Before the professional boxing industry became mired in opportunistic disorganization and corporate greed, which have undone the sport more than the Mafia ever could, the so-called Fight of the Century occurred with greater frequency than the name would suggest. Indeed, epochal prizefights once seemed to take place at least every generation, if not every dozen years or so. These were the days when boxing and boxers mattered to the general public, when boxing was more than a peculiar and marginalized taste in athletic competition, when certain fights captured the imagination of the masses, the pulse of popular sentiment so dramatically that they dominated the news. And although there have been a number of popular and important fighters who fought in the featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and middleweight divisions, from Benny Leonard and Henry Armstrong to Barney Ross and Kid Gavilan, from Willie Pep and Sugar Ray Robinson to Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, the fighters who have had the biggest impact on the public have been heavyweights: John Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and, of course, Joe Louis.
That three books on the June 22, 1938, rematch in New York between champion Joe Louis and German challenger Max Schmeling–the investigative journalist David Margolick’s Beyond Glory, the boxing writer Patrick Myler’s Ring of Hate and the historian Lewis Erenberg’s The Greatest Fight of Our Generation–should appear in the same year seems a bit uncanny and, surely for some, a bit of coincidental overkill, as the names of both fighters have faded over time. (Muhammad Ali did much to keep Louis’s name alive in the 1960s and ’70s, because he chose to define himself as the anti-Joe Louis, not patriotic and not self-effacing, and because sportswriters of Ali’s time frequently compared the two men. And Louis was still alive then and occasionally in good mental and physical health. The two men, after some initial antagonism when Ali won the title in 1964 and then when he opposed the draft, got along better as Ali grew older.) Since boxing is no longer a popular or glamorous sport–in fact, to borrow the subtitle of one author, it teeters “on the brink” of extinction–and since boxing books rarely sell well, it’s fair to ask why major publishing houses would put out books on a fight that happened nearly seventy years ago, a fight few people under 60 who are not boxing aficionados know about and to which hardly any living witnesses remain. (One would think that a book on the 1974 Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire or the February 1990 fight between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas in Japan, which resulted in Tyson’s shocking defeat–recent matches involving celebrity boxers–would fare better with the public.)
What these three books exploit, not unjustifiably, and what may account for their commercial appeal, is the mystique of the so-called Greatest Generation, an era of intense nostalgia for many Americans, probably because so many see it as a simpler, more virtuous time, a fleeting moment of unabashed American triumphalism for both the left and the right, despite their distinctly antagonistic views of the New Deal. And if there was one symbolic event that defined the world of the 1930s, one self-consciously constructed drama that encapsulated both the hopes and fears of the era, it was arguably this fight. The Louis-Schmeling rematch of 1938 powerfully links Depression-era America (democracy and capitalism on the brink of chaos), Depression-era Europe (the Old World on the brink of war) and the political and social dynamics of World War II (the defeat of fascism and America’s last unambiguously “good” war). The fact that both men served in the armed forces of their respective countries during the war–Schmeling, a paratrooper, was injured in a parachute jump in Crete in 1941–only intensified the symbolism of the event for many years after the fight itself.
Both Louis and Schmeling are remembered for this fight more than any other in their careers: Louis because he won an important fight under enormous pressure and looked virtually invincible in the ring; Schmeling because he lost the most important fight of his career so ignominiously and so shockingly. A black man from Detroit by way of Alabama, a representative of one of “the lesser breeds,” Louis became an American hero in a country thoroughly saturated with racism by beating a German fighter who represented Aryan superiority, the ideal of white masculine power that the American social and political order still endorsed. Schmeling, who embodied Nazi doctrine (although he only obliquely espoused it and never did so publicly), was never competitive in the fight; he hardly even struck his opponent, who was nine years younger in a rugged profession where such an age difference had significance. That the fight turned out as it did was not inevitable, but neither was it an accident. For the rise of Joe Louis and the fall of Max Schmeling were fashioned or strategized by a number of people besides the two principals, not the least of whom were Jews, who, Margolick informs us, were hugely influential in boxing in the 1930s as boxers, managers, promoters and sportswriters.