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On June 22, 1938, millions of Americans were ready for a fight. Nearly seventy thousand would witness the bout firsthand in Yankee Stadium. An estimated seventy million would listen to it on the radio. The contenders? Germany’s Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber” of Detroit.
The two opponents had faced each other almost exactly two years earlier – on June 19, 1936. That fight, too, took place at Yankee Stadium. The winner hoped to face James J. Braddock, who then held the heavyweight title. German boxing officials weren’t happy about the situation. Nazi ideology held that non-whites were inferior to whites, and thus, a Louis victory would make the Nazis look foolish. The Nazis, however, also saw international athletic victories as a means of promoting their racial views.
Louis was favored to win. He soon became overconfident. “I thought I could name the round that I would knock Schmeling out,” he wrote in his 1978 autobiography, “Instead of training as I should have, I’d cut my training short and jump in the car and head for the golf course.” Meanwhile, Schmeling was watching films of Louis’ fights. He noticed a weakness: Whenever Louis threw a left, he dropped that left before throwing a second one, leaving himself open for a right. Schmeling used that knowledge and knocked out Louis in the twelfth round. Many Americans, particularly African Americans, were devastated by Louis’ lose.
Road to a Rematch
American Jewish and liberal groups threatened boycotts of any fight between Max Schmeling and champion James J. Braddock. Braddock opted to fight Louis, who knocked him out in the eighth round. Joe Louis had now become the heavyweight champion. On June 22, 1938, he would get his chance to redeem himself against Schmeling.
The “Burden of Representing All America”
In the two years since Louis and Schmeling had last fought, international tensions had risen. In his 1978 autobiography, Joe Louis wrote:
Germany was tearing up Europe, and we were hearing more and more about the concentration camps for the Jews. A lot of Americans had family in Europe and they were afraid for their people’s lives. Schmeling represented everything that Americans disliked, and they wanted him beat and beat good.
Louis was well aware of the racial politics involved: “Now here I was, a black man,” he wrote, “I had the burden of representing all America.” He further recalled that, “White Americans – even while some of them still were lynching black people in the South – were depending on me to K.O. Germany.”
When Schmeling defeated Louis, Louis learned an important lesson. He never underestimated an opponent again. For the rematch, he underwent intensive training.
When the fight finally began, Louis attacked and never let up. He threw two hard left hooks, followed by a series of lefts and rights. Schmeling backed up and covered as well as he could, but it was no use. Louis continued to pound him. After a hard right to the chin, Schmeling’s legs began to wobble. As he started to fall, he grabbed onto the ropes. Louis prepared to hit him again. Schmeling twisted his body in an effort to avoid the blow. Louis’ punch hit the area below Schemling’s ribs, and Schmeling let out a scream.
The referee intervened and began to count. Schmeling came off the ropes and prepared to resume fighting. Louis battered him some more, and Schmeling was soon back on the ropes. Louis continued to attack and finally delivered a crushing blow to Schmeling’s jaw. Schmeling went down but rose on the count of three. Louis came back and again refused to let up. Again, Schmeling went down and the count began. Schmeling rose at two but was very groggy. Louis continued to hammer at him and after a hard right to the jaw, Schmeling fell again. This time, he did not rise. The entire fight lasted a mere two minutes and four seconds. It was the shortest heavyweight title fight in history.
An American Hero
In his book The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs. Schmeling, Lewis Erenberg called Joe Louis’ victory “one of the greatest symbolic victories in boxing history.” He noted that many African Americans viewed it as “sweet revenge against all forms of racism at home and abroad.” As for white Americans, Erenberg asserted that many now saw Louis as “an American hero, despite his race.”
Reflecting on the fight forty years later, Louis wrote, “I had the championship, and I had beaten the man who had humiliated me. America was proud of me, my people were proud of me, and since the fight, race relations were lightening up.”
By decisively defeating Max Schmeling, Joe Louis had united Americans of many backgrounds and clearly demonstrated that Hitler’s “master race” was anything but invincible. It was a landmark achievement for the Brown Bomber of Detroit!
Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope by Richard Bak
Joe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero by Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. and Barbara Munder
The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs. Schmeling by Lewis Erenberg
Joe Louis: My Life by by Joe Louis, with Edna and Art Rust, Jr.
Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink by David Margolick
“The Brown Bomber – The Man Behind the Fist” by Jenny Nolan. Detroit News January 24, 1996.