS AND DOWNS
After retaining his heavyweight title in a fight against Young Stribling, Schmeling lost it to Sharkey in a return match on June 21, 1932.
On August 26, 1934, he fought Walter Neusel in Hamburg; his first fight in Germany since 1928. About 90 000 spectators turned up.
Neusel, also a German, was unable to answer the bell for the ninth round and Schmeling’s supporters, including those in government, were overjoyed.
Schmeling then defeated Steve Hamas and Paolino Uzcudan before being matched with the unbeaten Louis, the No 1 contender. The fight was scheduled for New York on June 19, 1936.
After watching films of Louis’ previous fights, Schmeling said he had spotted flaws in the American’s defence. However, Louis entered the ring as a 10-to-1 favourite and with a record of 18 knockouts in 23 victories.
An overconfident Louis had not prepared well and after the fourth round he did not know where he was. He was knocked out in the twelfth round.
German politicians seized the victory as a propaganda tool and Schmeling was a national hero. Many Americans were stunned and some even asked whether Louis was “doped”.
SHARKEY, CARNERA AND BEAR
In June 1933 Jack Sharkey lost the heavyweight title to Primo Carnera who lost it to Max Baer who lost it in his first defence, beaten on points by James Braddock.
Schmeling was the logical challenger to face Braddock but politics on both sides of the ocean had such an influence that Louis, who continued fighting and winning, was matched with Braddock. The fight was scheduled for January 22, 1937.
Braddock, who had been inactive for two years, was no match for Louis, who stopped him in the eighth round.
Louis made successful defences against Tommy Farr, Nathan Man and Harry Thomas but believed he could not be regarded as the champion until he had avenged his loss to Schmeling.
The rematch was set for June 22, 1938 at New York’s Yankee Stadium, causing a near stampede for seats.
About 70 000 spectators paid $940 096 to see the fight and an estimated 70 million listened to the radio commentary.
When Schmeling arrived in the US, the ship was met with protestors carrying posters on which he was called an “Aryan Show Horse” and a symbol of the “Master Race.” The protestors demanded that Americans “Boycott Nazi Schmeling!”
Louis smashed Schmeling to defeat inside a round as the crowd yelled “Kill him! Kill the Nazi!”
Louis went on to make 25 defences of his title and was champion from June 22, 1937 to March 1, 1949. He knocked out 23 opponents in 27 title fights and earned what was then considered vast amounts of money.
But he squandered his fortune, was ill for years and confined to a wheelchair before he died on April 12, 1981. He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery on April 21, 1981.
His friend Max Schmeling contributed towards his funeral costs and was one of the pallbearers.
Schmeling who was broke at the end of the Second World War, had become a wealthy businessman. He was married for 54 years to an actress, Anny Ondra, who died in 1987.
Schmeling was obliged to cooperate with the Nazi’s during the 1930s but was not a member of the party. It was revealed years later that he had risked his life to save the lives of two Jewish children.
He died on February 2, 2005 – only nine months short of his 100th birthday.
Lewis A Erenberg is a professor of history at Layola University in Chicago and an authority on World War 11 and American culture.
His knowledge and insight enabled him to write: “The manoeuvrings in the world of boxing, some of it motivated by American nationalism and a good deal prompted by profit, spurred German views of a conspiracy, led by Jewish press and Jewish promoters, to besmirch German honor. This deepened the political meaning of the rematch in 1938, the greatest fight of our generation”.
The 274-page hardcover book is published by Oxford University Press.