American Experience


The Fight

On June 22, 1938, 70,000 fans crammed into Yankee Stadium to watch what some have called "the most important sporting event in history" — the rematch between African American heavyweight Joe Louis and his German opponent Max Schmeling.

AIRED: February 11, 2020 | 0:54:28

♪ ♪

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.

(crowd cheering)

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."

(audience clapping)

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...

Barrow. Barrow.

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.

That's right.

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.

(crowd shouting)

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.

♪ ♪

Since the late 19th century, the heavyweight championship

had been largely the property of America,

and, within America, of the white race.

There had only been one black heavyweight champion before,

and many white Americans vowed that he'd be the last.

His name was Jack Johnson.

♪ ♪

Johnson cut a broad swath

through the consciousness of America

with his fists and his mouth.

As he brawled his way to the world championship in 1908,

Johnson became notorious

for taunting and humiliating his white opponents.

But he was even more provocative outside the ring,

consorting openly with white women.

He desegregated more whorehouses than anybody in history.

He was... a wild man.

There's a famous story that he's driving through Georgia

and the sheriff stops him

and says, "You're driving 80 miles an hour.

You're fined $50."

And Jack Johnson hands the sheriff

a hundred-dollar bill and says, "I'm coming back the same way."

♪ ♪

JEFFREY SAMMONS: Jack Johnson had to be the bravest man in America.

I'm amazed at what he did publicly

that many would not dare to do privately.

In fact, even looking at a white woman

could be a death sentence at the time.

VANCE: Fight promoters began to look high and low

for a "great white hope" who could end Jack Johnson's reign.

When none was found,

federal prosecutors stepped in with a trumped up morals charge.

But it would be other black fighters

who would pay the steepest price for the bigotry Johnson stirred.

For the next decade, while Jack Dempsey ruled the ring,

his best competition watched from outside the ropes.

Joe, I'm satisfied you're going to be

the next heavyweight champion of the world.

I hope so.

Well, Joe, as your manager,

I'm going to do everything possible

to get you a chance

to fight for the championship. Thank you.

VANCE: John Roxborough refused to be discouraged

by boxing's color line.

He believed it was time

for another black heavyweight champion,

and he thought he had the fighter to do it.

The person who was going to get

the shot at the heavyweight title

had to be a special individual--

not only a great boxer, but this person had to be more.

This person had to be nonthreatening to white society,

to white dominance, to white values.

VANCE: Roxborough and Black set down

a series of rules for their young fighter,

which they shared freely with reporters.

SAMMONS: He could not gloat over opponents.

He could not be seen in public with white women.

He had to be seen as a Bible-reading,

mother-loving, God-fearing individual

and not to be too black.

♪ ♪

VANCE: Joe had already seen what happened

to impudent blacks in his own lifetime,

so he willingly donned the mask of the "Good Negro."

MAN: Nobody knew how deeply Joe really felt,

because remember,

Black and Roxborough had schooled him

to suppress his emotions.

So he never really showed them.

(crowd clamoring in distance)

VANCE: Only in the ring could Joe really let himself go,

and he did so with a fury that thrilled... and terrified.

(crowd roaring)

By the middle of 1935,

Louis had won his first 23 professional bouts,

an average of one every two weeks,

and was beginning to earn glowing notices.

But he hadn't fought east of Detroit yet.

The road to the big prize, the heavyweight championship,

stretched ahead 1,000 miles to New York.

(ship horn blares)

Seven years earlier, in 1928,

Max Schmeling had arrived in New York

with his own roadmap to the heavyweight crown;

but New York hardly took notice.

GOLDMAN: In the 1920s,

foreign fighters were not treated well in New York City.

One could be a national champion of Germany or France or Italy

or any other country.

You were still treated like a six-round fighter in New York.

VANCE: In typical fashion, Schmeling adapted to his new surroundings.

He abruptly fired his mentor, Arthur Bulow,

and hired in his place

a wily New Yorker named Joe Jacobs,

known widely as "Yussel the Muscle."

MAJESKI: This was the quintessential boxing manager

of the '20s and '30s--

cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing guy,

had the, uh, the boutonniere on his lapel,

would go in and talk a mile a minute.

He was the guy that opened doors.

He was the guy who'd give him the publicity.

He was the guy who had the contacts.

