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Apart from his physical vanity, Louis was a man free of pretensions. He came from a poor background and felt most comfortable with people from similar backgrounds. He frequented nightclubs, but he was quiet and he didn't drink. He sipped ginger ale or orange juice, listened to the conversation around him, laughed easily and always paid the check. He would often disappear into black neighborhoods for days, out of reach of his wife and his managers.
To a kid raised so poor, money was for spending—and only for spending. Louis never could make himself save a dime for the future. There was a certain charm to his irresponsibility. Most of his money went to other people. He was a big tipper. He bought his wife and his many lady friends expensive gifts. He supported his brothers and sisters, as well as a shifting entourage of hangers-on. He bought his mother a house. He contributed to every black cause he heard about. In the summer of 1935 he visited Detroit and was distressed to see that many of his boyhood friends did not have jobs. He bought them a bus and uniforms, christened them the Brown Bomber Softball Team and sent them to tour the country.
Louis finally went back into training for his fight with Schmeling in May 1936. He had just turned 22, and he had become dangerously overconfident and rebellious. He cut back on roadwork, refused to skip rope or punch bags and insisted on playing golf despite trainer Blackburn's warning, "Chappie, them muscles you use in golf, they ain't the same ones you use hitting a man." Blackburn was equally unsuccessful in keeping women out of camp. For a while Marva stayed, but Louis's managers finally begged her to leave, and she did. Louis then bedded down with camp followers.
A few reporters noted Louis's sluggishness but did not believe it would affect the outcome of the fight. He had knocked out his last five opponents in a total of 16 rounds, and everyone predicted that Louis would quickly dispose of Schmeling, too. The press had come to respect his boxing skills and was not so likely as before to ascribe his abilities to savage instincts inherent in blacks.
Now, however, another stereotype came to the fore—that of the lazy drawling "darkie." He was quoted in Uncle Remus dialect. Cartoonists drew him with huge lips and a sleepy smile. Even the most urbane newsmen—including John Kieran, then the intellectual dean of sportswriters, who wrote The New York Times's prestigious "Sports of the Times" column—called him "Shufflin' Joe."
Despite these descriptions, most of the white public accepted Louis's celebrity and his victories over white boxers. This absence of a backlash against Louis came as a source of endless surprise to white writers. For years they wrote columns about his "popularity," generally agreeing that his modesty and good sportsmanship had won him the tolerance of the white public.
His sudden rise to wealth and fame had also struck a universal chord in the American psyche. From Ben Franklin to Horatio Alger, rags to riches had been an article of faith in the American dream. That a poor black boy could earn thousands of dollars in a single night was a reaffirmation of the faith. Louis was making fantastic sums: For Camera he received $60,000 and for Baer, $240,000. He had to pay training expenses and income tax and split with his managers, but Jacobs saw to it that the press always reported Louis's gross purses.
Louis's fight with Schmeling was rife with political and racial overtones, but the sporting press made few direct references to them. Although writers were calling Schmeling "the terrific Teuton," "the Nazi nudger" and "the Heil Hitler hero," they were not inclined to cast him as the villainous representative of the Nazi regime. He had fought in the U.S. 11 times and had made a number of friends here. Also, sportswriters have a natural sympathy for the underdog, and Joe Louis was an 8-to-l favorite. The Nazis tried to downplay the match since they were sure that Schmeling had no chance.
The day of June 19, 1936 was overcast. That night rain threatened and only 40,000 fans showed up at Yankee Stadium. Everything went as had been expected for three rounds. Louis jabbed effectively and built an impressive lead, while the crowd begged for a knockout. Then in the fourth round Schmeling landed a solid right that dropped Louis on the seat of his pants. The crowd exploded. Louis was down for the first time in his professional career. He rose quickly, embarrassed, and kept Schmeling away the rest of the round with jabs.
Throughout the fifth Schmeling futilely chased Louis. Then at the instant the bell rang, Louis lowered his hands and Schmeling landed a thunderous right to the jaw. It stunned Louis so badly that his handlers had to help him to his corner. Louis had effectively lost consciousness. Somehow he remained upright, fighting on instinct alone into the twelfth round. It was an amazing display of strength, but Schmeling was hitting him almost at will. Finally, a right uppercut from Schmeling brought Louis's hands down, and his whole body began to sag. Schmeling released a roundhouse right. An unmistakable look of fear and surprise came over Louis's face in the split second before the punch landed. He went to his knees, his arms hanging over the middle strand of the ropes, then fell flat onto the canvas. He was counted out, and Schmeling jumped into the air, his face alight with joy.