By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 27, 1999
It was more than just boxing. It was the swastika vs. the stars and stripes, Nazi Germany vs. the American way -- even if that way wasn't quite the same for non-whites. And it was a rematch two years in the making.
In 1936, 22-year-old Joe Louis, with 27 straight wins under his belt, had met former champion Max Schmeling, 30 and well past his prime. Louis had taken him lightly, absorbed a fearful beating and was knocked out in the 12th round. Schmeling detected a flaw in his opponent's style -- Louis dropped his left when he threw a hard right -- and had exploited it.
He had left Germany in virtual anonymity. He returned a hero aboard the dirigible Hindenburg.
The summer of '36 was the year of the Berlin Olympics, a propaganda forum for Adolf Hitler's ravings about the superiority of the master race. And here was Schmeling, a reluctant representative of the Nazis and their racist philosophy, defeating a seemingly invincible black American. The Nazi weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps commented: "Schmeling's victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race."
Schmeling, champion in 1931-32 and seemingly on the path to becoming the first man to recapture the heavyweight title, was glorious living proof of the Nazi doctrine.
But Schmeling had no taste for politics or for the Nazis. He refused their demands to rid himself of his trainer, Joe Jacobs, an American Jew. And Schmeling secretly harbored Jewish friends in the 1930s.
By June 22, 1938, Louis was the champion -- the first black champion since Jack Johnson had lost the title in 1915 -- when he climbed into the ring to face Schmeling again. Yankee Stadium's 80,000 spectators and a radio audience of millions placed upon him the mantle of unofficial representative of the free world. It was democracy vs. dictatorship.
Louis had taken the title from Jimmy Braddock in 1937 and had successfully defended it three times. But there was the matter of the only man to have beaten him. "I won't feel right 'til I lick him," Louis said.
Schmeling shrugged at reports that he would wind up in a Third Reich prison camp if he lost to Louis. "Just because Louis is a colored man makes no difference to my people," he said. "Sport is sport in Germany, nothing more. Germans are the fairest people in the world."
Besides, he said, he was not worried about Louis. "He'll always be afraid of me, down deep inside," he said during training. "He's the kind who always holds a man who has beaten him in some sort of superstitious fear."
Told this, Louis smiled and said nothing.
The fight lasted 124 seconds.
Louis attacked instantly with a fury and, 30 seconds into the bout, backed Schmeling into the ropes and landed a right to the kidney that fractured a bone in his vertebrae. It brought a scream of pain from the German, partially paralyzed his legs and left him with an almost useless left arm.
A right to the jaw dropped Schmeling to the canvas. He got up at the count of three and Louis sent him down again with another right to the jaw. Schmeling, dazed, jumped up at the count of one. And a third right floored him again.
Schmeling had thrown only two ineffective rights at Louis.
Max Machon, Schmeling's trainer, threw a towel into the ring at the count of five. "I saw the man couldn't move, so what could I do?" he said later.
Referee Arthur Donovan threw the towel out of the ring as the count reached eight. Schmeling went into convulsions and Donovan lifted him to his feet, stopping the slaughter. Schmeling walked to his corner, buried his face in his gloves and sobbed.
It was a different era, more than 61 years ago. In the vernacular of the time, the Associated Press reported (and the St. Petersburg Evening Independent published) Louis as saying in his dressing room: "Ah'm sho' nuff champeen, now."
It was 3 a.m. in Germany when the fight started. Schmeling's wife, movie star Anna Ondra, was allowed to sleep. She burst into tears when told of the outcome.
The German newspaper Zwoelf Uhr-Blatt charged that "certain American businessmen" were to blame for Schmeling's defeat.
Across the nation, Americans black and white celebrated Louis' triumph. He was the first black American sports hero who crossed color lines. In black neighborhoods the jubilation ranged from harmless joy to the tear-gassing of vandals. New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon called him "a credit to his race -- the human race."
Schmeling was hospitalized in New York for a week. "I don't think this is a sport any longer," his wife, standing vigil, said quietly.
Schmeling was not imprisoned when he returned to Berlin on July 9, but neither was there an official welcome waiting for the crippled fighter. He fought once in 1939, then became the only top sportsman drafted into the German army.
He survived war injuries but lost his wealth and, after an eight-year absence from the ring, fought five more times to make money. He bought a farm, acquired business skills and then acquired a production license from Coca-Cola. He is 94 and living in Germany.
Louis retired as heavyweight champion in 1949. The Internal Revenue Service did what no boxer could. It beat him. He had done everything his government had asked of him, including serving in the Army and boxing exhibitions to raise millions during World War II. And his government turned on him and demanded more than $500,000 in back taxes.
He was a victim of changing tax laws, of hangers-on who had bled him for millions, and of his own unfettered generosity (he would take a satchel of $1, $10 and $100 bills and hand them out to well-wishers).
In 1950, to try and reduce his debt, he came out of retirement, fought Ezzard Charles and lost in 15 rounds, then was knocked out by Rocky Marciano in the eighth round.
He wound up a greeter at a Las Vegas casino and in 1981 died broke. Although he did not qualify for burial in Arlington National Cemetery, President Reagan waived the requirements.