That's the biggest thing in boxing-- he had contacts.

VANCE: In 1930, after only two years in America,

Schmeling landed a bout with Jack Sharkey

for the vacant heavyweight championship.

(round bell rings as crowd clamors)

80,000 fans filled the Yankee Stadium

in a fight billed as a battle between the continents.

Sharkey came out swinging

and was out-pointing Schmeling on all the judge's cards.

But in the fourth round, he made a fatal mistake.

Corralled against the ropes,

he slugged Schmeling below the belt.

MARGOLICK: Schmeling clutched himself and fell onto the canvas

and started to get up.

And it was at that point

that Joe Jacobs sprung into action

and stood up and started shouting,

"Don't get up, don't get up!

You were fouled, you were fouled!"

He starts running around the ring,

he starts running to the ref,

he starts pleading Schmeling's case.

There's this moment of great indecision and tumult

in the ring and outside the ring.

And finally, um, Schmeling was declared the victor.

VANCE: Schmeling returned to Germany with a heavyweight title

but little honor.

VON DER LIPPE: He's called "the low-blow champion."

He becomes the punchline of jokes.

He becomes an object of disdain for many cabaret routines.

VANCE: The Germany Max returned to was a far darker place

than the one he had left.

♪ ♪

(crowd chanting "Sieg Heil")

In January 1933,

Adolph Hitler assumed sole power over Germany

and immediately began a quiet campaign of terror.

Many of Schmeling's old friends--

Jews, homosexuals, communists--

who had found a home in the Weimar cabarets

suddenly found themselves outcasts

and fled or were banished from the new Germany.

(bells tolling)

But Max had already tacked again

and set himself with the prevailing winds.

In 1932, he had married

the Czech-born movie star Anny Ondra.

Blond and beautiful,

she was the picture of an Aryan princess

and a favorite of Hitler's inner circle.

The same year,

Schmeling fought a rematch against American Jack Sharkey.

The winner...

and new world champion...

VANCE: This time, he lost his title

in a widely condemned split decision.

(crowd cheering)

MARGOLICK: He got redemption in the only way that he could.

He was seen to be a victim,

a victim of a political decision, in a way.

And so when he came back to Germany,

all of a sudden he was a hero.

♪ ♪

VANCE: Max's fame brought him freedom to pursue his career in America,

great wealth, and access to the highest echelons.

At first, Schmeling had no particular fondness for Hitler.

In fact, he and Anny laughed

over the Fuehrer's resemblance to Charlie Chaplin.

But Max did admire power and understood its usefulness.

(Martin Krause speaking German)

KRAUSE (translated): When he wanted to help somebody,

he always turned directly to Hitler or his aides.

He liked to associate with them.

This doesn't necessarily show a love for the Nazis,

but rather a love of the powerful,

of people who stood in the spotlight.

Schmeling wanted to be the center of attention.

VANCE: As he prepared to return to New York in June 1933,

Hitler summoned him for a meeting.

BATHRICK: And toward the end, Hitler says two things.

"If you run into problems,

feel free to contact me if I can be of any help."

The second thing he says is,

"When you go to the United States,

"you're going to obviously be interviewed by people

"who are thinking that very bad things are going on

"in Germany at this moment.

"And I hope you'll be able to tell them

that the situation isn't as bleak as they think it is."

And that basically was the contract

under which the two of them would operate

from that point on.

It certainly was a devil's contract.

VANCE: Only days after their meeting,

Hitler purged German boxing of Jews.

He ordered a national boycott of Jewish stores.

Many business were ransacked and destroyed

and Jews paraded in the streets.

Nevertheless, upon his return to New York,

Schmeling upheld his end of the bargain.

(man speaking German)

MAN (translated): After arriving in the States,

Schmeling held a press conference.

Many journalists were waiting to hear

about conditions in Germany.

Schmeling told them that everything was okay and quiet

in his home country.

He denied that Jewish people were persecuted.

His assignment was to calm down the American people.

♪ ♪

VANCE: While Max Schmeling rode out the vicissitudes

of an up-and-down career,

Joe Louis was heading in one direction only: straight up.

By 1935, Louis had raced through

the lower ranks of professional boxing.

Next stop, the big time: New York.

♪ ♪

NEWFIELD: In the 1930s, New York was the capital of boxing, the Mecca.

