On This Day

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Associated Press
Joe Louis stands over challenger Max Schmeling as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner, June 22, 1938.

On This Day: Joe Louis Knocks Out Max Schmeling

June 22, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Joe Louis avenged the first loss of his career with a first round knockout of German Max Schmeling in a fight billed as a battle between America and Nazi Germany.

The “Brown Bomber” Is Victorious

Joe Louis, a 22-year-old son of Alabama sharecroppers, had won his first 23 career fights when he stepped into the ring against 30-year-old German Max Schmeling on June 19, 1936. Schmeling was the clear underdog, but he had detected a flaw in Louis’ form while studying film: Louis tended to drop his left hand after a left jab, a weakness that Schmeling exploited in a shocking 12-round knockout victory.

Schmeling was greeted as a hero in Germany and portrayed by the Nazi regime as a symbol of Aryan superiority. “Schmeling's victory was not only sport,” wrote a Nazi journal. “It was a question of prestige for our race.”

Louis, meanwhile, was humiliated. Though he went on to win the heavyweight title when he beat James Braddock in 1937, he said, “I don't want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling.”

Louis got his chance a year later, when he faced Schmeling in a rematch at Yankee Stadium. The fight took on a fiercely political tone; Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler had each openly visited his respective countryman before the fight, and a worldwide audience viewed the bout as a symbolic battle between America and Nazi Germany.

“It had tremendous political implications in the battle of democracy against fascism,” says Lewis Erenberg, author of “The Greatest Fight of Our Generation, Louis vs. Schmeling.” “And it had tremendous implications about race and racial ideology.”
Over 70,000 fans were in attendance for the fight, while millions listened on radio. The Nazi government lifted its 3:00 a.m. curfew so that Germans could listen to the fight in bars.

Having repaired the faulty post-jab, left-hand drop that Schmeling had exploited in their first meeting, Louis quickly laid into his stunned opponent with a barrage of quick, close jabs. Clearly outmatched, Schmeling was unable to connect more than two punches in the entire fight, falling to the mat four times.

“A towel from Schmeling's corner fluttered into the ring and referee Arthur Donovan, after first flinging the towel back towards the press section where it caught on the ropes, hanging as limply as the prone form of Schmeling in front of him, finally called a finish to the fight at just 2:04 of the first round,” writes boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar.

Celebrations erupted throughout the U.S., especially in black neighborhoods such as nearby Harlem. Louis was revered as a national hero by both blacks and whites.

“The vertebrae that were cracked in Schmeling's spine and that kept him in the hospital afterward represented a warning to the rest of the world of America's might and its will,” says boxing historian William Dettloff. “On that night, Joe Louis was America, whether or not he saw it that way or saw himself as the icon he was. All that mattered was the way America saw him. It's how history sees him.”

Key Players: Joe Louis and Max Schmeling

Joe Louis
Joe Louis Barrow was born in Alabama in 1914. Looking for a better life, Louis’ parents moved the family to Detroit in 1924, where their shy young son Joe was soon discovered at Brewster’s East Side Gym. Louis was initially reluctant to enter the world of fighting, but trainers saw him as a natural boxer.

Louis would successfully defend his title for years after the Schmeling fight before enlisting in the U.S. military to serve during World War II. Though he never saw the front lines, Louis served as a public relations representative thanks to his popularity across America.

Louis fell on hard times after his career ended
. Owing $1.2 million in back taxes, he earned money by competing in pro wrestling events and working as a casino greeter. He spent time in hospitals for cocaine addiction and paranoia. Heart problems confined him to a wheelchair for the four years before his death of a heart attack on April 12, 1981.

Max Schmeling
Max Schmeling, who in 1930 became the first European to win the heavyweight title, was an unwilling icon of the Nazi Party. Schmeling received favorable treatment from the regime and was featured heavily in Nazi propaganda following his defeat of Louis.

Schmeling took several steps to distance himself from Nazi ideals. He hid two Jewish teenagers from Nazi storm troopers on Kristallnacht, kept his Jewish manager, and refused to accept an award from Hitler.

After losing the rematch, he continued fighting, but without much publicity. He was drafted into the German Army and served as a paratrooper. Following the war, he became a successful businessman.

In 1954, Schmeling visited Louis in his home, and the two became life-long friends. Schmeling helped support Louis financially and contributed to his funeral. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 99.

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