The Fight of the Century: Another Black Athlete Wins Big for America [videos]

The 2002 movie, Joe and Max tells the story of American boxing legend Joe Louis and German icon and heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling. It also conveys the even more important sub story of the very real struggles represented by their 1936 match, and resoundingly symbolic 1938 rematch.

Louis won his first 27 fights and 23 of them by knockout. He beat former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer and contenders Paolino Uzcudun and Natie Brown. It wasn’t until his 28th fight, at Yankee Stadium in 1936, that Louis met defeat.

Louis fought through 72 right hand punches, finally being knocked out in the 12th round.

Black Americans were devastated because they felt his loss represented them and their struggle for civil rights. Schmeling was celebrated as a hero upon his return home, only proving what the Nazis sought to communicate: no negro could ever beat the German race.

But Louis and America had their rematch two years later. This time, the International Boxing Hall of Fame states, the rematch was more than a boxing match. It was the pinnacle of Louis’s career, but it is remembered as “one of the major sports events of the 20th century… with worldwide implications.” 

Before the 1938 fight, Louis went to the White House to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New York Times reported that Roosevelt told Louis:

“Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” And, in Louis wrote in his 1976 biography, “I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me.”

Needless to say that Louis won in 2 minutes and 4 seconds.

And his last punch was heard around the world.

Both men served their country during World War II. Schmeling, who was not a Nazi, enlisted in the German Army. He was wounded in action in Crete in 1941. Louis spent four years in the U.S. Army but never saw combat. He staged boxing exhibitions for the troops and donated more than $100,000 to the Army Relief Fund.
Schmeling wrote of his loss to Louis in his autobiography that “every defeat has its good side. A victory over Joe Louis would perhaps have made me into the toast of the Third Reich.”
Instead, Louis was a foreshadowing of what was to come: America defeating the Third Reich.
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