Louis-Schmeling: More than a fight

It was only two minutes and four seconds
'Fore Schmeling was down on his knees
He looked like he was praying to the good Lord
To 'Have mercy on me, please.'

--Bill Gaither

Blues singer and guitarist Bill Gaither probably didn't sleep much the night of June 22, 1938. He was too busy celebrating and writing a hit song he would record for Decca Records the very next day. Gaither called it "Champ Joe Louis (King of the Gloves)," and according to the lyrics, the bluesman "Came all the way from Chicago to see Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fight."

Like the rest of the 70,043 fans packed into Yankee Stadium that night, Gaither's eyes were riveted on the ring when "Schmeling went down like the Titanic." It was a magical moment when all seemed right with the world. True, it didn't last long, but the memory is still alive 75 years later, a lingering reminder of what just might have been boxing's finest hour.

As far as the fight itself is concerned, Gaither's song pretty much sums it up. It was, however, the fight's cultural, racial and political ramifications that set it apart and led historian Bert Sugar to label it "The greatest sporting event of the 20th century." What is more, the match foreshadowed a far greater struggle yet to come and shone an unflinching spotlight on the evils of the world.

The fight also fanned the flame of hope that was lit for millions of black Americans when Louis first became champion. There was no instant paradigm shift in race relations, but the second Schmeling fight and Louis' lengthy and highly successful reign nudged more and more people into reconsidering their view of their black brothers and sisters. If nothing else, Louis gave people a reason and an opportunity to change.

The basic story of the Louis-Schmeling rematch is widely known, even to non-boxing fans: Louis was the first black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson, but unlike his controversial predecessor, Joe was carefully marketed by managers Julian Black and John Roxborough, a couple of sharpies who made their money in the numbers racket.

Louis' carefully cultivated image was that of a clean-cut country boy, who loved his mother and came to the big city to fulfill his destiny. If you believe the press releases, he was much like Superman (who coincidentally made his comic book debut in June '38), fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

Schmeling, on the other hand, was the beetle-browed German who had tea with Hitler and gave the Nazi salute in the ring after beating American Steve Hamas in Hamburg. Two years prior, when he knocked out Louis in their first fight, Schmeling was generally well received in the United States. But by 1938, Germany's expansionistic foreign policy and virulent anti-Semitism was making Americans nervous, and Schmeling, whether he wanted to or not, became the sporting symbol of the tyrannical Nazi regime.

For the majority of Americans the rematch was, and to a degree remains, a simple case of good guy versus bad guy, freedom versus fascism, the United States versus Nazi Germany. It was, of course, far more complicated than that.

White America didn't exactly greet Louis' rise to the championship with a rousing chorus of hosannas. This was especially true in the South where Jim Crow still ruled and bouts between whites and blacks were illegal in most jurisdictions. Typical of the time was the Birmingham News' Margaret Garrahan, who wrote that Louis was a "tan-skinned throw-back to the creature of primitive swamps who gloried in battles and blood."

Things were only marginally better in the North, where the majority of the white media still harbored racist views. "The northern press freely employed demeaning language, including the frequent use of 'darky' and the black athlete's stereotypical image ran the gamut from 'animal' to carefree 'sambo,'" wrote Jeffrey T. Sammons in "Beyond The Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society."

Then there were the Americans with pro-Nazi sympathies, some of who were regular visitors to Louis training camp in Pompton Lakes, N.J.

"Can you believe these were white Americans agreeing with what Hitler was doing?" wrote Louis in his autobiography. "The Bund had a camp up at Speculator, New York, and they'd come to my camp day after day with Swastikas on their arms. They watched me train and sat around laughing like jackasses."

If anything, Schmeling's situation was even more complex. In order to accomplish his goal of regaining the heavyweight title, he had to walk a tightrope stretched between a dictatorial regime at home and a rowdy democracy where he worked. He had to placate both Hitler and the American public, no easy trick at a time when events were rushing headlong toward World War II.

Schmeling's cigar-chomping manager, Joe Jacobs, was Jewish, a situation that caused quite a bit of tension between Max and the Third Reich. To his credit, Schmeling stuck by Jacobs, but the fighter wasn't above scurrying to Hitler for help (and getting it) when he found himself in trouble with the Justice Ministry for having contravened currency regulations.

Louis was no saint, either. When he went into training for the first Schmeling fight, the champ had just ended an affair with Norwegian movie star Sonja Henie, an Olympic ice-skating champion turned actress. But that didn't mean Joe, who was married to Marva Trotter at the time, was short of female companionship.

"Girls were coming around like flies," Louis recalled. "I remember one time Chappie (trainer Jack Blackburn) actually took a stick and threatened them. I found them anyway."

Women were not the only distraction. Louis was cutting his training short and heading to the golf course.

"Instead of boxing six rounds, I'd box three. Punch the bag one round instead of two," Louis said. "I had this idea that I was going to do a lot of hard work for nothing. I thought that I could name the round that I would knock Schmeling out."

In retrospect, knowing what we now know about Louis' attitude and preparation, it's not surprising that the well-conditioned and earnest Schmeling gave Joe a severe beating and inflicted the first loss of his pro career, via 12th-round knockout. The rematch was entirely different. Joe, who had beaten James J. Braddock for the heavyweight title in the interim, trained diligently, and not just because he wanted revenge. As he aptly put it, "The whole damn country was depending on me."

The political overtones surrounding Louis' 1935 bout with Italian Primo Carnera prefigured his second fight with Schmeling. Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime had already launched the second Italo-Abyssinian War and would soon occupy what is now known as Ethiopia. It was machine guns, artillery and tanks against swords and spears, and newsreel footage of the slaughter sickened much of the free world.

"The American press emphasized the symbolism of the boxing match in relationship to what was happening in Africa," wrote Patrick Myler in "Ring of Hate." "Louis was seen as representing the ill-equipped black patriots bravely resisting the jack-booted white imperialist."

Carnera had been Mussolini's propaganda puppet for years, but by the time "Da Preem" dragged his massive body into the ring to face Louis, he was a human punching bag and the beating he absorbed was as one-sided as Italy versus Abyssinia.

The noxious mix of boxing, race and politics was out of the bottle and reached its peak three years later with Louis-Schmeling.

Neither Louis nor Schmeling set out to be avatars for opposing ideologies. They were caught up in a story far bigger than boxing and had little choice but to play the roles assigned to them by history. Maybe the outcome was an omen. Maybe it was just a boxing match that was won by the better fighter.

Whatever the story, Louis-Schmeling II stands out among millions of boxing matches, still celebrated as a special moment in time when there was no doubt that the good guy had won, even though the enemy really wasn't the man in the other corner.