There were no casinos, there was no Las Vegas,

there was no Atlantic City.

Big fights happened at 50th Street and 8th Avenue

in the old Madison Square Garden.

(man shouting)

VANCE: New York boxing was controlled by one company--

the giant Madison Square Garden Corporation.

The Garden promoted the fights and owned the fighters--

and they wanted nothing to do with a black heavyweight.

There was one fight promoter willing to take a chance on Joe:

Mike Jacobs, otherwise known as "Uncle Mike."

♪ ♪

Jacobs-- no relation to Schmeling's manager--

owned a thick New York brogue

and a set of poorly molded false teeth

through which he'd mutter his signature line--

"What's in it for Uncle Mike?"

Uncle Mike could turn anything to his advantage--

even the Depression, which finally gave him his chance

to go after the Madison Square Garden's monopoly on boxing.

For years, the Garden had donated generously

to the Milk Fund for Babies--

the favorite charity of Mrs. William Randolph Hearst,

wife of the newspaper tycoon.

In gratitude, Hearst's stable of big-time sportswriters

spilled gallons of ink promoting the Garden's fights.

But with boxing in the doldrums, thanks to the Depression,

the Garden had cut back on Mrs. Hearst's charity.

Uncle Mike stepped in.

He made a deal with them to promote his own shows,

with a bigger portion going towards the Milk Fund charity.

And in doing so, he became very chummy

with some of the major newspaper reporters for-- and columnists--

for the Hearst newspapers.

This was a masterstroke.

VANCE: Jacobs convinced three of Hearst's biggest sportswriters

to join him in a new venture: the 20th Century Sporting Club.

♪ ♪

With the backing of the Hearst papers,

20th Century began to compete with the Garden

for the biggest boxing promotions,

drawing thousands to the cavernous New York Hippodrome.

SAMMONS: Mike Jacobs has the venues, he has the press behind him,

but he needs a big draw.

And he sees something special in Joe Louis.

MARGOLICK: There were these stories working their way back East

about this mythical boxer

who was going to be the Moses of boxing.

So you have this incredible scene

where Joe Louis comes to New York for the first time

in May of 1935

and the bellhops carry him off the train.

They all knew who he was

and they were waiting for him to get there.

VANCE: With an evangelical following of black fight fans,

Mike Jacobs rushed to set up

a coming-out party for his heralded young phenom.

SILVER: What they needed was a name opponent

and a sacrificial lamb to show Louis at his best.

♪ ♪

VANCE: Jacobs settled on an ex-heavyweight champion,

the Italian giant Primo Carnera,

otherwise known as the "Ambling Alp."

GOLDMAN: Carnera was between six foot five and six foot six.

He weighed generally between 260 and 280 pounds.

There were people, sportswriters included,

who claimed there should be a special dreadnought class

for men like Carnera.

♪ ♪

VANCE: In fact, Carnera was hardly a fighter at all.

Over time, Carnera had learned

some rudimentary skills in the ring,

but what was most important to Mike Jacobs

was that the paying public loved him.

(newsreel theme music plays)

The Louis-Carnera fight was

the most anticipated to hit New York in a decade.

RING ANNOUNCER: Regardless of race, creed, or color...

may the better man emerge victorious!

(crowd cheering)

VANCE: In the end,

the man mountain turned out to be more like a molehill.

Louis knocked him out in the sixth round.

"Primo came down slowly," one reporter wrote,

"like a great chimney that had been dynamited."

♪ ♪

Overnight, Louis had become the biggest draw in the fight game.

Over the next year,

Jacobs easily set up opponents for Joe,

and Joe just as easily knocked them down.

CAB CALLOWAY: ♪ Rip-bop-mcgostic- mcgostic-me-joy ♪

♪ Knock me some of that good, fine hoy ♪

♪ Rip-bop-mcgostic-me- jumping with joy! ♪

♪ You jump, jump, jump when you jump with joy! ♪

♪ Come on, Joe, let's go! ♪

VANCE: With each victory, Joe's stature in black America rose higher.

BILLY HICKS: ♪ ...with a poker face ♪

♪ Joy for Louie, no jive to McCoy ♪

♪ That's Joe the Bomber. ♪

MAN: We invested so much

in Joe Louis when he started winning.

We needed some victories.

