In 1930, boxer Max Schmeling became the first German world heavyweight champion. After winning the title, Schmeling’s career floundered, but with three victories in 1935, he worked his way back into contention.1
In June 1936, Schmeling finally got a shot at the undefeated African American boxer, Joe Louis, known to boxing fans as the "Brown Bomber." A native of Alabama, Louis was a hero to African Americans and widely respected as an athlete by other fans of the sport as well. Only a few sports were integrated in the United States at the time, boxing among them.
This drawing adorned the cover of the program for the Louis-Schmeling fight on June 18, 1936, in New York’s Yankee Stadium.2 It depicts Louis, on the left, and the taller Schmeling on the right. Major commentators considered Louis an eight-to-one favorite, while the older Schmeling was thought to be over the hill.
Louis, however, was overconfident and neglected his training, while Schmeling studied his opponent meticulously and trained relentlessly. A crowd of 46,000 at Yankee Stadium watched in shock as Schmeling knocked Louis down in the 4th round and scored a knock-out in the 12th. "The man just whupped me," Louis later said.3
Schmeling returned to Germany a national hero. A Nazi periodical, Das Schwarze Korps, noted that "Schmeling's victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race." Although he never joined the Nazi Party, when questioned by Americans about conditions in the Third Reich, Schmeling denied reports of Jewish persecutions, and praised Hitler's Germany.
Louis's American fans did not abandon him after his defeat. A tribute appeared in a leading African-American newspaper with the headline, "Joe Louis, We Are With You."4 Now it was Louis’s turn to fight his way back into contention; when he beat James J. Braddock in 1937, a Louis-Schmeling rematch became inevitable.
The second Louis-Schmeling heavyweight bout on June 22, 1938, billed as the "fight of the century," carried significant racial overtones. While Schmeling was seen as the symbol of Nazi racial superiority, Louis carried the hopes of the African American community and, as the symbol of democracy against fascism, of much of white America as well. American Jews, as well as Germany's persecuted Jews, were eager for Nazi racism to suffer a defeat.
Although many Americans still were not ready for a black champion, in Louis they saw a superb athlete who deserved a rematch for political as well as sporting reasons. "White Americans—even while some of them were lynching black people in the South—were depending on me to K.O. a German," Louis wrote in his autobiography. "I knew I had to get Schmeling good . . . the whole damned country was depending on me."5
Before 80,000 people in Yankee Stadium, Louis made good on his promise to get Schmeling. Louis unleashed a series of brutal punches; one punch broke two vertebrae in Schmeling’s back. It was all over in two minutes and four seconds. Louis was declared the victor.
After two weeks in the hospital, Schmeling returned to Germany, but this time, there was no hero's welcome. Although he returned to the ring, the fight with Joe Louis remained the high point of Schmeling's career. Louis continued to defend his world heavyweight title until 1949, twenty-five consecutive title defenses in all, still an unbeaten record.
After the war, the two men developed a close friendship. Schmeling was a pallbearer at Louis’s funeral.