It is one of the most famous boxing matches in history. In 1936, German boxer Max Schmeling traveled to New York to face up-and-coming African-American boxer Joe Louis, who was undefeated and considered unbeatable. Upon his arrival, Schmeling claimed that he had found a flaw in Louis’ style, and surprised the boxing world by handing Louis his first defeat. Schmeling returned to Germany on the Hindenburg as a hero. The German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels proclaimed Schmeling’s victory a triumph for Germany and Nazism. The SS weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps) commented: “Schmeling’s victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race.”
The rematch came, at Yankee Stadium, on June 22, 1938. By then, a second world war was clearly looming on the horizon, and the fight was viewed worldwide as symbolic battle for superiority between two likely adversaries: in American pre-fight publicity, Schmeling was cast as the Nazi warrior, while Louis was portrayed as a defender of American ideals.
The fight was broadcast by radio all over the United States (on NBC with Clem McCarthy) and Europe. Louis won by a technical knockout late in the first round. There is controversy up to this day about the fight, as Schmeling’s side complained strongly that the German boxer had repeatedly received illegal kidney punches. Some pictures seem to confirm this claim. If referee Arthur Donovan had stopped the match because of this, Schmeling could have won the world title on a disqualification for the second time. Donovan, however, as well the New York boxing authorities, validated Louis’s victory.
Schmeling was branded as a Nazi by many boxing fans. However, his manager was a Jew and in 1938, during the Kristallnacht, Schmeling hid two teenage sons of a Jewish friend in his Berlin hotel room, protecting them at great risk to himself. The two boys were eventually smuggled out of Germany with Schmeling’s help. Ironically, Schmeling and Louis later became good friends; Schmeling would visit Louis every year and he paid for Louis’ funeral after Louis was left penniless by the IRS, and was a pallbearer at that funeral