On June 22, 1938, Joe Louis met Max Schmeling in a heavyweight-boxing match. The encounter was no mere sporting event. Under Adolph Hitler, Germany was going public with its anti-Semitism, and the world was on the brink of a catastrophic war. Schmeling, the German champion, had defeated Louis in 1936 in a match labeled a monumental upset. The Nazis backed Schmeling, and a victory by him in the rematch would reiterate Hitler’s claims of Aryan supremacy. America had not entered the war at that time, but the largely Jewish boxing community of New York saw the fight as something more and rooted for Louis to throw a spanner in Hitler’s master plan. In his exhaustively researched narrative, David Margolick captures the zeitgeist of the 1930s in emphatic detail. What results is a finely etched portrait of a boxing bout that was watched with taut anticipation by a large world population.
Schmeling comes across as a modestly talented athlete who made the most of his abilities by managing his career carefully. He was not averse to making use of a Jewish promoter if it served his need. He made use of his celebrity to quite adroitly stay on Hitler’s good side, even as he was palpably noncommittal on the Fuhrer’s geo-political policies. It does not come as a surprise, then, that after Hitler’s fall, Schmeling used his contacts to obtain a lucrative Coca-Cola distributorship in Bavaria and became a millionaire.
In stark contrast, Joe Louis was born black and poor in a racially charged America. Luckily for him, his boxing talents were noticed and the black community rallied around to nurture his career. In a poignant passage that is a dire indictment of the racist milieu of the 1930s, Margolick describes the training method employed by Louis’ manager, Jack Blackburn:
He taught him defense, and how to hit without leaving himself open.
He taught him how to feint. The goal, he drilled into him, was always
a knockout: people didn’t pay to see dancers or clinchers, and blacks
rarely won decisions. “Let your fists be your referee.”
After a series of successes in the ring for both fighters, Schmeling upset Louis in a New York City prizefight. The rematch took place in Yankee Stadium against the backdrop of Hitler’s strident call for racial purity. That Louis won in a stunning first-round knockout is well chronicled. But Margolick adds rich contextual detail by describing the moments leading to the fight and its aftermath, both in the black community in America and in Germany.
The pivotal fight in 1938 uses up a mere 26 pages in this 432-page tome. The rest is context – marvelously sketched and written with more than a hint of sarcasm, particularly in the part chronicling the role of Hitler and his Nazi cronies. The book is troubling in that nobody – neither the Nazis nor the boxing community across the world, nor the U.S. press – comes across in a completely positive light. It forces the reader to confront a difficult period in American and world history through the lens of a boxing match. While the denouement – Louis’ victory and Hitler’s defeat – was satisfying in both the political and athletic sense, it puts America’s racism in center stage. The picture that Margolick paints is not pretty.