BILLY HICKS: ♪ Jackie's murder of the first degree... ♪

JARRETT: The fact that Joe Louis was winning

without any dispute over white America...

he was our nonviolent violent way of expressing ourselves.

VANCE: Joe tried to live up to people's expectations,

but the adulation of the outside world was making it harder

to play the "Good Negro."

VANCE: Joe never flaunted his personal life,

and sportswriters kept his secrets.

But that didn't mean they treated him well.

In the end, the mask could only offer Joe

so much protection from white racism.

NEWFIELD: America was a different country in 1934 and 1936,

and if you go back and read the sports writing of the '30s,

there are despicable, repugnant stereotypes

of Louis as dumb, as lazy, on one hand,

or as an animal of the jungle on the other hand.

READER: "I felt myself strongly ridden by the impression

"that here was a truly savage person,

"a man on whom civilization rested no more securely

"than a shawl thrown over one's shoulders.

I had the feeling that I was in the room with a wild animal."

Paul Gallico, "New York Daily News."

VANCE: Louis was picking up a growing number of white fans.

Laid low by the Depression themselves,

they responded to his rags-to-riches story.

But there were still millions

who wished to see Joe stopped in his tracks.

"Good Negro" or not, he was still a black man

physically dominating his white opponents;

and so many hankered

for the return of a "great white hope."

But few imagined that the savior might come

in the form of an aging fighter from across the Atlantic.

(announcer speaking German)

By 1936, Max Schmeling's up-and-down career

was on an upswing.

He'd won four fights in a row in Europe

and scrapped his way back into contention

in the heavyweight division.

Despite his age,

he had become the next logical opponent for Joe Louis.

The fight would be crucial, the winner to get a shot

at the world champion, Jimmy Braddock,

a former longshoreman with brittle hands

who had come to be known as the "Cinderella Man."

MARGOLICK: When Louis fought Schmeling,

the idea was that either one of them could beat Braddock

and therefore what mattered

was who would have the privilege of fighting Braddock first.

This was really the fight for the world championship.

VANCE: Schmeling began to study Louis's fights,

looking for something, anything he could use to his advantage.

SCHULBERG: I think that with a Germanic thoroughness

that Schmeling had...

uh, looked at every... every available

foot of film on... on Louis.

He not only ran it forward, he would stop it,

he would actually run it backward,

he would put it in slow motion.

VANCE: After weeks of study,

Schmeling believed the film had yielded something,

a small defect in Louis's overwhelming attack.

KAPLAN: When Joe Louis jabbed--

and he was a great... he had the great... greatest jab

in the history of boxing up to that time--

he would jab, but his jab would come down to his waist

rather than up to his face.

REIMANN: And that was the split second

where Schmeling could land his right hand.

He believed in that.

REPORTER: Max, have you discovered any particular weakness

in the Brown Bomber?

Yes, I did, but I won't tell.

ANNOUNCER: And in about five seconds, the fight will be on.

(bell rings)

They're twisting in their corners.

There's the bell, and they step out,

sparring around the center of the ring there.

VANCE: Both fighters came out cautiously,

feeling each other out.

KAPLAN: Schmeling would probe with his left jab.

He didn't care if he...

if he touched the opponent or not,

but it was out there, he would probe with it

and he'd move and he'd be looking for openings.

Every time Louis jabbed,

he'd return his left hand low at his side

rather than up here where it's supposed to be,

where he could block a counter right hand.

ANNOUNCER: Now Schmeling tries with a left...

VANCE: At just over two minutes into the fourth round,

Louis jabbed and Schmeling pounced.

ANNOUNCER: Schmeling backing away cautiously,

waiting for some opening that he wants.

And, ah...

Schmeling with a right hand high on Louis's jaw!

That made Louis rock his head!

Schmeling has sent Louis down!

Joe Louis is down!

KAPLAN: He saw Joe Louis's hand drop

and when that hand dropped, he came over with that right cross.

Boxing is a very unique sport.

You can have all the great assets like Joe Louis had--

speed, great boxing ability, great footwork,

great left jab, tremendous power in your punches--

but if you're hit on the chin,

all those assets go right down the drain.

VANCE: At that moment, Schmeling would later say,

Louis changed from an indestructible force

to a hurt and bewildered boy.

KAPLAN: He was out of it,

he... he wasn't himself for the rest of the fight.

He was fighting on heart and instinct alone.

