The Ring Cycle
Joe Louis's story is the rise of an unremarkable black boy who, after discovering that he could box, rose from anonymity to become the most famous black man in the world. Louis was a talented amateur, and when he turned pro in 1934--just one year after a group of black entrepreneurs decided to relaunch black professional baseball with the newly formed Negro Leagues, reinvigorating professional sports in the black community--he was sensational. He knocked out everyone. He was well built, quick-fisted, sullen and nearly illiterate. His black managers cultivated an image quite different from that of Jack Johnson to woo the white public and earn him a shot at the title. Louis never gloated over his white opponents (and virtually all of his opponents were white for most of his career); he was not seen in the company of white women (although he secretly shared many beds with them); he was modest, soft-spoken and agreeable. Yet it was important to his managers that Louis exhibit racial pride and not seem like an Uncle Tom; otherwise, he would lose his black following. Louis spoke proudly of his race, and he enjoyed being around blacks, something Jack Johnson clearly did not. Louis became a cross between Jack Armstrong and John Henry. The white press's coverage of him was, at times, openly and crudely racist, yet on the whole it improved as white reporters got to know him. Louis became well liked and was certainly written about more favorably, if condescendingly at times, than most blacks had been in white newspapers.
Louis's first fight that had international political overtones took place in June 1935 against the Italian boxer Primo Carnera, just as Italy was preparing to invade Ethiopia. His victory over Carnera, who had won the heavyweight championship in 1933 by beating Jack Sharkey and lost it the following year to Max Baer, made him a global hero in the black world. Louis lost to Schmeling in 1936 because he had grown overconfident, recalcitrant and unfocused, and because he had bad technique. He learned his lesson from that defeat and did not suffer one again for another fourteen years. The hottest thing in boxing, Louis revitalized the sport, which was on the verge of losing public interest in the early 1930s because of its mediocre heavyweight division. He not only regenerated white interest but attracted a number of black fans to the sport, a fact apparently not lost on Branch Rickey, the man who signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. Rickey attended at least one of Louis's championship bouts. Despite his loss in 1936 to Schmeling, Louis was still good business, and the men who ran professional boxing recognized that it was in their interest to permit him to fight for the title, particularly because they feared that if Schmeling fought titleholder Jim Braddock and won, there would be little chance of having Schmeling defend the title in the United States. It was also in the financial interest of Braddock, who saw that he could make much more money fighting Louis than Schmeling, even though Schmeling had beaten Louis. Mike Jacobs, Louis's Jewish promoter (no relation to Joe Jacobs, Schmeling's manager) saw it that way, too, which is why Louis fought for and won the title in 1937. This set the moment for the showdown in 1938.
In 1938, it must be remembered, there were still plenty of white Americans, particularly Southerners, who wanted Louis to lose to Schmeling simply because Schmeling was white, despite the fact that he was a Nazi. Yet something had changed: This time, in an atmosphere very different from Jack Johnson's major title defenses against white fighters, many whites were willing to accept Louis and, even after the fight, to feel that his victory was good for the country. As a result, Louis became the first major crossover sports hero in America, because that is exactly how the white public decided to interpret his victory--as a heroic achievement, virtually a first for a black athlete. This perception was enhanced by Louis's unselfish and patriotic service in the armed forces during the war (although he never saw combat). While in the military, he stood up for the rights and status of the black soldier, including coming to the assistance of Jackie Robinson by helping him get into officers' training school and aiding him when he was court-martialed. There is more about Louis's war record in Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America, the autobiography of Truman Gibson, who was Civilian Aide in the War Department during a good portion of World War II and who became, for a time, Louis's lawyer. Gibson also became a major fight promoter in the 1950s.
Read together, the three books under review offer a rich collective portrait of Louis, Schmeling and the era to which they belonged. Erenberg's The Greatest Fight of Our Generation has the keenest sense of how the fight reflected the growing internationalization of sports and the intersection of manhood and politics in American culture at the time. Myler's Ring of Hate is the shortest and the simplest of these books, but it's the most perceptive about boxing itself. For instance, he gives the best analysis of Primo Carnera's career and the most persuasive reasons why Carnera's fights weren't fixed of any of the many accounts I have read. And because Carnera is not dismissed, as he typically is, as a tomato can or third-rate opponent, Louis's defeat of him is given its proper importance as an athletic accomplishment. Margolick's Beyond Glory--a breathless stew of a narrative that draws considerably upon newspaper accounts published in America, Germany and elsewhere--contains the most in sheer detail, including reconstructed conversations, intricate descriptions of how the principal actors dressed and an especially strong discussion of Schmeling's relationships with his Jewish-American and German managers. Yet as thickly detailed as Margolick's book is on the fighters until the moment of their 1938 rematch, it is shockingly thin on their careers subsequent to the big fight. Both Erenberg and Myler are far better on what happened to Louis and Schmeling after their 1938 encounter, which is actually important to the story, as both men met again on several occasions, and as Schmeling used Louis (not without compensation to Louis, as Margolick notes) to rehabilitate his past.
In the end, after the war and after their boxing careers were over, Louis wound up broke and in poor health, while Schmeling, who occasionally lent him money, became rich selling Coca-Cola in West Germany. But both men were probably forever haunted by their two fights: Schmeling knew, after all, that his loss to Louis was the only reason he had any standing at all in America, while Louis knew that beating Schmeling made him a myth rather than a fighter, opening the door for his general acceptance by white America. Each owed the other a lot and one supposes, finally, that each was paid in the coin he knew and needed.