Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 22, 1938: Louis knocks out Schmeling

BRONX, N.Y. - The bell rang, the fighters approached each other. The white German stood straight up, showing no fear. The black American stepped forward and sized up his opponent for a few seconds, looking for an opening. Then it began. A flurry of punches, a devastating attack like few had ever seen. It was an absolute bloodbath, except only one of the fighters was landing any punches.

It was more than just a heavyweight championship fight, more than just a battle of wills between and American and a German. It was a fight for racial pride, for national pride, the fight that could help dismiss any notions that one race is superior to another.

Perhaps no fighter in history had more pressure to succeed than Joe Louis did on June 22, 1938. It was his rematch against Max Schmeling, the German darling of the Nazi Party who had shocked Louis in their first meeting two years earlier. The Nazis pointed to that first fight as proof that a black man could never match up against someone from the Aryan nation. Louis, meanwhile, had been the champion of African Americans, who were devestated by his loss. Black poet Langston Hughes wrote this after Louis' loss to Schmeling:

"I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting in the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried."

It was more than just black Americans who were upset about Louis' loss, though. Hitler was becoming more and more menacing in Europe, so the Louis-Schmeling fight was seen as a source of national pride for Americans. The last thing they wanted was to give the Nazis any kind of emotional lift.

So that is how Joe Louis became one of the first African-American athletes to be embraced by all of America. For a while, it didn't matter that he was black, just that he was not German, and nothing would be more important than seeing him knock that sorry Nazi back to Germany where he belonged.

When Louis walked to the center of the ring in Yankee Stadium that June evening, he had all of America in his corner. Maybe that gave him the extra confidence he needed, the extra spring in his step and the extra power in his punch. Who knows? Whatever the reason, what followed was 2 minutes, 10 seconds of absoulte domination. When it was over, Louis had landed 31 punches, to only 2 for Schmeling. Schmeling had been knocked down three times, was audibly crying with every blow, and eventually ended up in the hospital with several cracked vertebrae.

Louis had won, and in the most convincing way possible: a first-round knockout. The Germans were at first shocked, then infuriated. Schmeling was never again heavily promoted as the Nazi Party poster child. Louis became a hero for America, all of America, and his victory was celebrated in the streets across the country. Even Schmeling, in defeat, noted the significance of the moment. In his autobiography years later, he mentioned that on his trip through Harlem to the hospital after the fight,

"...there were noisy, dancing crowds. Bands had left the nightclubs and bars and were playing and dancing on the sidewalks and streets. The whole area was filled with celebration, noise, and saxophones, continuously punctuated by the calling of Joe Louis' name."


Years later, long after the Nazi Party had abandonded him and he, in turn, had abandoned the Nazi Party, Schmeling reached out to Louis. The two eventually became friends, putting aside their past differences. When Louis struggled financially later in his life, it was Schmeling who sent him money to help keep him afloat, and when Louis died in 1981, Schmeling acted as a pallbearer at his funeral. A true friendship had developed out of an intense rivalry, a friendship that would have been completely unthinkable in the Bronx in 1938.

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