“All of us who stood in the arena’s spotlight were vagabonds. And each of us risked the fatal plunge at any moment.”—Max Schmeling
Coming into their first fight, on June 19, 1936, at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York, Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber” from Detroit, Michigan, by way of LaFayette, Alabama, was the up-and-coming heavyweight feasting on former champions. He had stopped Primo Carnera. He knocked out Max Baer. The next former champion in line was Max Schmeling, the grizzled veteran from Klein Luckow, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.
Joe Louis was 24 years old and undefeated with 24 wins and no losses. Thirty-year-old Schmeling’s record was 48-7-4. Max was past his prime and few gave him more than a puncher’s chance, but the “Black Uhlan of the Rhine,” a 10:1 underdog, “saw something” that his predecessors did not.
Schmeling shocked the world that night. After administering a painful beating, he KO’d Louis at 2:29 of round 12.
Damon Runyon wrote that Schmeling had “beaten his way back over the rough trail of Hasbeenville.”
Nat Fleischer was less succinct but no less poetic. It was for Schmeling “the end of a perfect night. He had succeeded where others had failed. He had earned himself a niche in the fistic hall of fame.”
The victory turned Schmeling into a national hero. He “fought for Germany and won,” wrote Joseph Goebbels in his diary. According to the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten, it was a victory over “arrogance and bestial cruelty.” Schmeling was declared “the savior of white boxing supremacy,” even for Americans who never cottoned to “Clay-Face,” as Joe was known in Germany.
Louis won the heavyweight title a year later by knocking out James Braddock. It was a gratifying win, but as Louis said, “I don’t want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling.”
With the rise of fascism in Europe a bleak reality, the rematch between Louis and Schmeling had global implications. The date was June 22, 1938. The place was Yankee Stadium. There were 70,043 fans in attendance and the world was on edge. “The whole damned country was depending on me,” said Louis. That spring Joe had met the president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who felt Joe’s arm and said, “We’re depending on those muscles for America.”
In his dressing room before the fight, Schmeling was nervous. “I had never before felt so alone before a fight,” he said. In the other dressing room Jack Blackburn was giving final instructions to the champion. “Don’t make a sucker of me,” he told Louis. “Give this guy the beating of his life—but quick. Murder that bum and don’t make an asshole out of me.” “Don’t worry about a thing,” Joe replied. “That Schmeling is going to think he’s in there with a tiger tonight. I ain’t going back to Ford to work, and you ain’t going back to selling lemon drops on the Staten Island Ferry.”
Louis wasted no time in bringing the fight to Schmeling. After several feints he landed two short left hooks on the inside to Max’s head, followed by a four-punch combination. Schmeling retreated to the ropes where he tried to cover up. A big left hook bent Schmeling in half and Joe landed several power shots to the challenger’s body. An uppercut followed by a 1-2 hurt Schmeling, who grabbed the top strand of the ropes for support. Louis smelled blood and went for the kill. He landed a right to the body. Max’s legs buckled and he let out a scream. “I was paralyzed from that point on,” he said.
Clem McCarthy handled the blow-by-blow for the radio audience.
“Louis hooks a left to Max’s head quickly! And shoots a hard right to Max’s head! Louis, a left to Max’s jaw! A right to his head! Louis with the old one-two! First the left and then the right! He’s landed more blows in this one round than he landed in any five rounds of the other fight!”
It was a slaughter. Schmeling went down twice and twice he got to his feet, before going down a third time.
“Right and left to the head! A left to the jaw! A right to the head! And Donovan is watching carefully! Louis measures him. Right to the body! A left to the jaw! And Schmeling is down! The count is five . . . six, seven, eight. The men are in the ring, the fight is over on a technical knockout! Max Schmeling is beaten in one round!”
Schmeling’s corner threw in the towel. “He was no longer a man,” Paul Gallico wrote. “He was a broken, glass-eyed, silly, blubbering thing.”
When the decision was announced, Max told Louis, “Joe, you are a real champion,” before stumbling back to his corner.
Louis took the victory in stride, but allowed himself a little gloating.
“I’m sure enough champion now,” he said. “I just hit him, that’s all. I hit him in the ribs and I guess it was maybe a lucky punch but man, did he scream! I thought it was a lady in the ringside cryin’.”
Louis had fractured Schmeling’s vertebra. On his way to the Polyclinic Hospital on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, across from the old Madison Square Garden, after the fight, the ambulance drove through Harlem.
“I could hear the noise of crowds dancing,” recalled Schmeling. “Bands had left the bars and were playing on the sidewalks. Everywhere was filled with celebrations and saxophones.”
The music was sweet, almost as sweet as Joe’s victory over Max Schmeling.
This article was penned by the author who is not related to the WBA and the statements, expressions or opinions referenced herein are that of the author alone and not the WBA.