Friday 14 March 2014

The Fight of the Century

Weigh in on fight night 1938 courtesy

American boxer Joe Louis had never lost a fight.  That is until he met the German, Max Schmeling, in 1936. After 12 gruelling rounds, Louis lost the match, the victim of inexperience and ill-preparedness.  Two years later, a rematch was planned in New York City.  It would be "the fight of the century".


Poster courtesy

Max Schmeling, long seen as a Nazi due in large part to his Nazi publicist, did not actually belong to the Nazi party.  In fact, Max refused to fire his Jewish manager, despite pressure to do so.  Later in life, Max would hide two Jewish children to spare their lives.  Even so, the Nazis capitalized on Schmeling's 1936 win, painting him as an Aryan poster boy.  The German's publicist even predicted:  "A Black man could not beat Schmeling".  Besides his overt racism, another reason for his cockiness might have been Schmeling's undefeated record coming into the 1938 fight.  He wanted to keep it that way.

President Roosevelt circa 1938 courtesy

Joe Louis, a black from Alabama who had migrated to Detroit with his parents years before, had a quiet demeanor.  He had visited the White House shortly before the fight where President Roosevelt, cognizant of the growing Nazi menace in Europe, had announced:  "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany." Joe was ready to oblige.

Nazi menace courtesy

On June 19, 1938, anti-Nazis picketed on the sidewalk outside Yankee Stadium.  Inside, over 70,000 spectators crammed the stands.  Thousands had bet on the Schmeling-Louis match including Actress Bette Davis who had placed $66 in the Warner Brothers pool.  Actors Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks and Gregory Peck sat in the audience.  Even FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was there.  In a time when only baseball might have been more popular in the United States, gate receipts at Yankee Stadium showed a revenue of $1 million.


Joe Louis has Max Schmeling up against the ropes courtesy

An estimated 100 million people hovered over their radios to listen to the match.  NBC broadcaster Clem McCarthy hovered over his microphone.  The managers hovered over their fighters, each in the opposite corner.  The bell sounded and the match commenced.  The fighters, clad in shiny shorts and boxing shoes, pranced around the ring.  Louis immediately started delivering sound blows.  Clem McCarthy delivered a blow by blow account, like an auctioneer at an auction.  Louis' blows came faster and fiercer.  Schmeling had no chance to catch his breath. After only 2 minutes and 4 seconds, the German boxer was down!  The match was over, a technical knockout.

Louis' knockout courtesy

Unbeknowst to Louis, Schmeling had suffered broken vertebrae due to the former's deadly punches.  He ended up in the hospital.  But the two boxers would strike up a friendship that would last a lifetime.  Sadly, Louis would retire in 1949 from professional boxing.  Desperate to find work, he became a greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.  The $4.6 million fortune which he amassed was mismanaged and he died at 66, penniless.  Schmeling was drafted into the Luftwaffe as a paratrooper.  After the war, he enjoyed a successful career as an entrepreneur running a Coca-Cola franchise.  A hero in Germany, he died at 99, a millionaire.

Friends Louis and Schmeling circa 1971 courtesy

Note:  For more information about Joe Louis, read my post "The Brown Bomber" at:

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