The Ring Cycle

The Ring Cycle

When Joe Louis defeated Nazi sympathizer Max Schmeling in 1938, it was the boxing match that reverberated across the world. Three new books chronicle the match and all the racial and political turmoil of which it was an emblem.


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.

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.

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.

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