Chapter 1 | The Fight
June 22, 1938. Though the Great Depression rages and war looms, the eyes of the world are on Yankee Stadium in New York where, beneath threatening skies, German Max Schmeling and American Joe Louis are squaring off for the heavyweight championship of the world.
ANNOUNCER: The Studebaker Corporation,
featuring Richard Himber and his Studebaker champs,
usually heard at this time over some of these stations,
is courteously relinquishing as much of their program
as will be necessary
in order that a special program may be presented.
ANNOUNCER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
This is Howard Planey speaking, and in a moment we will present
a ringside, blow-by-blow description
of the Louis/Schmeling fight. This broadcast...
COURTNEY B. VANCE: June 19, 1936.
Yankee Stadium is host to the first meeting
of two heavyweight fighters--
German Max Schmeling and American Joe Louis.
ANNOUNCER: There's no time in this swiftly moving drama
to broadcast who's who in the Yankee Stadium.
It's an amazing cross section of America--
rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,
doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief.
VANCE: Though they have come from far and wide to see it,
few in the crowd expect much of a fight.
In one corner, Joe Louis is the rising star
of the heavyweight division,
undefeated and, by most accounts, unbeatable.
A combination of speed, power, and aggression,
he is considered a near-perfect fighter.
The German Max Schmeling, by contrast,
is eight years older and on the downward slope
of a checkered career.
Though possessed of a dangerous right hand,
he is considered no match for the American phenom.
ANNOUNCER: And in about five seconds, the fight will be on.
They're twisting in their corners.
(bell dings) There's the bell!
And they step out.
Both men, cautiously, are...
VANCE: In the early rounds,
those in the stadium expecting a quick knockout
were instead surprised by a closely contested slugfest
as first Louis, and then Schmeling,
gained the upper hand.
But as the fight wore on, it began to take a decided turn,
and with it the lives of these two fighters.
Theirs was a rivalry born that night
that would draw in two nations inching closer to war
and take the measure of two men
who had been fighting all their lives.
TV ANNOUNCER: Joe Louis, tonight, "This Is Your Life."
Now, to get all the answers in your case, Joe,
find out what makes a champ,
let's go back to 1914, May 13--
your birth date.
Where were you born, Joe?
In Lafayette, Alabama.
On a farm near Lafayette.
120 acres of poor land
rented by your father and mother,
Monroe and Lily...
Now, how many of you children were there, Joe?
Of whom you were the seventh.
Your sister Susie died some years ago Yes.
and your brother Lonie passed on just last June.
But here from Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles
are the others: Emerelle, Alvanious, DeLeon,
Eulalie, Vunies, and your stepbrother, Pat.
(Louis laughing as audience applauds)
VANCE: In 1926, 12-year-old Joe Louis Barrow and his family
decided to leave the South.
Behind them were 120 acres of Alabama red-clay soil
and the privations of a sharecropper's life.
Ahead lay Detroit and the promise of five dollars a day
at the Ford automobile factory.
For thousands of southern blacks like the Barrows,
the job at Ford offered a living
and a bit of dignity in their new world.
Joe, too, went to work at Ford while still a teenager,
pushing 200-pound truck bodies on a conveyor belt.
Joe never had much use for school
or anything else that required him to speak.
He had battled a stammer since early childhood
and learned the habit of silence.
All his life, people would mistake
this silence for dullness,
and Joe never bothered correcting them.
Was there anything about Joe as a boy
that showed he would someday
be a great champion in the ring, DeLeon?
I hardly think so.
He could run faster than most boys...
kids bigger than himself.
But Joe was mostly quiet and stayed to himself.
ANNOUNCER: In the 75-pound division,
Slugger Sullivan meets up with K.O. Nolfo...
VANCE: It was only natural
that Joe Louis should find the boxing ring.
Two bits for a locker was all a kid needed.
In the teeming ghettos of America's big cities,
boxing became a flag of ethnic pride.
Every neighborhood had a champion.
MAN: In the '20s, there were great Irish fighters,
there were great Jewish fighters,
there were great Italian fighters.
Particularly in New York and Chicago,
there were these rivalries
built on ethnic tension, and you could get 10,000 people, uh,
for a fight between two neighborhood heroes.
VANCE: Boxing promised Louis not only a way to escape poverty.
It was a way to reinvent himself,
to leave behind the slow, stammering kid
from the cotton fields
and become the fast, fearsome fighter.
He quit school for good, dropped "Barrow" from his name
and went simply by "Joe Louis."
ANNOUNCER: Madison Square Garden puts on a cauliflower show...
VANCE: Louis first made his mark in the 1934 Golden Gloves Tournament,
where he made it all the way to the finals.
There were plenty of other good fighters around.
Some worked harder, some moved better,
but nobody could remember seeing a kid punch like this.
MAN: Punching power is something, to a large extent,
that cannot be taught.
It can be strengthened.
You can make a fair puncher into a good puncher.
A great puncher like Louis, they say, is born.
It's the right coordination, the right build,
everything coming together in a number of ways.
And it is a sure ticket to the big money.
VANCE: The scent of money is what brought around
a small-time racketeer named John Roxborough.
Roxborough was king
of the illegal numbers lotteries in Detroit.
But one glimpse at Joe in the ring,
and he knew it was time for a different scheme.
Roxborough partnered up
with a wealthy and connected numbers man from Chicago
named Julian Black.
Here he is, Joe-- your good friend
and co-manager with John Roxborough,
Julian Black of Chicago.
VANCE: Roxborough and Black
could manage Joe's business affairs,
but they knew they needed help teaching him how to box.
Tell us now, what was the next step, Julian?
Well, uh, Ralph, our first big problem
was to get the best trainer available we could find.
So we were fortunate to get the late Jack Blackburn.
VANCE: Blackburn, a convicted murderer with a notorious mean streak,
had already trained several white world champions.
MAN: When Roxborough fist called him in to take young Joe on,
Blackburn's reaction was that he didn't want to waste his time.
He said, "A black heavyweight?
"What's the use?
"I'm just wasting my time,
because nobody will give a black heavyweight a chance."
He was very bitter and totally cynical.
VANCE: In the end, Blackburn couldn't pass up
the guaranteed $35 a week.
And then, too, he thought he saw something special in Joe.
SCHULBERG: I think Blackburn really loved nobody--
white or black or green or brown.
I think he really loved Joe.
He also saw the enormous possibility in him.
VANCE: Blackburn would teach Joe the finer points of boxing,
but perhaps more importantly,
he warned him about what to expect as a black fighter.
"What you got to do
"every single time you get in the ring," he said,
"is to knock the other fellow down.
You gotta let your right hand be your referee."
("Happy Days Are Here Again" begins playing)
(male ensemble singing in German)
The same year that a young Joe Louis
first landed in Detroit,
another future heavyweight, 20-year-old Max Schmeling,
arrived in Berlin.
Liberated from the tyranny of the Kaisers,
Berlin in 1926 was a fantastic whirl
of cabarets, theaters and drinking spots.
The son of a working-class sailor,
Schmeling had discovered boxing in small clubs
in his hometown of Hamburg.
Once in Berlin, his talent caught the eye
of Germany's leading boxing writer, Arthur Bulow.
Bulow agreed to pay his training fees
and become his manager.
With Bulow's patronage, Schmeling rose quickly,
becoming first German, then European champion.
By 1928, Max Schmeling had achieved everything he could
in European boxing.
He and his manager, Arthur Bulow, set sail for New York
and a shot at boxing's biggest prize,
the heavyweight championship of the world. ♪