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Chris Mead
September 23, 1985
By World War II, Joe Louis was a hero for all Americans, but financial troubles, illness and changing racial attitudes dimmed his image
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September 23, 1985

Triumphs And Trials

By World War II, Joe Louis was a hero for all Americans, but financial troubles, illness and changing racial attitudes dimmed his image

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The new heavyweight champion of the world spent the first few weeks of his reign in the summer of 1937 touring the Midwest with the Brown Bomber Softball Team, an assortment of his unemployed boyhood friends from Detroit. By boxing tradition, Joe Louis was entitled to a long vacation. The title he had won from Jim Braddock in June carried tremendous prestige, and recent champions had been reluctant to risk such a prize. Jack Dempsey had defended his title just five times between 1919 and 1926. Gene Tunney took it from Dempsey, then defended it twice before retiring in 1928. Between August 1928 and June 1937 there had been only eight heavyweight title fights. Braddock went two years without a fight. But those champions were white. Louis's managers, Julian Black and John Roxborough, felt the American public would not accept an inactive black champion, so they signed a five-year contract with their favorite promoter, Mike Jacobs, committing Louis to four fights a year.

Everyone knew his next opponent should be Max Schmeling, the German who in June 1936 had dealt the champion his only defeat in 28 fights. But Mike Jacobs was unable to strike a deal because Schmeling demanded 30% of the gate instead of the challenger's usual 20%. On his own, Schmeling was planning to fight Tommy Farr, a Welsh coal miner who was the British champion, but the wily Jacobs muscled in and offered Farr nearly double what he stood to make with Schmeling if the Welshman would fight Louis. On Aug. 30, 1937, Louis won a tough 15-round decision over Farr. Several days later a chastened Schmeling signed with Jacobs to fight Louis for 20% of the gate. The championship match, however, would have to wait until the summer of 1938 since it was too late in the year to arrange a big outdoor fight.

The delay would prove disastrous for Schmeling. He was 32 years old in June of 1938, while Louis had turned 24 in May. Even worse for Schmeling, Adolf Hitler stepped up German rearmament and territorial expansion in the winter and spring of 1938. News of increased Nazi persecution of Jews leaked out, too. President Franklin D. Roosevelt politicized the fight even more. In the spring of 1938, F.D.R. invited Louis to the White House, and during a brief meeting the President supposedly said, "Lean over, Joe, so I can feel your muscles.... Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany."

When Schmeling arrived in New York aboard the S.S. Bremen in early May, pickets were waiting. And when he walked the streets people raised their arms in contemptuous Nazi salutes. The press emphasized the symbolic confrontation between the American black and the German. Reporters identified Schmeling as "Moxie," "Herr Schmeling," "the Black Uhlan [fighter]" or "the Nazi-man."

Sportswriters also used stereotypes to analyze the two fighters. They described Louis as a natural athlete who could not think in the ring, while Schmeling was a methodical boxer with limited physical assets. Bill Corum of the New York Journal-American wrote: "There are certain gifts that the Negro race, as a race, and Louis, as an individual, have as a heritage. The ability carefully to work out a methodical plan and adhere to it, is not among them. That's for Schmeling."

Louis and his handlers had, in fact, carefully analyzed films of his 1936 bout with Schmeling. They saw that only when Louis relinquished the offensive did the German have time to set himself to deliver counterpunches. Thus, they decided that Louis would attack from the beginning. This strategy fit Louis's mood. He felt great personal hostility toward the German. Among other things, Schmeling was quoted as saying that Louis was a man who remembered a beating and feared it would happen again.

The growing perception in the U.S. was that the Nazis considered Schmeling their official surrogate. This caused a historic counterreaction: The American public now came to view Joe Louis—a black man—as their official representative of American strength and virtue. In the racist society of the time, that was revolutionary almost beyond belief.

June 22, 1938 was a warm, muggy Wednesday. In his dressing room at Yankee Stadium, less than three hours before the most important fight of his life, Joe Louis fell asleep. Outside the stadium, members of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League distributed handbills calling for a boycott of German goods, while Communists gave out leaflets asking the fans to cheer Louis and boo Schmeling. Over 70,000 people filled the stadium seats and the neat rows of ringside folding chairs set up on the infield.

At 9 p.m. trainer Jack Blackburn woke Louis to tape his hands. It was a familiar, soothing ritual. Usually Louis shadow-boxed for 10 minutes before a fight. But tonight he did it for half an hour. He wanted to be ready to spring to the attack at the opening bell. Then the champion was escorted to the ring in a circle of uniformed policemen. In his dressing room Schmeling listened to the crowd roar for Louis. Then he headed to the ring, encircled by a tense police escort. The crowd in the stands applauded the German, but fans on the infield hurled banana peels and paper cups at him. Schmeling covered his head with a towel. In the moments before the bell, Louis danced and punched the air. Sweat gleamed on his skin. Schmeling stood motionless, arms hanging at his sides. He stared at Louis. The bell rang. Max Schmeling walked out quickly to meet Joe Louis.

Two minutes and four seconds later, the German lay beaten and bleeding on the canvas, the victim of one of boxing's most violent assaults. After he had recovered somewhat, Schmeling was able to tell the NBC radio audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have not much to say. I [am] very sorry.... I won't make any excuse, but I did get such a terrible hit, the first hit I get in the left kidneys, I was so paralyzed I couldn't even move. And then after that it was all over, you know." Of all the dozens of punches Schmeling took in that brief time, one bludgeon blow to the body had done the most damage. LIFE magazine printed Louis's recollection of that shot: "I hit him right in the ribs and I guess maybe it was a lucky punch, but man, did he scream! I thought it was a lady in the ringside cryin'. He just screamed, tha's all."

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