75 Years Ago: Joe Louis Wins His Biggest Fight

When boxing was a popular mainstream attraction, any heavyweight championship fight would cause the rest of the sports world to momentarily step aside, allowing the public to devote full attention to the bout. Occasionally, there would be a matchup attractive and culturally significant enough to warrant front page coverage in our nation’s newspapers. Such was the case on June 22, 1938 when Joe Louis defended his heavyweight crown against former champion, Max Schmeling of Germany, in a rematch of their 1936 meeting. From a competitive standpoint, the fight seemed to have everything: Two excellent heavyweights, one trying to avenge his only loss (Louis), the other attempting to be the first ex-champion to regain the title (Schmeling). But the meaning of this contest went far beyond the ring. With the clouds of war hovering over Europe, many saw the Louis-Schmeling fight as a symbolic preview to an almost inevitable conflict between America and Nazi Germany.

Fighting professionally in the decade prior to Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut, Joe Louis was one of this country’s most prominent African Americans during the latter half of the 1930’s, and a major source of pride throughout the Black community. Any Joe Louis fight would be eagerly followed by millions by way of radio, a prelude to today’s Super Bowl parties. Turning pro in 1934, Louis’s rise in the heavyweight division was quick and impressive. An accomplished boxer and devastating puncher, Joe scored knockout wins over former champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer in 1935 and by 1936 was the top contender for Jim Braddock’s heavyweight crown. But Louis had also become a cash cow at the box office…his fights with Carnera and Baer had both drawn over 60,000 fans, and promoters were in no hurry to put Louis into the ring with Braddock. Instead, Joe was matched up with another former champion, Max Schmeling.

Max Schmeling had held the heavyweight title from 1930 to 1932, but going into his June 1936 Yankee Stadium meeting with Louis, was considered past his peak. The 30 year old German was the decided underdog against the unbeaten Louis, but Schmeling, while studying films of Louis in action, noticed that Joe often held his left hand a bit low after throwing a jab, possibly leaving himself open to an overhand right to the head. As 40,000 spectators looked on, Schmeling’s observation proved correct, as he punished Louis with countless right hands to the jaw throughout the fight, finally knocking Joe out in the 12th round. Max’s unexpected win caused a sensation in Germany, making Schmeling a national hero in his native country. The Nazi government was quick to seize on the propaganda value of Max Schmeling’s triumph, holding the fighter up as an example of “Aryan superiority.” Schmeling was even given a private audience with Adolph Hitler, as the two watched a film of Schmeling’s knockout over Louis. Although Max was a proud German, it must be noted that he never joined the Nazi Party, and never bought into the anti-Semitic values of the Third Reich.

Although Schmeling’s win over Louis made Max the logical contender to meet champion Jim Braddock, boxing has never operated on logic. Promoter Mike Jacobs, offering some hard to refuse financial incentives, convinced the champion to instead defend his title against Louis, who had reeled off seven straight wins since his defeat at the hands of Max Schmeling. On June 22, 1937, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Joe Louis stopped Jim Braddock in the eighth round, becoming the first African American heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson had worn the crown from 1908 to 1915. But Joe publicly said that he wouldn’t feel like a real champion until he beat Max Schmeling.

The Louis-Schmeling rematch was set for June 22, 1938 in Yankee Stadium, in the same ring where Schmeling had won their first bout. The buildup for the fight caught the imagination of the public on both sides of the Atlantic, as people began to see Louis-Schmeling II through the lens of international politics, making a prizefight a battle of ideologies. For the first time in history, the vast majority of Americans were openly rooting for a Black man to emerge victorious over a white opponent, a far cry from the “White Hope” phenomenon that took place during the Jack Johnson era. By the time the two fighters entered the ring, Yankee Stadium was packed with over 70,000 onlookers, while tens of millions gathered around radios all over the U.S. A special trans-Atlantic hookup allowed the blow by blow account of the fight to be carried back to Germany, where millions more stayed up past 3:00 a.m. to follow the action.

At the opening bell, Louis eschewed the usual feeling out process, and immediately began scoring with combinations to Schmeling’s head. Schmeling, unprepared for Louis’s quick start, tried unsuccessfully to tie Joe up, and then tried backing away. A Louis overhand right sent Schmeling reeling along the ropes, at which point Joe unleashed a furious volley of punches. At about the 1:30 mark, Schmeling, trapped on the ropes, began to twist his body away from Louis, causing a Louis right, intended for the mid-section, to land on Schmeling’s spine. Schmeling let out an audible grasp, and began to sink to the floor. Referee Arthur Donovan prematurely separated the fighters, but waved Louis back in when he realized that Schmeling had held to his feet. Louis then landed a right to the head, sending Schmeling to the canvas for a count of three. Louis attacked again, knocking Max down for the second time. Back on his feet at the count of two, Schmeling was met with a vicious left to the body, followed by a chopping right to the jaw, dropping him for the third time. At this point a towel was tossed into the ring from Max’s corner, but referee Donovan tossed it aside and began counting. As Donovan reached eight, Schmeling’s corner men rushed into the ring to save their man from further abuse. The fight had lasted 2:04.

Louis’s one round victory was the biggest of his career, and solidified his standing as a great fighter. Joe would hold the title for 11 years, defending it successfully 25 times, both still boxing records. Louis’s toughest opponent ended up being the I.R.S., as Joe was hounded for unpaid taxes for much of his adult life. But aside from his abilities in the ring, Joe Louis’s legacy was being the first Black athlete whose popularity transcended race. There is no doubt that the career of Joe Louis went a long way toward making Jackie Robinson’s entry in Major League Baseball possible.

Max Schmeling’s loss to Joe Louis proved embarrassing to the Nazi government, as their propaganda suggested a Schmeling defeat was not possible. During World War II, Max was given one dangerous assignment after another, as the Nazis were probably hoping he could be useful as a dead hero. In 1941, operating as a paratrooper, Schmeling was injured at the battle of Crete, ending his active duty. After the war, Schmeling became an executive for the German division of Coca Cola, eventually becoming a wealthy man.

The nicest postscript to the Louis-Scheming rivalry is the fact that the two became great friends in later years. Schmeling would always include a visit with Joe whenever he came to the U.S. for business, and Louis reciprocated whenever he journeyed to Europe. When Joe Louis fell ill late in his life, it was Max who quietly paid many of Joe’s medical expenses. When Joe Louis passed away in 1981, Schmeling financed Louis’s military funeral. Max Schmeling died in 2005, at the age of 99.

Note: According to legend, the German broadcast of Louis-Schmeling II was cut off after the first knockdown, depriving Max’s countrymen of hearing the completion of the fight. Although this has been reported as fact for many years, this has recently been disputed, as a few old-timers remember listening to the entire (two minutes) of the contest. One individual even recalls the German announcer’s pleas for Max to get up, before reporting it was over.