Boxing: V-day for no ordinary Joe

Sixty years on, the tale of one boxer's achievement in the face of a nation's hate has a powerful resonance; Bob Mee recounts a brutal chapter that symbolised the rising of a new black America
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The Independent Online
SIXTY years ago, a brutally one-sided and horribly brief fight symbolised the plight of the world. In the cavernous Yankee Stadium in New York on a hot night in June 1938 an American, Joe Louis, successfully defended his world heavyweight championship against a German, Max Schmeling. It was a massacre which lasted only 124 seconds but which drew a crowd of 70,000, who paid more than $1m at the turnstiles, with millions tuning in on radio sets across the United States.

At 3am in Germany, the national network began its broadcast of the fight with the vehement Nazi Arno Helmer providing the voice. When Schmeling was sent spinning to the canvas for the first of three knockdowns, the lines to Germany were mysteriously cut. In the 1970s, when the political climate was so vastly different, Louis said: "They didn't want their people to know that a plain old nigger man was knocking the shit out of the Aryan Race."

Although Louis, the fabled Brown Bomber from the Alabama cotton fields via the Motor City of Detroit, was world heavyweight champion for almost 12 years, from June 1937 until March 1949, this was the night on which he put everything together in a lethal blend of power and artistry. "I guess Schmeling was the only fighter I was ever really mad at," he said.

One moment on the flickering film horrifies above all others. As Schmeling is knocked into the ropes, he half turns away and takes a sickening blow to the small of the back. His mouth falls open. Boxers are accustomed to pain, but his scream was never forgotten by those who heard it. "It was a terrifying sound," said the referee Arthur Donovan. "Half-human, half-animal," recalled the British writer Peter Wilson.

The punch broke the German's third lumbar vertebra and drove it into his kidney. Schmeling was in hospital for 10 days in New York and for another six weeks in Germany.

Across America, nobody gave a damn. In Harlem, thousands partied, dancing and goose-stepping in the streets. A banner proclaimed: "Joe Louis Knocked Out Hitler". In Cleveland, the joy spilled over to the point where the police dispersed the crowds with tear gas.

Why on earth did this all happen? First, there was a new Black America rising. The grandchildren of the slave generation were beginning the long push to be regarded as something more than third-class citizens. Yet they remained largely a conservative people, which did not trust easily what was not acceptable to whites.

Accordingly, Louis had been coached to be acceptable to everyone. He did not openly revel in his victories and, in public at least, never messed with white women. He was perceived as humble and considerate, and rarely reacted even when confronted by prejudice.

By the summer of 1936, it was assumed that Louis would become the next heavyweight champion. He had destroyed the former title- holders Max Baer, Primo Carnera and Jack Sharkey. He was already formidably rich. Only one per cent of Americans earned $10,000 a year or more. In one year when still on the way up, Louis grossed $429,682.

And then Schmeling knocked him out in 12 rounds. It was an amazing upset. Schmeling returned home on the Hindenberg airship, celebrated as a conquering hero. He was sent telegrams by Goebbels and Hitler, who also invited him and his actress wife, Anny Ondra, to lunch. Six weeks later, Germany staged the infamous Olympic Games in Berlin, when Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens. Schmeling, whether he liked it or not, became a hero of the Reich. In spite of his beetle black hair, he was proclaimed pure Aryan by Goebbels. The propaganda machine began to roll. "The black man will always be afraid of me," said the press releases. "He is inferior."

Yet Schmeling refused to sack his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs. (Their contract was still valid when Jacobs died in 1940.) On the terrible "Kristallnacht" in November 1938, when 30,000 Jews were arrested ready for deportation to concentration camps, Schmeling let some hide in his house until they could make their escape.

By mid-1938, Hitler's bombers had destroyed Guernica, Austria had been annexed and concentration camps were already in existence at Dachau, Buchenwald and elsewhere. It was perhaps with the naivety of so many sportsmen and women that Schmeling arrived in New York on the SS Bremen for the rematch with Louis, who by then had won the world title from James J Braddock. He was stunned to find Anti-Nazi League protesters lining the dockside. Wherever he went, there were pickets. The editor of Ring magazine, Nat Fleischer, wrote a script for him to read on the radio, pleading to the sporting nature of the American people. No radio station would accommodate him.