After that, it wasn't Joe Louis anymore,

he was just a punching bag.

PACHECO: You just can't get hit

by right hands by a heavyweight repeatedly.

I don't care who you are,

you get hit enough right hands, you're going.

And Schmeling could punch.

And Schmeling was a good boxer.

And Joe was slow... and overconfident

and believed nobody could beat him.

And he found out different.

ANNOUNCER: Schmeling got over two more hard rights to Louis's jaw.

VANCE: Finally, in the 12th round, the punishment became too much.

ANNOUNCER: ...with hard rights and lefts to the jaw.

He has puffed up Louis's left cheek...

And Louis is down! Louis is down!

Hanging to the ropes, hanging badly!

He's a very tired fighter;

he is blinking his eyes, shaking his head.

And the count is done.

The fight is over! The fight is over!

And Schmeling is the winner!

Louis is completely out!

MAN: You talk about after the fight now,

there were throngs of people

coming down the middle of the street.

Everybody was just as quiet,

and all you could hear was "Oh, Louis was doped,"

or "Think he was doped."

SMITH: Everybody was sick.

Usually after Joe Louis got through fighting,

everybody would be out in the streets,

driving, honking their horns and doing...

and not only in Detroit,

Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, everywhere.

Not that night; no, it was a sad night.

It was like a funeral, it was.

Nobody came out, no horns honking, no nothing.

BARKSDALE: I was sitting in my husband's lap,

and he was losing the fight.

I was crying because he was losing the fight.

If I think about it hard enough, I'll cry again.

READER: "I just can't help thinking of the bitter disappointment,

"the shattered hopes, the tears and the heartaches

"that fell upon an entire race just before 11:00 last night.

"An idol fell, and the crashing was so complete, so dreadful,

"and so totally unexpected

that it broke the hearts of the Negroes of the world."

"The New York Post."

VANCE: As fast as Louis had been built up, he was now torn down.

SAMMONS: The press denunciations were vehement, brutal--

that he was a fabrication,

that this was all a kind of buildup of... of a nobody.

READER: "This brown god had crumbled before our eyes

"and his substance was dross and alloy and clay.

"Louis, the flawless fighter, was a myth, a delusion

and a legend that never happened."

Davis Walsh, Hearst Newspapers.

VANCE: Louis himself immediately left New York

for the solace of his hometown.

Even there, he hid out, too ashamed to show his face.

♪ ♪

VANCE: Max Schmeling could finally return to Germany

to a hero's welcome.

Upon landing in Frankfurt,

he was greeted by thousands of his countrymen

lining the roadway for miles.

Within days of his return,

Max was invited to dine with Hitler.

(man speaking German)

MAN (translated): Hitler sensed the great enthusiasm

the masses had for Schmeling.

Most of all he was electrified when he watched the fight.

He immediately ordered the film to be screened

in theaters throughout Germany

prior to each feature.

It was to be called "Schmeling's Victory: A German Victory"--

a title Goebbels had invented.

(announcer speaking in German):

VANCE: The public acclaim was intoxicating.

This is what Schmeling had always wanted:

the adulation of a grateful nation.

But the cheers also made it easier

for Max to turn away from what was happening in his country.

By 1935, no one could miss the giant rallies

exulting the master race,

new laws evicting Jews from the professions and civil service,

and the arrests, beatings,

and executions of political enemies.

MARGOLICK: Schmeling writes about how he would go to his favorite clubs,

and every week there'd be somebody new who was gone.

But he just... he just looked the other way.

He just didn't think about the larger questions.

VANCE: In later years, Schmeling would make much of the fact

that he never became a member of the Nazi Party.

But, in fact, the Nazis had no interest in recruiting him.

Schmeling was most useful as somebody who was apolitical.

He was very useful as being apolitical

because he then would be believable.

VANCE: As a reward for having beaten Louis,

he inked a contract to fight world champion Jimmy Braddock,

the Cinderella Man.

The prospect of a Schmeling-Braddock bout

panicked the Louis camp.

GOLDMAN: Mike Jacobs thought

that if Schmeling won the championship,

he would go back to Germany

and Hitler would actually take over the title

and use it for his own purposes.

VANCE: Mike Jacobs went to work,

spreading rumors that the fight would be widely boycotted

by Jewish fans.

Braddock wouldn't earn a dime.

