Others call it the Century match but I call it The Ultimate match of all time. Joe Louis an African American boxer, who reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1937 until 1949, is regarded as one of his sport’s all-time greats.
Joe Louis hit the ground running as a professional in 1934, obliterating opponents with his powerful jab and devastating combos. However he reportedly did not train hard for his first fight against former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling of Germany, and on June 19, 1936, Schmeling scored a 12th-round knockout to hand Louis his first professional defeat.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Women were not the only distraction. Louis was cutting his training short and heading to the golf course.
On June 22, 1938, Louis got the chance at a rematch with Schmeling. The Match is believed to have had the largest audience in history for a single radio broadcast. In 2005, the Library of Congress selected it for the National Recording Registry.
The fight was a rematch of a 1936 bout in which Schmeling defeated Louis, who had never before been beaten.
This time the stakes were higher: With Schmeling hailed as an example of Aryan supremacy by Adolph Hitler, the bout took on heightened nationalistic and racial overtones. This time Louis annihilated his German opponent with a first-round knockout, making him a hero to both black and white Americans.
Like the rest of the 70,043 fans packed into Yankee Stadium that night, 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 79 years later, a lingering reminder of what just might have been boxing’s finest hour.
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.
As Joe Louis Barrow, the son of Joe Louis, says, “In those days, the most powerful individual in the world was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world…. When the heavyweight championship was fought, millions upon millions upon millions of people listened simultaneously by their radios all across the world.”
And this match, coming just months after Adolf Hitler’s army marched into Austria, meant even more.
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.