The Ring Cycle
In the 1930s boxing embodied simultaneously the two theories of diversity in American society: It was both a melting pot and an expression of pluralism. It was more democratic than virtually any other sport, open to all regardless of race, class, religion or even size, as long as one was an able-bodied man. It was, indeed, one of the few sports where blacks could compete against whites. Baseball and college football, the two most popular sports of the time, were segregated. Blacks were permitted to fight despite unofficial restrictions against their competing for the heavyweight title, imposed after the reign of Jack Johnson (1908-15), the first black ever to hold that title and who, because his attitude was insufficiently deferential to his white opponents and because he had a penchant for marrying white women, was eventually prosecuted under the Mann Act, left the country and was finally defeated by a mediocre white American fighter in Havana.
But while boxing offered more or less equal opportunity by the standards of the time, it dramatized its contests along racial and ethnic lines: Jews against Irish, Irish against Italians, Filipinos against Mexicans, and blacks against anyone white. (Some fighters adopted ethnicities for box office purposes: Max Baer became a Jew, for instance, because Jews made up an important percentage of the boxing audience of New York, which had become the center of boxing by the Depression.) The largely working-class crowds that attended most fights identified with the fighters who represented their tribe, something promoters encouraged in order to increase attendance and to stimulate betting, the raison d'être for the sport. All men were equal in the ring, but all men were not merely men. They were clumsy, cheesy political symbols for the unwashed.
The Louis-Schmeling fight of 1938, attended by nearly 70,000 paying customers at Yankee Stadium, assumed a great deal of its drama from this old boxing tradition of making fights matter by making racial difference matter. Yet this fight was no run-of-the-mill racial brawl. The historical moment in the late 1930s, with the rise of fascism in Europe, made it seem that more was at stake than simply the money people were willing to wager on the outcome. With this fight, boxing's fictive politics became intensely real.
Max Schmeling first achieved fame in Weimar Germany, where he was courted by intellectuals and artists, many of them Jews. When the Nazis seized power in 1933, he tried to remain neutral, claiming to be a mere "sportsman." This was no easy task, since he had to negotiate the political transformation of his own country while at the same time trying to remain popular in the United States, where the money in professional boxing was. He walked an uneasy line, allowing himself to be used by the Nazis as a symbol when convenient while taking pains not to offend Americans, particularly Jews, who dominated the business of the sport in the United States. Thus at home he had a German manager, Max Machon, to please the Nazis, while his American manager, Joe Jacobs, was Jewish, a necessity to advance in the sport in the United States at the time. (Ultimately Jacobs was marginalized by the Nazis, reduced to a sort of errand boy or water carrier.) Schmeling learned English, learned to shmooze with the best of them and became something of a cosmopolitan, an unusual image for a boxer but a useful one for someone who was unwilling and unable to denounce Nazism. Schmeling became heavyweight champion in 1930 when his opponent, Jack Sharkey, fouled him so severely he was unable to continue, becoming the first and only fighter to win the title that way. He lost his title in 1932 to Sharkey in a fight he thought he had won. His career seemed on the skids, but he fought his way back into the elite of his profession and took on the rising star, Joe Louis, in 1936. He pummeled the undefeated Louis over twelve rounds before knocking him out. The win did not get Schmeling what he wanted and what he rightfully felt he deserved, a shot at the title, until two years later, after Louis had won it in a series of maneuvers that only boxing could produce, intensified by the growing unease over the political situation in Europe. But he did finally get his return shot in 1938 and, as things turned out, he got the luckiest break of all by losing by knockout in the first round. As Schmeling realized later, had he beaten Louis in the rematch, he almost certainly would never have been able to erase the Nazi taint from his reputation as he did after the war. The Nazis would have lionized him too much.