But if Braddock agreed to fight Louis instead,

Jacobs promised he'd never have to work again.

MAJESKI: He started offering more money, more money, more money.

(match strikes, ignites)

So, finally, he came up with a deal.

He said, "I'll give you not only the biggest guarantee,

"but you will have ten percent of the profits

of Joe Louis's fights for the next ten years."

VANCE: This was an offer Braddock couldn't afford to pass up.

He dropped his plans to fight Schmeling

and signed on to face Louis in June 1937 in Chicago.

For the first time in more than two decades,

a black man would fight for the heavyweight title.

More than 60,000 fans converged on Chicago's Comiskey Park

to watch it.

ANNOUNCER: Here they come.

Joe jumping out as usual.

Jim Braddock steps out fast and lets go with a hard right hand.

VANCE: In the first round, Braddock knocked Louis down.

(crowd cheering)

For an instant, it looked like a repeat of the Schmeling fight.

ANNOUNCER: Braddock is pounding him to the ropes.

Braddock is...

VANCE: But Louis quickly recovered

and in the eighth round, knocked Braddock senseless.

ANNOUNCER: And Louis gave him...

And Braddock is down!

One, two, three...

VANCE: The Cinderella Man had to be carried to his dressing room.

ANNOUNCER: Eight, nine, ten.

A new world champion!

ANNOUNCER 2: ...and new champion of the world, Joe Louis.

(crowd cheering)

VANCE: Louis had scaled the summit of the boxing world,

becoming the first black man since Jack Johnson

to attain the heavyweight championship.

♪ ♪

VANCE: Max Schmeling was furious over the way the world championship

had been snatched from him.

He complained bitterly to the New York Athletic Commission,

to no avail.

SCHMELING: I think I got a runaround.

I traveled 25,000 miles to face Jimmy Braddock for the title.

VANCE: Now, Schmeling was as hungry for the rematch as Louis.

Terms for the fight were quickly agreed upon,

and the date was set for June 1938 in Yankee Stadium.

From the start, the match was seen as much more than boxing,

much more than sports.

It was going to pit whole nations, whole ideologies,

against each other.

NEWFIELD: This is 1938--

Hitler's intentions were clear by then,

Hitler's hatred of Jews was clear,

Hitler's militarism and expansionism were clear,

and Schmeling is probably unfairly seen

as an extension of Hitler.

He is seen as a Nazi.

VANCE: Confronted with a choice

between a white Nazi and a black American,

all but the most hardened racists backed Louis.

ROOSEVELT: This nation is asking...

VANCE: Even President Roosevelt enlisted Louis

in the war of propaganda against Nazism.

Squeezing Joe's arm, he said,

"These are the muscles we need to defeat the Germans."

But Joe had little use for the hypocrisy of geopolitics.

NEWFIELD: I think Joe Louis understood

that while he was being held up as the symbol of democracy,

black people couldn't vote,

black people did not have equal rights,

the army was segregated.

♪ ♪

(crowd chattering)

VANCE: The evening of June 22 was hot and sticky.

More than 90,000 fans, white and black,

streamed into Yankee Stadium,

one of the largest crowds ever to pass through the turnstiles.

GOLDMAN: It is a sea of humanity.

It is something out of a tremendous political event.

There is a rush, there's an excitement

which it is almost impossible to describe today.

MAN: So now it is June 22, 1938...

VANCE: In a nation of 130 million, some 70 million

would tune in to the fight on the radio that night,

the biggest audience ever for a single program.

JARRETT: I remember walking down the street

and people were sitting on their front porches

and they had their little radios ready.

And it was real quiet,

as though there was just something out here saying,

"We are about to experience

an indescribable event in our lives."

(speaking German)

VANCE: It was 3:00 a.m. in Germany

when Nazi broadcaster Arno Helmis

finally took the microphone.

In Austria, the young Jewish boy Fritz Mandelbaum stayed up late

to listen with his father.

MAN: The fight was ballyhooed in Germany

as, well, as the fight of the century.

There was the Negro...

an inferior race,

and the man, Joe Louis, who represented the Negro--

all brawn and animal brutality

versus German noble strength.

It is amazing to me in retrospect

how much the Nazis really gambled on a victory.

The gamble was if you hype it that much, what if you lose?