"I am a fighter, not a politician," he said. But as the fight neared, the tension increased. It was claimed his trainer, Max Machon, had a full Nazi uniform in his wardrobe. His words were exaggerated, or reinvented to satisfy editorial demand. The Bund, the odious US Nazi group, visited both camps. The presence and influence of these people should not be underestimated now - one of their rallies packed out Madison Square Garden. (Bizarrely, there was also an organisation known as the Negro Industrial and Clerical Alliance which was blatantly Anti-Semitic.) The New York Journal carried a cartoon with Louis under a bubble "That All Men Are Created Equal", while the one over Schmeling read: "Nordic Supremacy". The attack on Pearl Harbor was still three years away, but President Franklin D Roosevelt had greeted Louis at the White House earlier in the year, felt his biceps and told him: "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany."

The promoter Mike Jacobs privately referred to Schmeling as "a Nazi son- of-a-bitch", but tied him to a long-term contract in the event of his winning. Jacobs made a fortune. On the afternoon of the fight, Louis was so fuelled by the atmosphere he said to one of his aides: "I am afraid I might kill Schmeling tonight." Jacobs told him backstage: "Murder that bum and don't make an asshole out of me."

And then it was over so quickly. As the years pushed the fight into the recesses of memory, as war came and the Third Reich fell, the two fighters met again and developed a lifelong friendship. Louis, who had picked up the tab for everyone around him since the 1930s, was eventually ruined and forced to wrestle and appear in a circus. He ended his working life as a greeter at Caesars Palace.

Schmeling lost everything in the war, but became a millionaire when he took on the German franchise of Coca-Cola. "Sport is sport," he said a few years ago. "It has nothing to do with hate." He is now 92, living quietly in Germany and still enormously wealthy.

Louis died in 1981.

Fights that changed the face of boxing by Bob Mee

Tom Sayers v John Camel Heenan

17 April 1860. Farnborough, Hampshire

Although prize-fighting was illegal, Parliament emptied for the last of the great bare- knuckle fights in England, between Sayers of Brighton and Heenan from New York. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic sent reporters. Tickets, stamped "to nowhere" in order to preserve the secrecy of the location until the last minute, cost three guineas and the trains left Waterloo Station before dawn. The fight ended in a chaotic draw after 42 rounds lasting more than two hours.

Tommy Burns v Jack Johnson

26 December 1908. Rushcutter's Bay, Australia

Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion by defeating Burns, a Canadian, in 14 rounds. The result caused an outcry among whites who remembered fondly the boast of the old champion John L Sullivan: "I have never fought a Negro and never shall." Johnson was hated, but was the best heavyweight in the world for seven years.

Jack Johnson v James J Jeffries

4 July 1910. Reno, Nevada.

Public demand brought Jeffries out of retirement after five years as the world heavyweight championship was transformed into a racist crusade. Beforehand, a white band played a tune called "All Coons Look Alike To Me". After Johnson had won easily in 15 rounds, 19 people died and 251 were seriously hurt in race riots across America. One report stated calmly: "Most of the casualties were negroes."

Jack Dempsey v Georges Carpentier

4 July 1921. Jersey City, New Jersey.

Although eventually he was considered a personification of the American Dream, in 1921 Jack Dempsey was reviled for alleged avoidance of service in the First World War. By contrast, his French challenger, the glamorous Carpentier was an acknowledged war hero. The combination drew boxing's first million-dollar gate. Dempsey won in four rounds.

Jack Sharkey v Primo Carnera

29 June 1933. Long Island, New York.

When the lumbering Carnera knocked out the defending heavyweight champion in the sixth round, New York belonged to Italy. Unknown to this naive, uneducated and apolitical giant, his manager dedicated his victory to Benito Mussolini by telegram. Il Duce made great political capital out of his victory and Carnera was made a member of the 55th Friulano Alpine Legion of Fascists.

Sonny Liston v Cassius Clay

25 February 1964. Miami, Florida.

Twenty-four hours after taking the title from Liston on a sixth-round retirement, Clay renounced his Baptist faith and his name. He became a Black Muslim, first using the "holding" name, Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali. His choice led to his refusal to fight in Vietnam, a decision which furthered dialogue over American involvement in the war, and so played a part in the change of attitudes towards it.

Dick Tiger v Roger Rouse

17 May 1967. Las Vegas, Nevada.

World light-heavyweight champion Tiger's 12th-round stoppage of Rouse was unremarkable except for a single, proud, political statement. Tiger had himself announced as from "The Republic of Biafra" as a sign of his support to the struggle of his people against the Nigerian government. Tiger sent home $100,000 worth of medicine and food on a private plane and became a lieutenant in the Biafran Army. His land was confiscated. He died of cancer in 1971.

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