In 1930, boxer Max Schmeling became the first German world heavyweight champion. After winning the title, Schmeling’s career began to stall. But with three victories in 1935, he worked his way back into title contention.1
In June 1936, Schmeling finally got a shot at the undefeated Black American boxer, Joe Louis—known to boxing fans as the "Brown Bomber." A native of Alabama, Louis was a hero to many Black Americans. Only a few sports were integrated in the United States at the time, and Black athletes were excluded from most professional sports. Boxing presented rare opportunities for Black athletes to compete on the world stage at the highest levels.
The featured drawing decorated the cover of the program for the Louis-Schmeling fight on June 18, 1936, in New York City’s Yankee Stadium.2 It shows Louis on the left, and the taller Schmeling on the right. Major commentators considered Louis an eight-to-one favorite, while the Schmeling was considered too old to win.
But Louis was overconfident and neglected his training, and Schmeling studied his opponent carefully and trained hard. A crowd of 46,000 at Yankee Stadium watched in shock as Schmeling knocked Louis down in the 4th round and scored a knockout in the 12th. "The man just whupped me," Louis later said.3
Schmeling returned to Germany a national hero. A Nazi periodical called 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, Schmeling denied reports of Jewish persecution and praised Nazi Germany when he was questioned by Americans.
Louis' American fans did not abandon him after his defeat. A tribute appeared in a leading Black newspaper with the headline, "Joe Louis, We Are With You."4 Now it was Louis’ turn to fight his way back into contention. He beat James J. Braddock in 1937, and a Louis-Schmeling rematch became inevitable.
The second Louis-Schmeling heavyweight bout on June 22, 1938 was billed as the "fight of the century," and it carried significant racial overtones. Schmeling was seen as a symbol of Nazi claims to racial superiority, and Louis carried the hopes of the Black community—Louis was also supported by many white Americans hoping for a symbolic victory of democracy over fascism. Jews in Germany and the US were also eager for Nazi racism to suffer a symbolic defeat.
Many white Americans still were not ready for a Black champion, but they saw Louis as a superb athlete who deserved a rematch for reasons that were also political. Louis himself later observed that even racist white people who "were lynching Black people in the South...were depending on me to K.O. a German." He felt an intense amount of pressure to win the rematch, writing that "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. He 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 winner.
After two weeks in the hospital, Schmeling returned to Germany. This time there was no hero's welcome. Although he returned to the ring, his first fight with Joe Louis remained the high point of Schmeling's career. Louis defended his world heavyweight title until 1949. He made twenty-five consecutive title defenses in all, which is still an unbeaten record.
After the war, the two men developed a close friendship. Schmeling even served as a pallbearer at Louis’ funeral.