(crowd clamoring)

VANCE: Schmeling made his way to the ring under a bombardment

of banana peels, cigarette packs, and spit.

MAN: He was pallid.

There was something about him-- you could smell it, you know.

You know, it's scary--

you... you can get killed here, as they say.

The roar that began was just an unimaginable, constant roar.

You couldn't hear the subway coming out-- nothing.

The roar up into that Bronx night...

If you had any imagination,

you felt the whole country watching.

ANNOUNCER: Joe Louis in his corner,

prancing and rubbing his feet on the rosin.

Max Schmeling standing calmly,

getting a last word from Doc Casey.

And they're ready, with the bell just about to ring.

(bell rings) And there we are.

And they got to the ring right together

with Arthur Donovan stepping around them.

And Joe Louis is in the center of the ring,

Max going around him.

Joe Louis led quick with two straight lefts to the chin,

both of them (indistinct) as the men clinch.

Joe Louis tries to get over two hard lefts

and Max ties him up on the breakaway clean.

On the far side of the ring now, Max with his back to the ropes,

and Louis hooks a left to Max's head quickly

and shoots over a hard right to Max's head!

Louis, a left to Max's jaw, a right to his head.

Max shoots a hard right to Louis.

Louis with the old one-two, the first...

PACHECO: Almost in the first 30 seconds

you could see the way it was going to go.

ANNOUNCER: And watching for the champ.

He is crowding Schmeling...

PACHECO: You see his desire just boring in on him.

ANNOUNCER: His face is already marked...

It's a spider, and the fly ain't got a chance.

ANNOUNCER: He's landed more blows in this one round

than he landed in five rounds of the other fight...

GOLDMAN: He pressed-- he drove Schmeling back, he rained punches.

Schmeling tried to defend, he tried to counter,

he tried to get out of the way.

ANNOUNCER: Fighting from the clinch and rope (indistinct).

Back against the ropes again there.

Not too close to the ropes... And Louis misses!

VANCE: At just over a minute into the first round,

Louis struck Schmeling with a ferocious blow to his side.

ANNOUNCER: Again, a right to the body!

RODNEY: And Schmeling emitted a scream.

(faint scream)

I think everybody went, you know, sort of like this.

They had never heard a fighter scream

in a high-pitched voice in agony.

ANNOUNCER: And again, a right to the body!

A left hook, a right to the head,

a left to the head, a right!

Schmeling is going down! (crowd roaring)

But he held to his feet, held to the ropes--

looks to his corner in helplessness.

And Schmeling is down! (crowd roaring)

Schmeling is down!

And he's up!

And Louis, right and left to the head!

A left to the jaw, a right to the head!

(crowd roaring)

And Donovan is watching carefully.

Louis measures him.

Right to the body, a left up to the jaw

and Schmeling is down!

VANCE: In a meaningless gesture,

Schmeling's corner threw in the towel.

Arthur Donovan threw it back, where it hung on the ropes

as "limp as the German himself," one writer put it.

ANNOUNCER: The count is five...

five, six, seven, eight...

The men are in the ring,

the fight is over on a technical knockout!

Max Schmeling is beaten in one round--

in less than a round! (bell clanging)


VANCE: It was "two minutes and four seconds of murder,"

one writer marveled--

the second shortest heavyweight title fight in history.

RINGSIDE ANNOUNCER: The winner and still champion: Joe Louis!

RODNEY: People are hugging each other,

and... black and white embracing.

You know, women and men, and strangers.

And the scenes were wild;

jubilation and tears, people crying.

ACUNTO: It was tremendous.

It was almost as though

we had defeated the Nazis there and then.

(German announcer speaking)

VANCE: In Germany, millions had listened to the fight

in growing disbelief.

To suddenly hear on the air

that, uh... the announcer, very confident,

saying, (speaking German).

It was a sense of jubilation that we had, my father and I,

and for the first time there was an inkling

that Hitler might somehow be stopped.

(bluesy jazz playing)

MAN: ♪ Big Joe Louis from Alabam'... ♪

VANCE: In Harlem, news of the victory

sent 100,000 people into the streets.

"This is their night," the police commissioner said,

and closed off 30 blocks for the celebration.

MAN: ♪ Hooks a left with all his might... ♪

RODNEY: I took the subway down to Harlem-- place was going wild.

