Joe Louis' Greatest Fights: Louis-Schmeling

Joe Louis (left) and Max Schmeling (right) shake hands before their heavyweight championship bout in 1938. 

Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling
June 22, 1938

The year was 1938. Europe was throbbing to the sound of goose-stepping boots and demented paper-hanger's mad ravings. War was less than 15 months away and every arena was being used for propaganda purposes -- even the sports arena.

It all started in 1936. That year the Berlin Olympics had been used as a forum to promote Aryan superiority. Then, on June 22, 1938, it spread to the boxing arena where Hitler's pride, Max Schmeling, took on the American, Joe Louis, for the heavyweight championship of the world.

No other fight in boxing history had such political and sociological overtones -- not even the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight some 28 years before. The Schmeling-Louis fight had more at stake than boxing supremacy; the winner could boast to the world of his racial supremacy and might.

Louis and Schmeling had met two years before, on June 19, 1936, at Yankee Stadium when Schmeling was the ex-heavyweight champion and the undefeated Louis the future heavyweight champion. Louis, the prohibitive favorite -- with a record of 27 straight victories, 23 by knockout -- began the fight by sticking his left in the beetle-browed German's face, winning rounds and closing Schmeling's left eye. But in Round 4, eschewing his successful style, Louis changed from a jab to a hook, Schmeling, who had claimed he had "seed something" in films of Louis' previous fights, crossed his straight right inside Louis' hook. One of Schmeling's overhand rights caught Louis on the head and drove him to the canvas. "The Brown Bomber" arose shakily at the count of two, but was in obvious trouble, too dazed to hear the bell ending the round. From that point on it was only a matter of time until the end which finally, and mercifully, came at 2:29 of the twelfth round when Schmeling clubbed Louis with two more overhand rights -- the last two of the 54 he had landed flush on Louis' jaw.

Suddenly the supposedly invincible Louis was, in the words of the New York World-Telegram, "just an ordinary boxer." And "Unser Max" was the toast of the totalitarian world. Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, the dreaded head of the Nazi propaganda machine, called Schmeling's wife to tell her the news, and offered his, and Dr. Fuerhrer's, heartiest congratulations, Schmeling having proven their theory of "Aryan Supremacy."

With the betting crowd in Louis' corner, favoring him at odds of 9 to 5, and President Franklin Roosevelt having invited him to the White House and, feeling his arm, declaring, "Joe, we need those muscles for Democracy," and Der Fuehrer in Schmeling's corner -- even calling him personally to wish Schmeling luck before he left the dressing room -- the two combatants came to the middle of the ring for the final instructions from referee Arthur Donovan. That would be the last time the outcome would be in doubt.

Almost as soon as the bell for Round 1 sounded, the champion was across the ring, swarming all over his former conqueror. As the crowd of 70,000-plus roared, Louis whipped a left hook to the German's chin and then rained rights and lefts to the body of the helpless challenger, causing Schmeling to scream out in pain and drop to his knees before the fight was 30 seconds old.

Louis would drive Schmeling to the canvas three more times, Schmeling staggering to his feet twice. The third time 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.

Even before the final knockdown, heavy-lidded Germans, gathered by their shortwave radio sts at three in the German A.M., had begun to turn their sets off and return to staring glumly into their half-empty beer steins. In black ghettos throughout America, celebrations were already taking place, honoring the man who had brought honor to his people -- and to all of America.

From "The Great Fights, A Pictorial History of Boxing's Greatest Bouts,"
By Bert Randolph Sugar.