Louis Destroys Schmeling in Rematch
IT WAS more than a boxing match. The fight lasted a mere 124 seconds. But it's outcome would live forever. The rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling served as the pinnacle of Louis' career and is remembered as one of the major sports events of the 20th century.
As the United States inched closer toward World War II, the 1938 rematch between Louis and Schmeling had worldwide implications. Adolf Hitler had risen to power in Germany and his persecution of Jews, which ultimately led to the Holocaust, had begun in 1935. By the spring of 1938, Germany had annexed Austria and had focused its sites on Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Hitler preached about the racial superiority of Aryans and conveniently portrayed Schmeling as a symbol of that superiority.
Schmeling, born in Brandenburg, Germany, won the vacant world heavyweight title via a fourth-round foul against Jack Sharkey on June 13, 1930. His title reign was brief -- lasting just two fights -- but the German was considered a very good puncher. He knocked out the likes of Johnny Risko, Young Stribling and Mickey Walker. On June 19, 1936, he fought the unbeaten Louis and knocked him out in the 12th round.
THE LOSS hardly derailed the Brown Bomber. On June 22, 1937, Louis became the first black since Jack Johnson to win the heavyweight title when he knocked out James J. Braddock in the eighth round. After that fight, Louis insisted he not be called champ until he avenged the loss to Schmeling. Louis made three title defenses and then signed to fight the only man who defeated him as a pro.
A few weeks before the rematch, Louis visited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House. The New York Times quoted Roosevelt telling the fighter, "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany." In his 1976 biography, Louis wrote, "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me."
When Schmeling arrived in New York, protesters picketed the St. Moritz Hotel, where he was staying, and chanted, "Nazi, Nazi." Traveling among the fighter's entourage was a Nazi party publicist who was probably responsible for the newspaper reports that suggested a black man could not defeat Schmeling and that his purse from the fight would be used by the German army to build more tanks.
The Louis-Schmeling rematch took place on the humid night of June 22, 1938 with 70,043 paying customers jamming Yankee Stadium. Millions more throughout the world heard the bout on radio. It was broadcast in four languages: English, German, Portuguese and Spanish. Schmeling, who was 32, weighed in at 193 pounds. Louis, 24, weighed in at 198¾.
AT THE opening bell, Louis forced Schmeling to the ropes. Suddenly a Louis right lifted Schmeling's right foot in the air and the German grabbed the top rope to steady himself. Schmeling extended only his left arm for protection. Louis then unloaded a barrage of punches, many landing against Schmeling's head. Schmeling then turned away from the champion and a body shot seemed to leave him paralyzed. Schmeling later said it was an illegal kidney punch and that he never fully recovered from the blow.
With Schmeling still pinned along the ropes, a Louis right buckled his knees and referee Arthur Donovan intervened. After a brief count, he allowed the action to continue.
Schmeling wobbled toward Louis and was met with a right hand that sent him crashing to the canvas. Schmeling gamely reached his feet but another Louis combination sent him down again. The Schmeling corner then threw a towel into the ring, signifying their surrender. Donovan, who had reached the count of five, waved the bout off after just 2 minutes and four seconds of action. Schmeling threw just two punches in the bout.
Louis would hold the heavyweight title until 1949, making a record 25 defenses, but Schmeling never challenged for the crown again. He fought only six more times and each of those bouts were in Germany.
DURING WORLD WAR II both men served in the military for their respective countries. Schmeling enlisted in the German army as a paratrooper and was wounded in action in Crete in 1941. After that, he occasionally gave boxing exhibitions for German troops.
Louis, who spent four years in the U.S. Army during his career, did not see combat during the war. He often staged exhibitions for the troops and donated more than $100,000 to the Army Relief Fund
In his autobiography, Memories, Schmeling wrote of his loss to Louis: "Every defeat has its good side. A victory over Joe Louis would perhaps have made me into the toast of the Third Reich."
History remembers Schmeling as a Nazi sympathizer and Hitler's image of Aryan supremacy. Schmeling reluctantly accepted his role as a propaganda tool. While some have criticized him for not distancing himself from Hitler, it should be noted that Schmeling's manager for all 14 of his fights in the United States was an American Jew named Joe Jacobs. Also, in 1946, British military authorities cleared him of any complicity in war crimes.
In 1993, University of Rhode Island researchers further dispelled the notion that Schmeling was a Nazi. Citing an interview from a Holocaust survivor, the researchers produced evidence that Schmeling put himself at great risk by hiding two Jewish teenagers in his Berlin hotel room, protecting them from Nazi violence and perhaps ultimately saving their lives.