Fight #32: Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis 1
Fight #32: Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis 1, June 19, 1936, Yankee Stadium, New York City
Forget the politics for a moment. This was a great tactical fight, and an important crossroads moment in the history of the heavyweight division. Going into this bout, Joe Louis was 24-0 with 21 knockouts, and had been climbing up the heavyweight rankings by obliterating ex-champions. In 1935, he had blown away former heavyweight titlists Primo Carnera and Max Baer, and seemed poised to soon get his first title shot, and a chance to become the first Black heavyweight champion of the world since Jack Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in 1915.
In his way stood Max Schmeling, a useful tool for Nazi propaganda in his homeland of Germany, who had previously held the heavyweight championship from 1930-1932, both winning it and then losing it to Jack Sharkey. Three years before facing Louis, Schmeling had been knocked out by Baer at Yankee Stadium, and that defeat placed him as a heavy 10-1 underdog against Louis. After all, Louis had demolished Baer, and Baer had demolished Schmeling.
But that's not really how boxing works. It's styles that make fights. And Schmeling had carefully studied films of Louis's fights (before such practice became commonplace), and spotted a hitch in Louis's attack where he tended to dip his left hand in between throwing jabs, creating real openings for a counter-puncher with good timing, which is exactly what Schmeling was.
The key task for Schmeling was going to be figuring out a way to lure Louis into throwing those punches to create the openings, but not allowing the Brown Bomber to hit him with anything significant enough to change the fight. This was not an easy task, because Louis is regarded by many, including Ring Magazine, as the best pound-for-pound puncher in boxing history...better than Foreman, better than Tyson, better than Hearns. He had already demolished multiple former champions.
From my viewing of the battle, Schmeling fought the perfect fight. In the opening three rounds, he didn't throw much of significance, opting to manage the distance by keeping his weight on his back foot and using the ring to force Louis to constantly have to reset his attack (thereby creating more opportunities for Schmeling to time Louis with countershots). On my scorecard Louis won all three of these rounds with his left jab and left hook, but he didn't land anything too significant, and he never really found an opportunity to uncork his right hand. And meanwhile, Schmeling was timing him.
In the fourth round, Schmeling exposed Louis's weakness for the first time with a perfect right hand counter to Louis's jaw. The punch stuns Louis, who staggers to the ropes. Two more right hands put him on the canvas. This was a very significant knockdown, and I think most fighters would have been taken out right there, or maybe in the following round. But on this night, Louis showed he had tremendous heart.
He also showed that he had a strong chin and good recovery skills. Schmeling dominated the fifth and sixth rounds with continued hard right hands to the jaw, but Louis did not go down. These were perfectly placed shots, right on the button, from an accomplished heavyweight. But he took them and kept fighting back. In fact, in the seventh round, Louis seemed to have determined that his best chances were to fight on the inside, where he wouldn't be on the end of Schmeling's punches, and where he could use an uppercut that took advantage of Schmeling's rather unique posture. In the eighth round, Louis also got a little dirty. After mainly headhunting through the first seven rounds, Louis started making a committed attack to the body, including a couple blows that strayed low. These were effective punches, but they may have come too late to turn the tide fully in his favor. If he had gone to the body early in the fight, that very well could have taken much of the sting off those right hands bouncing off his jaw.
I gave the 9th and 10th rounds to Schmeling, who once again found the range for his right hand, staggering Louis on multiple occasions. Seriously, Louis's chin in this fight was really impressive. He should have been knocked out in the fourth or fifth rounds, but he was still taking these heavy shots to the head in the later rounds. In fact, in the 11th round, I thought Louis won it with his left jab, although at the very end of the round Schmeling landed yet another glorious right hand to Louis's jaw. It spelled the end for the American. But with that round, I actually had the fight even heading into the 12th.
In that 12th round, Louis was once again staggered by a left-right combination to the head that sent him back to the ropes. Now, instead of firing back, Louis tried to tie Schmeling up, but referee Art Donovan was very quick about breaking the clinches, which didn't give Louis a lot of recovery time. Another right hand hurts Louis, and then an unexpected right uppercut seems to completely disorient him. On wobbly legs, Schmeling finishes Louis off with yet another overhand right, and Louis goes down for the second time in the fight. At first he tries to get up, but as Donovan issues the count over him, he shakes his head twice, indicating that he is finished.
This was an amazing fight to watch. As a pure fight, Schmeling was winning all the way. He landed so many big right hands on Louis. But scoring on a round by round basis, Louis was able to neutralize Schmeling enough with the jab, and since he carried the early rounds, it was actually an open question until the 12th who would win the fight. Yet I doubt that Louis seriously hurt Schmeling one time in this fight, whereas Schmeling staggered Louis repeatedly, ultimately blasting him to pieces.
I suppose this fight is probably mainly seen as the prelude for their rematch two years later, but I think it deserves to be remembered on its own as a brilliant performance from Schmeling, and a courageous one from Louis. After this fight, Louis would patch up the hole in his defense that Schmeling had exposed. He would not lose a boxing match again for 14 years. It would be another 15 years before he would be knocked out again.
Here is a video of the fight: