History Lesson: Joe Louis Fighting The Nazis

This is an article about Joe Louis and the controversy surrounding Max Schmeling. To be abundantly clear, Max Schmeling was not a member of the Nazi party. To even assume so would be a disgrace to his memory. This is about the weight and implications of the second fight between he and Joe Louis. So, let us begin.

Joe Louis took on the Nazi party in 1938 when he fought Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight title, the man who took it from him just a few years earlier. Let’s take a dive down into the history of the epic fight in this edition of History Lesson.

Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling 1

Max Schmeling was a notorious boxer who fought some of the best names in boxing during his time. Having already fought Jack Sharkey and Max Baer, he was ready to take another crack at the heavyweight title and would have to go through Joe Louis to get that opportunity. The focus of this lesson isn’t on this particular fight. Just know that Schmeling came to win the fight and begun work for a fight for the title with James Braddock (yes “Cinderella Man” James Braddock), but talks fell through. Schmeling defeated Joe Louis with a 12th round finish, being the first man to ever knock down the superstar, Joe Louis.

After the fight, Schmeling was on the radio talking about the fight. “At this moment I have to tell Germany, I have to report to the Fuehrer in particular, that the thoughts of all my countrymen were with me in this fight; that the Fuehrer and his faithful people were thinking of me. This thought gave me the strength to succeed in this fight. It gave me the courage and the endurance to win this victory for Germany’s colors.”

The fight with James Braddock never materialized because boxing officials and Braddock’s camp believed should Schmeling win, the Nazi party would not let Schmeling fight American contenders anymore out of a sense of nationalistic pride. Instead, Louis fought Braddock and defeated him, crowning Louis the world heavyweight champion.

History looks menacing for Schmeling. Next to his name on Wikipedia on Joe Louis’ professional boxing record is the Nazi Germany flag, something that sparks outrage when seen or brought up. That isn’t what Schmeling stood for, however, as we will see later.

Lead in to Louis-Schmeling 2

As boxing history went on, Joe Louis would go on to win the heavyweight title eventually, defeating James Braddock to win the NBA and lineal heavyweight title. On Schmeling’s side of the ocean, Nazi Germany begun to enforce their Aryan policies. World War II had not officially started yet, it was only 1938. The war would start a year later. But tensions were rising. Germany had annexed Austria and Japan was constantly at conflict with China and Russia. War was imminent, weather the world knew it or now.

At this point, people had deduced that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were without a doubt evil. The second fight was plagued by Aryan vs. Black narratives. Schmeling never felt comfortable with the angle media was taking on the fight. Schmeling was not a supporter of Hitler and his anti-Jew politics. He refused to join the Nazi party. Jack Dempsey, a friend of Schmeling, wanted Schmeling to take up a US citizenship. While he didn’t like the Nazi party, he was still passionate about his citizenship. “Once a German, always a German,” Schmeling would say.

Schmeling had a Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, and he refused to part ways with him regardless of how it was looked at by his government. Hitler even awarded Schmeling with the “Dagger of Honor” (also known as the SS-Ehrendolch). Schmeling refused the “award,” which was a dangerous move, politically.

Regardless of Schmeling’s rebellion, the Nazi party continued to claim Schmeling’s success as success of the party. The party put a publicist with Schmeling and his team that put out stories that Schmeling’s purse would “help build German tanks” and that “a black man could not beat Max Schmeling.” All of this turned the American public against Schmeling, unfair as it may have been.

Joe Louis knew what the world was seeing and knew he had to take matters into his own hands. “I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me.” President Roosevelt met with Louis before the fight and said the country “needed muscles like his to defeat Germany.”

Joe Louis reportedly told a friend before the fight, “Yeah, I’m scared. I’m scared I might kill Schmeling.”

Night of the fight: Louis defeats Schmeling

As history shows it, the fight didn’t last long. Louis would dispatch Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds officially. Schmeling only got off two shots as Joe Louis placed bomb after bomb on the chin of Schmeling.