Little kids, you know, they're dancing,

and old, elderly people hobbling on canes,

you know, they... they were looking like,

"Oh, boy, good, good," you know?

It's the most wonderful thing that ever happened.

MAN: ♪ Then they all forget to duck... ♪

♪ ♪

VANCE: The celebration wasn't confined to black America alone.

For the first time, blacks and whites, even in the deep South,

had rooted with all their hearts for the same guy.

JARRETT: Right after Joe Louis's victory, we got to work ahead of time.

And I will say this for this fellow where I worked,

he says, "Well, looks like your man won."

I said, "He sure did, didn't he?"

He says, "Maybe that'll teach Hitler a lesson."

MAN: ♪ Big Joe Louis from Alabam', he don't play... ♪

VANCE: Joe had shattered the mask of the "Good Negro"

once and for all.

All Americans loved him--

not because he was docile and unassuming--

but for the opposite reason:

when they were at their weakest,

he had reminded them of their strength.

VANCE: When Schmeling finally recovered enough

to return to his native soil,

there was no berth of honor on the Hindenburg,

no Luftwaffe escorts,

or personal meetings with Hitler.

REIMANN: They dropped him like a hot potato.

Never even consoled

or "Poor Max" and so... no, no.

He was... he... he... they had lost every interest in him.

VANCE: Schmeling's career was all but over.

He fought a few more times, but never again in America.

Freed from his entanglements with the Nazi government,

Schmeling felt able to take risks

he'd never been willing to take before.

Schmeling rebuilt his life one more time.

The Nazi idol earned a fortune

as a bottler for the Coca Cola company in Germany.

VANCE: Joe Louis went on to become

the greatest heavyweight champion in history,

defending his title 24 more times

over the course of 12 years.

His opponents were so overmatched,

they earned the title "Bum of the Month Club."

VANCE: Joe served his country honorably during World War II.

His country didn't return the favor.

He was relegated to a segregated unit and hounded for back taxes

on money he had donated to the Army and Navy Relief Fund.

♪ ♪

To pay his debt, he fought on too long.

His career finally ended for good in 1951

by a young Rocky Marciano,

who wept in his dressing room after the fight.

As the years went on,

Louis's stature in black America also suffered.

New, more assertive black leaders were ashamed

of what they regarded as Joe's "accommodationism"

and were eager to dismiss him.

I wish he had been a vocal leader.

But he did enough for me by stimulating hope

and causing me as a boy to fantasize victories,

and that despite everything,

nobody is going to stop you from winning

if you really set your mind to it.

That was enough; I didn't need anything else from Joe Louis.

When Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling,

he opened a door of history for every great black athlete

in the coming generations who could be themselves,

who did not have to mask their feelings,

who did not have to hide their emotions,

did not have to say "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to reporters.

(fanfare playing)

SHOW HOST: Well, it took three years and 35 fights

for you to get a crack at the world title, Joe.

VANCE: Halfway through the broadcast of "This Is Your Life" in 1960,

there was a surprise guest.

HOST: And the only one you lost?

SCHMELING: I won that one on June 19, 1936, at Yankee Stadium in New York.

HOST: Yes, he's here, Joe,

himself a former world heavyweight champion

from Hamburg, Germany,

the Black Uhlan of the Rhine, Max Schmeling!

How are you?

(chuckling): Fine. How are you doing?

Nice to see you.

(applause, indistinct conversation )

VANCE: It had been more than 20 years

since the two fighters had seen each other

in the heat and chaos of Yankee Stadium,

but it would mark another stage in their relationship.

They would meet a dozen more times,

always with a great show of warmth.

Schmeling assisted Louis with money,

and when Joe died in 1981, Max helped pay for the funeral.

Much of the world came to believe Hitler's favorite boxer

and America's great black hope

had finally come to love each other.

MARGOLICK: We all love happy endings,

and it's become convenient in a way to say

that Joe Louis and Max Schmeling ended up as great friends.

I don't think they were really great friends.

I think they were barely friends--

they barely knew one another.

They spent only 40 minutes together in the ring.

But history tied these two men together.

History brought Joe Louis and Max Schmeling together,

and in history they'll always be together.

RINGSIDE ANNOUNCER: Now in the center of the ring

they're measuring each other with left hands

and doing little damage.

So far Schmeling has done... (announcer fades)

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

♪ ♪


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