Any list that doesn’t have Joe Louis as Number One is like presenting water without wetness…
June 22, 1938. Yankee Stadium.
At the sharp DING! of the brass bell, America’s Joe Louis and Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling shuffled into center ring for the second time in two years.
Joe Louis—the Brown Bomber with the jackhammer right cross—ignored the 70,000 spectators filling Yankee Stadium with the stink of sweat, beer, and smoke. He didn’t think about his visit to the White House a week earlier, and President Roosevelt’s private forewarning that the nation needed this victory. Louis shrugged off the smug image of the German chancellor with the toothbrush mustache who anticipated another victory against the Black champion of this “mongrel nation.”
He even shelved the two-year-old memory of Schmeling’s right that rattled his jaw, knocking a bleeding and half-blind Joe Louis onto the mat two years earlier. Joe’s ears had rung like Christmas bells with the force of the blow…but not so much that he couldn’t hear the humiliating count. “…8….9…10!”
The only thought that took real effort to turn away was the faces of his family, fans, and friends after his loss. Eyes filled with hollow heartbreak: Louis had gone soft. Louis saw men weep as openly as children. Wet, red eyes turned away from him. He had been cocky. He had been complacent. He too had thought the Brown Bomber impervious, and he had been so very wrong. He had paid for that arrogance with two years of shame.
Years later, the American poet Maya Angelou recalled Joe Louis’ first loss against Schmeling. For her, and for many African-Americans of the 1930s, it had been cultural trauma.
“My race groaned,” poet Maya Angelou later wrote. “It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another black man hanging on a tree . … this might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings.”
With devotion bordering on mania, Louis had trained harder and longer than ever before. He trained until his muscles screamed and his bones groaned. He denied himself comfort, recreations, even sex. All for this for a chance at redemption.
Now an Alabama-born, Detroit-raised Joe Louis allowed himself a single thought in these last seconds of peace. A simple prayer, over and over, as he blinked away a bead of sweat.
Please, Lord, don’t let me kill this man. PLEASE, Lord, don’t let me kill this man.
The rival athletes from rival nations met at the center ring. Louis’ prayer and the last of his lucid thinking evaporated in a red wash of rage, adrenaline, and muscle memory.
The moment their feet touched center ring, Joe unleashed two left jabs, hard as truck pistons. Schmeling’s chin rattled, and the dark-browed German took a quick step back to the ropes. Louis chased him, his left licking out twice again, not to hurt Schmeling but to corral him against the ropes for real punishment. Again, Schmeling stepped back and his back brushed the jittering ropes. Louis stepped forward and his left came out again, this time twisting in a tight hook into Schmeling’s cheek. Already, the German’s face swelled from Joe’s assault.
From the outset of the fight, Schmeling knew something was wrong. Something was very different from their fight two years earlier.
In 1936, he had studied Louis’ moves as studiously as any scholar. Eventually he found a weakness. The American champion had a tendency to lower his left after a jab. The advantage was razor-thin, but enough to win that monumental bout.
There was no more weakness here. Schmeling’s straight stance and left jabs, which had served him so well in his boxing career, were now useless. Quick nausea blossomed in Max’s belly, imagining how his family, how his Fuhrer, would react if he came home defeated. It would taint the Chancellor’s message of Aryan athletic racial superiority. Max never bought that propaganda nonsense, and never joined the Nazi Party, despite their frequent overtures, but it was still his country where his family lived.
The German scrambled for a strategy, ducking his head down to lessen Louis’ blows. He could do nothing to remove the slack-eyed look of worry (maybe even FEAR?) on his face. He had to focus, to th—
A left hook pummeled Schmeling’s head.
Then a vicious right.
His head swam and pulsed sickly. He blinked and slapped at the air, missing Louis’ right fist, which came down sharply on his jaw. His teeth snapped and bounced. And then another left to his head. He tried to back up, but there was no back left. His body lodged hard against the ropes. There was nowhere to retreat.
He wobbled on his feet. He shot out a right jab automatically. It connected weakly off Louis’ jaw as the Brown Bomber stepped back. Max tried to clear his head. He could feel the hot numbness of swelling on his cheeks and just below his eyes. The din of the crowd was replaced with the rush of blood, and the silent shriek of a damaged ear drum. His thoughts came slowly and half-formed. Max scrunched down, arms up, and backed up along the rope again. He just needed a few seconds to clear his head and think.
Joe stepped forward, inside the arc of Schmeling’s punches and the two men clinched. To break away, Louis brought up his left in an awkward but powerful short uppercut, glancing off Schmeling’s jaw. Then he twisted his body and stabbed his right deep into Schmeling’s side. It felt like a depth charge had burst under his skin.
Max pulled himself out of the clinch, finding himself near the rope, only inches from where he had been at the start of the bout. He blinked, he coughed, and bloody sweat sprayed down on the mat. Once again Max tried to string together a rudimentary strategy, but his head wasn’t working right. Two plus two equals giraffe? Louis pumped out a hard right into Schmeling’s cheek. More pain. Something in his mouth jangled and then broke. Another left jab from Louis. One and two. One and two.
Max stepped back, his right fist lolling out like a drunken elephant’s trunk and swished through empty air. Joe stabbed his left straight into Max’s teeth. Blood in his spittle. Another damn left. More blood. His guard stabbed into his gums.
Louwis shot out his left as quick and cruel as a serpent’s tongue, and it landed on Max’s right temple. Blood stars exploded in his vision. It felt like Louis had buried that punch, glove and all, right into his damn sinus cavity. He tumbled back, leaning against the ropes, scrunched down nearly a foot below Joe, who towered above him. There would be no mercy.