The fight opened up with the two meeting in the middle of the ring. Louis would pop Schmeling with two quick jabs and Schmeling looked for a counter before Louis clinched up. After they separate, Louis lunges in with another uppercut and a second uppercut and hook, beginning the barrage that Schmeling would have to endure on the night.

Louis would go toe to toe with Schmeling and continue throwing uppercuts. Schmeling escaped to the center of the ring again, firing off a straight right that misses. Louis was patient, waiting for Schmeling to panic and lunge in, which he did. Louis nails Schmeling with a huge left hook that wobbles the German. The two go shoulder to shoulder and start dirty boxing. As Schmeling had enough and exit the exchange, Louis got Schmeling with a straight and a hook. Louis kept Schmeling on his back foot against the ropes, giving him no breathing room.

Then Louis comes with a big right hook to the jaw of Schmeling that wobbles him again. Schmeling is hanging against the ropes as Louis squares him up with his left and fires a giant right hand to the body that brought him back to. Then Louis alternates to the head and the body with Schmeling shying away from Louis as he’s getting beat down. With his back turned, Schmeling eats a left hook and a straight right that landed behind the ear and had Schmeling slumped against the ropes. The referee ruled Schmeling down and began the eight count.

Schmeling is ready to go again and Louis immediately throws a 1-2 that knocks down Schmeling who gets right back up. He and Louis meet again and Schmeling goes to clinch but Louis shrugs him off and knocks him down again with a right hook. Schmeling up again. Louis comes to him, this time, with a paw to the face, then fires a right hook to the body, a jab to the head and a huge right hook to the head. You see Schmeling’s head jerk as he falls to the canvas. Schmeling’s corner threw in the towel, the fight was over. On this day, Joe Louis, a black man from Lafayette, Louisiana, had defeated the Nazis.

Aftermath of Joe Louis’ Victory

The Civil Rights movement was still a good 30 years off. But in this one moment, both white and black America united in celebration of Joe Louis’ victory.

In his autobiography, Max Schmeling said after the fight as he was off to the hospital, “As we drove through Harlem, 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.”

Joe Louis winning thrusted him into superstardom, with him becoming arguably the first true African American national hero. He was such a pop icon that there have been songs and movies written about Louis. One of my favorite stories about Louis beating Schmeling was the song “Champ Joe Louis” by Bill Gaither.

I came all the way from Chicago
To see Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fight
Schmeling went down like the Titanic
When Joe gave him just one hard right

Schmeling had a noble career afterwards. He and the Nazi party grew farther apart. Schmeling would go on to give refuge to two Jews during the war. Hitler grew to dislike Schmeling, not entirely a bad thing now seeing he wasn’t killed. Hitler has Schmeling drafted in a paratrooper battalion, one of the hardest jobs in the military.

Max Schmeling was not ignorant to the implications of his rematch with Joe Louis. While he maintained it was an illegal kidney shot that did him in, he understood what was at stake and the possibilities should he win.

“Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal.”

Careers of Louis and Schmeling

As time went on, Joe Louis had an astounding 34 fight win streak after losing to Schmeling in 1936. He beat Braddock to win the heavyweight title and defended it 26 times, including the second Schmeling fight. He eventually lost his title to Ezzard Charles. He went on to win eight more fights before losing to Rocky Marciano and retiring with a 66-3 record.

Joe Louis was visibly different after such a long career. But he was also broke and needed to make money. The heavyweight champion took up professional wrestling to pay the bills and minimize brain damage.

Schmeling was forced to join the military shortly after losing to Louis in 1938. He fought Adolf Heuser in 1939 and went to the army until 1947. He went 3-2 in his return and decided to hang the gloves up as well. After his retirement in 1948, he had a record of 57-10.

Schmeling and Louis kindled a friendship after their second fight. Louis, unfortunately, ended up broke. Schmeling was a pallbearer at his funeral and reportedly sent Louis and his family money to help out with the funeral.

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling was a storyteller’s dream. With a perfect setup to a fight and a narrative including Nazis, the two showed that despite all the odds, good people can prevail.