Fight #24: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling 2, June 22, 1938, Yankee Stadium, New York City
Of the 26 fights I have covered so far in this series, for me the most consummate performance and execution of strategy belongs to Max Schmeling in his victory over Joe Louis in 1936. The way Schmeling was able to time Louis's jab, expose a flaw in his technique, and hurt Louis repeatedly still feels like a monumental achievement, especially considering the long winning streak that Louis would go on after that defeat.
Because, at the end of the day, Louis was (at least according to Ring Magazine) the single hardest puncher in the history of boxing. That right hand of his was a devastating weapon, and it remains a marvel that he never really managed to land it in 12 long rounds against Schmeling in their first fight.
We all know what happened in this rematch. Louis corrected the hitch in his swing, as it were, keeping his left hand higher when he threw the jab. Instead of cautiously sizing up his opponent, as he had in their first fight, he went on the attack right away, not just with jabs but with left hooks that he really stepped into, stunning Schmeling enough to set him up for that lethal right hand.
This fight lasted all of 2 minutes and four seconds, and featured three knockdowns of Schmeling, the last of which prompted his corner to throw in the towel. It's a good thing they did. The first knockdown occurred when Louis's left hooks backed Schmeling up to the ropes, and Louis then landed a hellacious right hand to the jaw, followed by another right hand that shattered the third lumbar vertebrae, driving it into Schmeling's kidney. It has to be one of the most vicious punches in the history of boxing, a punch so awful that you can see, even through the grainy black and white footage and the lack of audio, Schmeling's scream as it travels the speed of sound across the 83 years since it was actually thrown. The fight needed to end right there. Instead, Louis pummeled Schmeling for another minute. Not that it mattered, but Schmeling had a bad habit of getting up very quickly when knocked down, which just put him in position to be punished even more.
As a boxing match, this is not a great fight. It is a great, and very brief, performance from Louis, but it does not match their first encounter, and it does not match many fights we have already covered in this list, and many that never made it into the rankings at all. That's fine. We all know this fight ranks so highly because of its cultural and political significance, which was indeed considerable, given the context both of Louis's rising stature in American popular culture (and his importance to African Americans everywhere) and Schmeling's status as the symbol of an increasingly expansive and violent Nazi Germany. There's a reason so many people of this generation remembered this fight like it was the Kennedy assassination--it was an era-defining moment, a brief flicker of time when a boxing match took on global implications.
Nonetheless, I tire of these narratives. Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling. This victory did not single-handedly launch the United States into an era of racial progress and harmony, it did not make Black Americans suddenly respected and loved in their own land. It did not prevent the Nazis from conquering Poland or slaughtering millions in the concentration camps of Eastern Europe. It did not stop the lynchings of Black Americans, prevent the rise of American imperialism, or head off the prison-industrial complex. It did not give Americans a more enlightened attitude on Black athletes (just ask John Carlos or Colin Kaepernick), and it did not keep Chauvin's knee off of George Floyd's neck. As Americans, we need to stop repeating these liberal fairy tales about racial harmony and progress through sports. It's grotesque and simple-minded, a way for sportswriters to imagine themselves more impactful than they actually are.
This is a fight where a great Black heavyweight punctured the kidney of a German boxer with a single blow. Thirty years later, that great Black heavyweight was in a state of financial ruin, forced to prostitute himself out to every humiliation under the sun to get the IRS off his back. On the other hand, Schmeling got to run his own Coca-Cola bottling plant in Germany, and made enough dough doing it that he actually paid for Louis's funeral in 1981. Whatever. Let's move on.
Here's the video of the fight: