Saturday, June 22, 2013

Joe Louis' Redemption

"Joe Louis is the hardest puncher that I've ever seen. ... He's a good man. Anyone who plans on beating him had better know what they're doing."

Max Schmeling

Sometimes a sport needs a shot in the arm from an individual or a team to restore its lost luster.

So it was with heavyweight boxing in the 1930s. The legendary Jack Dempsey had been its champion through the mid–1920s, but he had been succeeded by a string of relatively nondescript fighters, one of whom was Max Schmeling, a German fighter.

(Schmeling was the first to win the heavyweight title by disqualification — his opponent floored him with a low blow. He resented the fact that this was what he was remembered for in the record books.)

But Schmeling played an important role in the development of one of boxing's most beloved figures, Joe Louis.

Schmeling didn't hold the title long. In fact, he lost it a couple of years after he won it — to the same fighter whose disqualification gave it to him in the first place. After that, his career followed a downward trajectory, but he was still considered a contender (albeit one who was past his prime) when he fought Louis for the first time in 1936.

In the tensions of the pre–World War II world, Schmeling and Louis were (unfairly) treated as symbols of their countries. And Nazi Germany celebrated when Schmeling knocked out Louis, then the #1 contender, in June 1936. The victory was heralded in Germany as proof of the validity of the Nazi belief in Aryan superiority.

The result undoubtedly shocked many casual boxing fans, but, from what I have read, the fight was much like the plot of the original "Rocky" movie. Schmeling, like Rocky, trained intently for the fight while Louis, assuming he would win, spent more time on the golf course than he did in the gym.

After the 1936 bout, Schmeling apparently felt entitled to a shot at the championship, having defeated the top contender, but global politics interfered. Fight organizers were reluctant to give a German fighter a shot at the title (and the propaganda opportunities that would come with it).

Germany kept on cheering as Schmeling won his next three fights, but then, 75 years ago today, Schmeling met Louis in a rematch in New York's Yankee Stadium. The Ring magazine would call it the "Fight of the Decade."

Since they had met the first time, Louis had won 11 straight fights, including an eighth–round knockout of then–champion James Braddock to claim the title a year after his loss to Schmeling. But even though Louis had won the title in the ring, he said he would not consider himself the champion until he avenged that loss.

It was a boxing match, but it was more than that, as Nigel Collins wrote for ESPN. That second Louis–Schmeling fight "just might have been boxing's finest hour," he wrote.

It was also a symbolic battle between democracy and fascism, just like the first bout had been. "It was," wrote Collins, "the fight's cultural, racial and political ramifications that set it apart and led historian Bert Sugar to label it 'The greatest sporting event of the 20th century.' "

It wasn't just a fight in black America. Like it or not, as Avis Thomas–Lester wrote in the New Pittsburgh Courier, Louis carried black pride into the ring with him, but it really went beyond that. It was, wrote Thomas–Lester, a "a grudge match — Black against White, African American versus Aryan, the so–called 'Land of the Free' battling Nazi Germany."

Louis was the unofficial representative of the black community in America. There had been a black champion before — Jack Johnson — but his reign had been tainted in the public's perception, and Louis was the new hero of the black community.

It wasn't symbolic for Louis. It was the rematch with Schmeling, the only man to defeat him in three dozen professional fights, for which he had been waiting. It was his chance to redeem himself, and he did so with a vengeance.

The fight was scheduled for 15 rounds, but Louis, who took nothing for granted this time, kept his focus, and he knocked out Schmeling before the first round was over. Symbolically, it was an important moment in the histories of both nations. I know from the accounts I have read that there was a lot of rejoicing in Harlem when Louis beat Schmeling — and probably in black neighborhoods all across the country. My guess is that, in the domino–like way of history, Louis' triumph paved the way for public acceptance and support of black athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and so many others.

Louis didn't lose again until Ezzard Charles defeated him in a unanimous decision in that same Yankee Stadium in 1950. His tenure as heavyweight champion was longer than anyone else's.

It might have been that way, anyway — but, for Louis, it all really began on this night 75 years ago.

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