The First Fight
June 19, 1936, Yankee Stadium, New York
Joe Louis was a young boxing phenomenon who had won all 27 fights of his professional career. For Louis, Max Schmeling was just another man to beat on the journey to the top. Schmeling was a former world champion whose title had been lost in a controversial decision. He needed to beat Louis to get another title shot.
The two boxers tell the tale of their fateful 1936 meeting in these excerpts from their memoirs.
Max: I had made up my mind to keep my nerve when meeting Joe Louis, because I knew that many of his opponents had already lost the fight at the weigh in, beaten by the myth of Joe Louis...I approached... with exaggerated cordiality... "Hello, Joe, how do you do?" I said. And he greeted me similarly... As we left the scales I said, "Good luck this evening, Joe!"
Joe: When we weighed in, Schmeling was 192 [pounds] and I was 196. We hardly talked except to say hello. But just as we finished weighing in, the fight was postponed til the next day because of rain. I... just lazed around that day. Didn't bother me.
Max: I lay down and tried to get some rest... From time to time [my trainer, Max] Machon looked in on me... "Leave your calling card right after the first bell," he said. "The kid has to know who he's dealing with."
Last Words of Advice
Joe: Before the bell rang, I remember Chappie [Blackburn, my trainer] saying, "Don't go for the knockout yet. Keep jabbing him off balance so he can't get that right in, and for God's sake keep your left arm high."
Max: As he was putting on my gloves, Machon said, "Max, you've done all the right things -- now show me what you've got!"
Joe: Schmeling came out almost off balance, he leaned over so much. His chin was tucked in his left shoulder, and his left arm was stuck up in the air. He was going to use his left to protect his chin, and his right was steady... I jabbed till his eye was almost closed in the first round.
Max: Suddenly I felt his fist under my left eye. I hadn't seen the painful jab coming... My right was at my chest, cocked and ready. I kept my left stretched out, trying to keep Louis off.
Joe: In the second round, I hit him, boom, boom, boom, with jabs. Didn't seem to bother him. Then I did just what Chappie told me not to do, drop in a left hook. As soon as I did, Schmeling came in with a right hand over that got me right on the chin. I thought I'd swallowed my mouthpiece... I don't know how I stayed on my feet. I kept jabbing until my head cleared a little bit.
Max: He opened with a short punch to the mouth, and for a moment I had the sweet taste of blood on my tongue... Again and again he caught me with his strong left...
Louis fired one of his left hooks. But this time I saw it coming and was able to move with it, robbing the punch of its full effect... Then I saw another opening for my right, and this time he had to take it on the chin.
For the first time I had caught Louis squarely... But he was far from done... He drummed on my head with five fast jabs, and my left eye began to close.
Rounds Three and Four
Joe: I tried like hell to hit him in the jaw, but he fended me off with his left.
Max: The spectators only saw that I had a swollen face with one eye closed, that I had lost every round and looked particularly bad in the third. Most experts had predicted that I would go in the fourth.
Joe: I opened up a cut under his right eye with a left hook in the fourth round. All of a sudden, he got in a sharp right to my jaw, and I was down for a two count. I couldn't believe that I was on my ass, and I could've sworn my damn jaw was broken. This was my first knockdown as a professional. To be honest, I never fully recovered from that blow.
Max: Suddenly came the jab from precisely the right distance. And that was also the moment in which he dropped his left just a few centimeters in order to throw it again -- and now, for the first time, my right landed exactly where I wanted it...
Joe was staggered.
I had never before heard such an explosion — the 40,000 [spectators] jumped onto their seats, and Yankee Stadium seemed ready to burst.
Rounds Five through Eleven
Joe: Before the fifth round, I remember Chappie saying, "Keep your guard up, keep your guard up."...By the sixth, Schmeling kept staggering with rights to the jaw.
Max: The seventh round almost reversed the tide. Raging, he landed a powerful right hook to my body, followed by a barrage of punches, and for a moment I almost lost it.
Joe: The bell rang for the eighth, and when I came out, my legs felt weak...In the ninth, he just kept hitting me with right hands. By the tenth, I seemed to regain my senses. I began punching out at Schmeling, and when my blows failed to drop him, I became annoyed.
Max: Each time he was groggy at the bell but would recover between rounds. Louis was young and in tremendous shape; I just couldn't seem to put him away. [In the twelfth,] Louis dropped his shoulders and fired a hook way below the beltline... For a second I felt paralyzed. And in that same second I realized the danger that I still faced in this man. Louis was close to the end and didn't know where his punches were landing anymore.
Joe: In two minutes and twenty-nine seconds of the twelfth round, Schmeling made his knockout.
Max: The punch turns Louis around. Astonished, he looks at me with eyes that no longer see anything. He turns 180 degrees and falls into the ropes and then down to his knees. His arms go back... Then his head falls forward, his shoulder slides along the ropes, and then,... he collapses.
"Seven-eight-nine!"... Joe Louis has been knocked out.
I raised my arms in this moment. Then I raced over to the fallen Louis and helped his handlers carry him to his corner.
Excerpts from: Louis, Joe with Art Rust, Jr. and Edna Rust. My Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
June 22, 1938, Yankee Stadium, New York
By 1938, Joe Louis was the heavyweight world champion of the world. The title would not feel complete, however, until he could beat the only boxer who had defeated him.
Max Schmeling's summer house had just burned to the ground, Nazi officials continued to pressure him to join the party, and he learned that he was being watched even outside of Germany. When New Yorkers taunted him with a stiff-armed Nazi salute, or called him a Nazi, he was particularly depressed. He considered America a second home, one where politics were not so oppressive.
The two boxers describe their 1938 rematch in these excerpts from their memoirs.
Joe: I said, "I'm scared I might kill Schmeling tonight."
Max: The experts almost unanimously favored Louis, despite my knockout of him and my subsequent victories. Still, the betting odds this time weren't 10:1 or 20:1 as they had been for the last fight, but only 2:1 for Louis.
Joe: At seven o'clock we went to the stadium. I took a quick nap.
Max: In the locker room I noticed for the first time that the tension of the last weeks had taken its toll. I was nervous.
Joe: When I walked down that aisle to get to my corner and heard all those cheers of 70,000 people, I knew I'd have to make it. Before the bell rang, I felt like a racehorse in the starting gate.
Max: I walked to the ring. As I became visible to the crowd, all hell broke loose. Of course there were some cheers as well... but they were drowned out by the others. Even though I was flanked by twenty-five police officers, I was still hit by cigarette butts, banana peels, and paper cups, so that I had to pull a towel over my head just to reach the ring safely.
Joe: I had made up my mind that for three rounds I was going to let it all go out. I was going to stay on top of him... I had no intention of pacing myself.
Max: Contrary to what I had expected, Louis came right after me, and before I knew what had happened, I was hit with three hard lefts to the face. I retreated two steps, but Louis came right after me with a hail of head and body shots... I tried to stop this raging fighting machine with a hard right. But Louis showed absolutely no effect and came at me again with a tornado of lefts and rights.
Joe: I came out of my corner quickly and wasted no time getting at Schmeling... I hit him with two left hooks to the face that snapped his head back, then I banged a right to his jaw. He threw a right hand that I blocked and tried a left to my head that fell short. Then I drove him into the ropes with a lot of hooks and right hands... It was time for the kill. I started hitting him with everything I had... and his legs started shaking.
As he hung on the ropes, I hit him with a right to the body. Trying to get away from the punch, Schmeling twisted and took the blow in his lower back...It was all over in two minutes and four seconds.
Max: I experienced the end in a semi-conscious state...Then I was in an ambulance, being taken to the hospital...
I wasn't allowed to have visitors -- no reporters, no friends, not even Joe Louis. When he tried to visit me, [my managers] wouldn't allow it... I was too out of it to get involved.
Joe: After the fight I was sorry to hear they had taken Schmeling to [a hospital]. I had almost broken his back. He had some fractures of the vertebrae and badly bruised back muscles....
Max: The German ambassador managed to get in to ask me whether the punch in the back had been an illegal blow.... I explained to him how I had grabbed the ropes and turned during the rain of punches. As I turned, Louis threw that...right... It was too late to stop the punch, so I took it in the back.
Joe: I ...heard that when the Germans learned how badly I was beating Schmeling, they cut the radio wires to Germany. They didn't want their people to know that just a plain old nigger man was knocking the [stuffing] out of the Aryan Race.
Max: After this defeat, I no longer existed for [Adolf] Hitler and [Joseph] Goebbels [the Nazi Propaganda Minister]... My name simply disappeared from the newspapers...
From the distanced perspective of age, I have to believe that the defeat had its positive side as well. A victory over Joe Louis would have made me forever the "Aryan Show Horse" of the Third Reich.
Louis, Joe with Art Rust, Jr. and Edna Rust. My Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Schmeling, Max. Max Schmeling: An Autobiography. Translated and edited by George B. von der Lippe. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1998.