From Pawns to Kings: How Joe and Max Defied the Gods

By Mike Casey on June 20, 2013
From Pawns to Kings: How Joe and Max Defied the Gods
Louis and Schmeling were cast as pawns but they will always be remembered as kings.

It is the week in which Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis in 1936. It is the week in which Louis knocked out Schmeling in 1938…

After having his eyes put out for showing his loyalty to the disgraced King Lear, the Duke of Gloucester famously reflected: “As flies to wanton boy are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

The gods were killing us for their sport well before Shakespeare’s time, but such was the Bard of Avon’s cultural influence that every bloody and evil saga since the medieval age has been described as “Shakespearean.”

Life does indeed imitate art. Shaky plots, flowery rhetoric, political chess games and the cold slaughter of innocent soldiers and civilians remain the staple ingredients, spewed out in different formations like lotto balls.

When Joe Louis and Max Schmeling were cast for their roles nearly 70 years ago, neither was happy in his enforced skin. Yet armed with nothing more than boxing gloves in an era of far more sophisticated and frightening weaponry, the two men fought for themselves and their sport and left us feeling better for our lot in life. They were cast as pawns but they will always be remembered as kings.

We should celebrate this week in the year and never forget it. It is the week in which Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis in 1936. It is the week in which Louis knocked out Schmeling in 1938. The bare statistics make it sound like a simple tale of revenge. We know it was anything but that.

The first event shouldn’t have happened. The second event had to happen. The two-year period between the fights, during which time a despotic monster seemed to mushroom into Mephistopheles himself, transformed a boxing rivalry between a German and an American into a symbolic microcosm of the world war that would follow.

If you thought that Adolf Hitler swept to power with barnstorming ease, consider the chilling facts. In 1928, the Nazi Part held just 28 seats in the German Reichstag. By 1932, they had 230, but still Hitler’s path to power was blocked. Many working-class citizens actually believed that communism would cure Germany’s ills in the great fallout of the economic depression. Wealthy businessmen would not stand for that and financed Hitler.

The dithering President Hindenburg believed that charming Hitler with the offer of the vice chancellor’s job would get the Nazis onside and stabilize the country. Hitler refused. He wanted to be chancellor. Hindenburg caved in and agreed to Hitler’s demand, harboring the quaint belief that he could control the man who would become Fuhrer. Hitler said thank you very much and soon after made himself absolute ruler of Germany. How’s that for a shaky Shakespearean plot?

Shock

In 1936, Joe Louis was almost too good to be true. He moved with the lithe grace of a panther, boxed beautifully and punched with breathtaking power and precision. Even boxing’s more seasoned observers, who had seen a thousand good prospects quickly wither away to nothing, were confidently hailing Louis as the great unbeatable.

With a form of grace and controlled power that was all his own, Joe wasn’t merely beating his opponents. He was blitzing them in a manner that brought gasps from the swelling crowds that came to see him. A Louis masterpiece was like a Caravaggio painting—pure art with blood and thunder and a chill up the spine as you drank it in.

A Joe Louis fight would still be on people’s minds the following morning, its brutality discussed with morbid intrigue; how he had butchered Primo Carnera, smashed the teeth from Paulino Uzcudun’s mouth and locked Max Baer’s terror-stricken legs to his bench before he even got out of his dressing room.

Former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling wasn’t supposed to come to New York and spoil all that. Approaching his thirty-first birthday, Max was an old fighter by the standard of the day and considered to be past his best. Four years before, he had lost his crown to Jack Sharkey. A year after that, Schmeling had been manhandled and savagely beaten by the volatile Baer. How could the jaded German be anything other than cannon fodder for Louis?

“I have seen something,” a confident Max famously said in reference to a significant flaw in Joe’s fistic make-up. “Of course you have, Max,” was the sarcastic reply of most. But Jack Johnson, the first and last black heavyweight champion, had seen the same flaw too. The left jab of Joe Louis was a battering ram of a weapon all by itself, but the destructive fist didn’t snap back into a safe position after firing. It was crying out to be countered by an opponent with the knowledge and courage to deliver a big right hand. Schmeling had one of the best right hands in the business.

Johnson, who had become bitter and reluctant to leave the stage, was one of many players who would join the growing cast of the Louis-Schmeling drama, a constant thorn in the coming king’s side, forever sticking a finger into any wound he could spot in splendid Shakespearean tradition. There was no brotherly love for Joe where Jack was concerned. Johnson’s aura and past deeds had already shaped Louis’ life, compelling him to a strict and ridiculous regimen of temperance and restraint. He was told, in so many words, that the only way for another black man to win the heavyweight championship was to act like a white man.

Jack Blackburn, Joe’s trainer, had scant regard for Johnson and most of what he stood for. Blackburn told Louis: “White man hasn’t forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world.”

Twenty-eight years before the first Louis-Schmeling fight, in a Philadelphia gym in 1908, the lightweight Blackburn had grown infuriated by Johnson’s arrogance in a sparring session. A terrific boxer in his own right, Blackburn bloodied Johnson’s nose and took great pleasure in recounting the story. Johnson never forgot the insult.

Life

At Yankee Stadium, on the night of June 19, 1936, Max Schmeling fought the fight of his life and battered Joe Louis to a shocking twelfth round knockout defeat. The beating was protracted and brutal, right hand after right hand flashing over Joe’s left, crashing to his jaw and reverberating through his body until he finally collapsed to take the full count.

It was a tribute to the young Joe’s courage that he was able to stand up to the punishment for as long as he did. If you are new to the game and haven’t seen that fight, watch it. If you have seen it a hundred times, watch it again. It went down as a prime lesson in how to weather life’s slings and arrows and overcome adversity. A lot of people wrote Louis off after seeing his humbling that night. They even reverted to the old patronizing language as they seethed in their disappointment and felt they had been betrayed. Louis the superman was once again Louis the boy.

Schmeling, vastly underrated to this day, was a cool, intelligent and dangerous fighter. He was a tough man hewn in a tough era. Years later, he would reflect on his times and say: “I was still boxing with only four and five ounce gloves, and after two rounds they were mostly already torn apart, with only a few patches of tough leather covering my knuckles. The punches were extremely painful.”

That clattering knockout of Louis turned Max’s life upside down in many ways. He returned to Germany as a hero, his fading career revived. He was the new superman of boxing, but he didn’t care for the people who suddenly wanted to be his best friends. He became an unwilling icon of the Nazis, the perfect shining example of Ayrian supremacy. Two months later, Hitler would boil with quiet rage at the brilliance of black American sprinter Jesse Owens in the Olympics in Berlin. But boxing was far bigger and more important than athletics and Adolf still had his Max.

Schmeling bridled under the impossible pressure heaped upon him, kicking against it as best he could in the circumstances. He refused to dispense with his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, and would often join Joe in prayer.

Schmeling got Hitler’s assurance that no American athletes would be harmed during the OIympics. In the dreadful year of 1938, when the persecution of Jews reached its terrifying apex in Germany, Max protected the two sons of one of his Jewish friends and later helped them flee the country.

Schmeling’s reward for his quiet and understated rebellion against the Third Reich—and his constant refusal to accept membership of the Nazi Party—was to be slammed into the paratroops at the age of thirty-four. He returned home to Germany after being injured on the Greek island of Crete in 1941. Just another soldier, just another war statistic. As he would later say with a wry smile: “So much for the theory that I was Hitler’s best pal.”

He would admit in later years that his horrific defeat to Louis in their 1938 rematch was a blessing in disguise. The Nazis spat Max out like a bad taste and marched on to their own destruction. But how he had to suffer before shedding his bondage. His ordeal lasted just two minutes and four seconds, yet the withering punishment meted out by Louis somehow slowed time to an agonizing crawl. Schmeling had stumbled into a slaughterhouse and found himself the victim of the slashing and the chopping.

Menacingly

By the time Joe Louis strode menacingly from his corner on that night of June 22 at Yankee Stadium, he had learned well from his past mistakes and was the complete package as a ruthlessly efficient boxer and puncher. He hadn’t been allowed to brood over the Schmeling loss and was back in the ring within two months to gun down former champion Jack Sharkey in three rounds. Louis then swept away Al Ettore, Jorge Brescia and Steve Ketchel, decisioned Bob Pastor and knocked out Natie Brown before ripping the championship from Jimmy Braddock at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

After overcoming the brave and stubborn challenge of Tommy Farr, Joe blasted out Nathan Mann and Harry Thomas to clear the path for his hugely anticipated return with Schmeling. By that time, the Nazi threat to peace was close to exploding into a world conflict. Louis versus Schmeling had become America versus Germany. Two tribes were going to war in the form of two good men who just wanted to fight for the one prize that had meant the most to them since they were boys. But the gods and monsters had hijacked them and appointed them gladiators.

Schmeling remained the irritating itch that Joe had been dying to scratch for 24 long months. Louis had stated that he wouldn’t consider himself the real champion until he had erased that one blemish on his 35-1 record. He did so with a stunning showcase of violent, short range punching.

Here is an abridged version of radio announcer Clem McCarthy calling the Louis blitz to an enthralled American audience:  “Joe Louis is in his corner, prancing and rubbing his feet in the rosin. Max Schmeling standing calmly, getting a last word from (trainer) Doc Casey. And they’re ready with the bell just about to ring.

“And there we are. And they get to the ring right together with Arthur Donovan stepping around them. And Joe Louis is in the center of the ring, Max going around him. Joe Louis led quick with two straight lefts to the chin. Both of them light, but as the men clinch Joe Louis tries to get over two hard lefts and Max ties him up

“On the far side of the ring now, Max with his back to the ropes. And Louis hooks a left to Max’s head quickly and shoots over a hard right to Max’s head. Louis, a left to Max’s jaw, a hard right to the head. Max shoots a hard right to Louis. Louis with the old one two. First a left and then the right. He’s landed more blows in this one round than he landed in five rounds of the other fight.

“And there Max Schmeling caught him with his guard down and got that right hand to Louis’ jaw, but Louis was going away with the punch at the time. Now Max is backing away against the ropes and Louis is following him and watching for that chance. He is crowding, trailing. Schmeling is not stepping around very much, but his face is already marked. They step into a fast clinch, and at close range Louis fights desperately to bring up a left to the jaw and a right to the body. And coming out of that clinch he got over a hard right and then stabbed Max with a good straight left jab. And Max backed away and missed a right.

“Louis then stopped him with two straight lefts to the face and brought over that hard right to the head, high on the temple. Max clinches and breaks ground. He’s back against the ropes now again. And Louis missed with a left swing, but in close quarters brought over a hard one to the jaw and again a right to the body, a left hook, a right to the head, a left hook to the head, a right.

“Schmeling is going down. But he held to his feet, held to the ropes, looked to his corner in helplessness. And Schmeling is down, Schmeling is down. The count is four. And he’s up and Louis, right and left to the head, a left to the jaw, a right to the head, and Donovan is watching carefully. Louis measures him, right to the body, a left up to the jaw and Schmeling is down.

“The count is five. Five, six, seven, eight. The men are in the ring. The fight is over – on a technical knockout. Max Schmeling is beaten in one round. The first time that a world heavyweight championship ever changed hands in one round – in less than a round.”

Destruction

The ropes seemed to reach out and clutch Max like serpents during his machine-like destruction. Trapped there and denied an escape route by the crowding Louis, Schmeling’s pain and fear were palpable as he resembled a captive prisoner facing a firing squad. Twisting his body in an attempt to alleviate the torture, he only increased his suffering by exposing his kidney area to Joe’s short and disciplined body smashes. A shriek of pain from the challenger was likened to the distressed scream of a woman by those who heard it.

Joe Louis was now a national hero, his color an irrelevance to the fickle masses. Everyone loved Joe. You could almost invite him over to Sunday lunch. Max Schmeling became the invisible man to Hitler and his gang, as invisible as the shattering result of the fight. Both were swiftly air brushed from recognition.

Yet long after their cynical puppeteers were rendered academic, Joe and Max endured and continued to grow in stature. The link between the reluctant role models was never broken. Much like Dempsey and Tunney, Louis and Schmeling became entwined for the rest of their lives. It was impossible to mention one without mentioning the other.

There was nothing synthetic or propagandist about the warm friendship that bound Louis and Schmeling until Joe’s death in 1981. It was Max, by then a wealthy businessman with the Coca-Cola brand, who would fund Joe’s military funeral at Arlington. The two pawns of a dark age had matured into kings, while the evil emperors had perished. Hitler and Stalin descended steadily into paranoia and denial before their grubby deaths. Mussolini was shot, strung up by his feet and then had his severed head used as a football by an irate Italian mob.

In 1982, when I was twenty-six, I visited Arlington Cemetery and had my picture taken beside Joe Louis’ grave. It was something I had to do. It’s funny how you feel pleasantly compelled to do such things in the case of a genuine and human hero. Isn’t it a magnificent triumph of life and goodness that Joe Louis and Max Schmeling are now revered as noble kings while a thousand despots are reviled as shrunken pawns?


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Mike Casey 09:13am, 06/25/2013

    Thank you, Beau. I remember Max saying that about Manassa Jack. I’ll have more on that in a future article.

  2. beaujack 11:03am, 06/24/2013

    Lest we forget ,3 years before Schmeling was slaughtered by Joe Louis in the rematch in 1936, he was brutalized by a motivated Max Baer in 1933.
    Baer gave the prime Schmeling a horrendous beating and Max was stopped in 10 rounds…With all this Der Max lived til the age of 99 years old…One tough and underated heavyweight was Schmeling in my book.
    P.S. In his autobiography written in Germany which I read [in English],
    Schmeling called Jack Dempsey the greatest of all heavyweights he saw.
    He boxed with the Manassa Mauler several sparring sessions when Dempsey visited Germany and Schmeling was a young boxer, for what it’s worth…

  3. Mike Casey 09:47am, 06/22/2013

    Gentlemen, thanks kindly for all your comments.

  4. kid vegas 09:53am, 06/21/2013

    Greeting from Las Vegas. I agree that the fight should have been halted before Max took those bombs to the kidneys. Unnecessary and cruel punishments.

  5. nicolas 12:18am, 06/21/2013

    Not really mentioned by many, was that when Louis met Max in the first fight, he was about a month shy of two years of his pro career, and a year later he would be heavyweight champ, just shy of three years, and beat Max a year later. Both mens greatest achievements in boxing are that they had great victories over the other. never in the history of heavyweight boxing, and perhaps all of boxing, has a former champ had a greater victory than did Max in 36. The irony of Louis getting a crack before Max at Jim Braddock was that there were black fighters who deserved a shot at the title, but were not rewarded with that, and when Joe Louis, a black fighter got a shot at the title, he wasn’t the most deserving contender.

  6. George Thomas Clark 10:18pm, 06/20/2013

    Tex is correct: Schmeling lambasted Louis all night with the big right in their first fight, which I’d never seen so much of.  In their rematch, I still feel the fight should’ve been stopped much earlier, when Schmeling was helpless against the ropes, turned sideways to Louis and taking brutal shots to the body as well as the head.  It’s also too bad they didn’t have the standing eight count.  There need to be rules and judgments to protect the fighters.  There was no reason for Max to come out of this fight looking like “he’d been in a car wreck,” as many described it.

  7. George Thomas Clark 09:45pm, 06/20/2013

    True, Ted, I’m not from Poland, but a publisher there is bringing out one of my books in January 2014.  I’m glad they didn’t ask me to help translate.

  8. Tex Hassler 07:00pm, 06/20/2013

    It is possible that Joe Louis took more punishment in the first fight with Schmeling than he did in the rest of his entire career. Seldom, if ever, has a fighter taken a beating like that and was able to come back and fight many years at the top. Max was a far better fighter than he has ever been credited for. My hat is off to both men.

  9. Ted 05:47pm, 06/20/2013

    Hmm, I also do some online research and found out that George Thomas Clark is not from Warsaw, Poland.

  10. George Thomas Clark 03:14pm, 06/20/2013

    A fine article, indeed.  I did some online research and see that Mike Casey is from Great Britain and has the unfair advantage of having inherited some Shakespearean blood.

  11. Michael Hegan 02:47pm, 06/20/2013

    another fact filled ..well written article by Mike Casey

  12. Michael Hegan 02:39pm, 06/20/2013

    Schmeling got rrrrrreeeeeeeeeeemmmmed ..big time .  He was the guy who beat the guy…and was due to challenge Braddock..

    WIth the back room boys going fulll blast….joe louis gets the shot at the title…and ...just so you know….Braddock gets a slice of Louis’s future purse…for 12 years…while Louis was still Champion

  13. Michael Hegan 02:33pm, 06/20/2013

    Schmeling got reeeeeeemed on the right to fight Jimmy Braddock…...Louis got the nod…and Braddock got a percentage of the Brown Bomber’s winnings for over ten years

  14. Michael Hegan 02:24pm, 06/20/2013

    I was but a flash in my mother’s eye when these fights ..first one most important.

    DIdn’t Joe just get married that week….and some say he was much more interested in golf ...than getting ready for Max Schmeling….overconfidence maybe

  15. Michael Hegan 01:18pm, 06/20/2013

    Schmeling over Louis was kinda like Douglas over Tyson…..hell of a shake up….....all bets are off….

    Wild times ...in those years….....a milder version was Ali saying ..I refuse to serve due to my religious convictions….as he is today…not accepting treatment from present sources…..due to my religious convictions.

    Ali could be lucid and mobile…..should he agree to present treatment for Parkinson’s Syndrome…(not Parkinson’s disease!!!)

    Ali ...due to his religious convictions…will not take the treatment today….thousands of others will take this treatment…..not some back alley procedure….this is top of the line treatment centers…..

    Ali is the way he is…as he was stricken with a degenerative ailment…..and has refused the current treatment ...due to source of ‘pharmaceutical…etc)

  16. Michael Hegan 12:59pm, 06/20/2013

    ....like a Caravaggio painting ?????

  17. Michael Hegan 12:50pm, 06/20/2013

    Mike….lotsa detail and material here…..but I’ll read every word

    Most fight fans are not familiar with Max Schmeling’s in…or out of his ring career.

    Max Schmeling had Class….and he was fortunate to be able to walk the walk…..and not just talk the talk.

    Max Schmeling was a first class ambassador of Professional Boxing

  18. Ted 12:18pm, 06/20/2013

    The best compliment I can give to this stirring piece is to hope and pray my next article does not follow it in the queue.

  19. Ted 12:14pm, 06/20/2013

    Magnum opus

  20. Clarence George 11:08am, 06/20/2013

    How do you do it, Mike?  Oh, I recognize that much of it has been lifted from my own work without so much as a by your leave or a tug of the forelock, but that remaining two percent…how do you do it?

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