Suddenly, just losing the bout seemed the least of Max’s worries. This man might kill him.
Louis’ left swung out as wide as a pendulum, cutting the air above Schmeling but missing him. Schmeling tried to back up even more, but again his weary body rested against the ropes.
For Joe Louis, full and coherent thought still floated slightly out of reach. His punches, leg work, and posture were 100% muscle memory, as automatic as a sneeze. Looking down on the German, whose dark eyes seemed hidden beneath bushy, dark eyebrows, Louis didn’t feel a pang of sympathy. Schmeling had only brushed Joe with two feathery punches, barely strong enough to make a candle flicker.
Joe decided to end this. His left caught Schmeling’s jaw, snapping the German’s head up and back. Joe shifted his weight. Two hundred pounds of professionally-trained muscle flexed into that punch. The tsunami of force started in his foot, rolled up his leg into his hip, into his back, into his shoulder and finally into his right arm. His lip twisted with the effort. In an instant it grew into a deadly force of nature.
Max Schmeling turned to the right as Joe’s glove dug deep into the German. It missed his side and plowed into the left edge of Max’s torso. Schmeling felt something tear, snap, and explode in his back and he cried out. It was a sound he had never made before, neither in a bout or even in life. It was the high, wheezy whine of a hurt animal. Spectators would remember that cry. After the bout, Schmeling would be rushed to the hospital.
Joe Louis’ punch had shattered vertebrae in the German’s back, and drove the mass into his kidney like shrapnel.
Joe ignored it. He hooked his left into Schmeling’s side, then his right into Schmeling’s skull, then another left to the head. Anger as cold as space took over Joe’s swings. Schmeling had become every injustice Joe knew. Those KKK bastards that terrorized his family in Alabama and drove them up to Detroit. Every taunt about his race. Every tease about his stutter.
Another left to Schmeling’s head. Joe’s face twisted with the effort, and he dropped his body and stabbed out his killer straight right cross, a punch so perfect and destructive, it would become a weapon of pugilistic legend.
Max’s eyes rolled wildly. His arms drooped and his body sagged to the ground, his knees touching the mat. He tried to pull himself up, body his will and his muscles were now two separate entities now. Max looked at his corner, where his blurred outlines of people—HIS people—barked out encouragement. Something like a buried firework exploded in his head and Schmeling folded up, slouching to the mat.
“Schmeling is going down! But he held to his feet, held to the ropes, looked to his corner in helplessness. And Schmeling is down. Schmeling is down. The count is four. And he’s up…”
~Announcer Harry Bellow
The ref counted to four before Schmeling pulled himself off the mat. His body swayed and his fists were saggy bags of sand. Sweat, pain, and the concussive force of Louis’ punches made the entire ring double sickly in Schmeling’s vision. But he stood.
Louis wanted to wrap the bout up. He stomped toward the reluctant representative of the Aryan race and his fists came out in furious, surgical surges. By the second punch, only the balanced force of Louis’ fists kept Schmeling standing.
A left to the head. A right to the head. Max’s eyes rolled up and back.
A left to the jaw. Pink spittle showered the air in an arc.
The Brown Bomber’s face turned into a twisted mask of effort. It wasn’t hate or contempt, just the result of Joe calling upon force from every single muscle.
Another right to the head.
Max’s corner screamed at him, telling him to drop. They screamed at the ref to stop the fight. What 70,000 people now saw was a message from Joe Louis to Hitler. A message tattooed with fists like frozen ham hocks and arms like hard maple.
Louis spooned his right up into Schmeling’s belly, knocking the wind out of the wounded German, and then shifted his force instantly to his left fist, bringing it hard and fast into Max’s jaw. Drop, dammit, Joe thought, why won’t he drop?
Max had good reason to stay on his feet. After his recovery in the hospital and return to Germany, his near supernatural status as a hero of the state vanished. Hitler would have nothing to do with him. This had been all right for Schmeling. While he adored Germany, he disliked the bullying nonsense of the Nazi Party, especially their persecution of Jews.
Schmeling himself would hide two two Jewish children in his apartment and save them from the mysterious but murderous fate awaiting their people. germany drafted him into the Luftwaffe during the war and he would be wounded in 1941. He then spent the rest of the war using his remaining celebrity to cheer up wounded German soldiers. His sacrifices and devotion meant nothing to the high-ranking Nazis, who would see him as a walking failure.
But before any of that, Schmeling had to fall. After that last blow, the German didn’t really have a choice. Schmeling folded to the mat as smooth as fresh laundry. The ringside bell jangled and clanged.
DING! DING! DING!
It was over. In two minutes and four seconds, Joe Louis had thrown 41 devastating punches. Schmeling had thrown two weak ones. His handlers hurried the half-conscious German through the crowd and to a nearby hospital where he’d remain for nearly two weeks, nursing several cracked vertebrae.
The rivalry didn’t last.
Both men served during World War II and would become close friends afterwards. For decades, Schmeling flew to the US to visit his former rival. When Louis’ later health and addiction issues strained his finances, Max organized and provided funds to keep the champ comfortable.
In 1981, Joe Louis died at the age of 66 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Max Schmeling was a pallbearer.
Want to Know More?
Check out “Ringside Radio” from PBS’s American Experience. A complete transcript with blow-by-blow commentary of Louis-Schmeling I and II are available.
And, of course, you have to watch the original fight in its entirety, kindly available on YouTube courtesy of ESPN Classic Sport: