The tale of the Brown Bomber and how one fight changed the world.

in #sport2 years ago

The year was 1938 and Hitler was busy radicalising anyone who would listen, promoting his own particular version of Socialism and the theory of a master race. At the same time the whole world was being pushed to the brink of economic uncertainty and ruin. Meanwhile, the Russian people were being enslaved by Stalin through his five-year plan to rebuild the nation under communist rule, a plan that forced millions of Russians to an early grave. In Italy, Mussolini ruled over a strict fascist state. In spain, a bitter civil war ended with the victory of Francisco Franco and his fascist party.
In America, social order was collapsing. The great depression was crippling the nation which gave rise to a new powerful leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The new president injected hope into a sagging nation with the phrase "We have nothing to fear but fear itself". With this statement echoing around the states, the country closed ranks and attempted to mend from within. The American people, burdened with recession, found solace in sports entertainment. It was an era of sporting superstars and the brightest of these stars was a black-American from Detroit.

Joe Louis, also known as "The brown bomber", stood just over 6-foot-1-inch tall and possessed a combination of boxing skills and punching power that had never been seen before in a heavyweight boxer. From 1934 through to early 1938, Joe Louis had lost just once, a 12-round KO executed by German Max Schmeling in a non-title bout(June 19, 1936). It was one year later that Joe Louis won the heavyweight crown by knocking out James Braddock in the 8th round. Max Schmeling had also tasted gold in 1930 when he won the title from Jack Sharkey, but then lost it in 1932. Thus, the stage was set for a rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. This bout would serve as a well needed distraction for Americans dealing with the hardships of everyday life at the time. A 15-round battle was organised to take place at Yankee Stadium, the same venue where Schmeling had previously defeated Joe Louis. For the Brown bomber the rematch was a chance to exact revenge on the only person to defeat him and for Schmeling it was a chance to regain the title he once held. Beside the personal interests of the boxers involved and the distraction it gave the American public, there were also outside influences that gave this bout extra meaning. It would be these outside influences that would turn this into the fight of the century and an event of political significance.

Adolf Hitler was propagating Nazism and the idea of a superior Aryan race, a master race. Taking advantage where and whenever he could, Hitler chose to use this sporting event to prove his racial ideology through the unwitting Max Schmeling, whose duty it would be to travel to America and return with the crown after beating the inferior Joe Louis. But it was not just Adolf Hitler who used this highly charged political angle to promote the fight. Newspaper also seized upon the opportunity and exploited the situation for all its worth, whipping the American people into an uncharacteristic pro-black movement. Being a time of segregation, in which black citizens were denied the right to vote and endured virtual economic slavery in the south and elsewhere, the irony of Joe Louis representing the United States was not lost on the nation's black leaders. Nevertheless, the American public regarded Louis as one of their own and he became one of the first black athletes to penetrate the walls of racial prejudice. This paved the way for other black athletes, such as Jackie Robinson, to erode the colour barrier within the American sports scene.

The usual good guy vs bad guy theme had been transcended and in its place was a much more powerful incentive to engage in the event. It was now a battle between democracy vs totalitarianism, the allegedly inferior black race vs the white "master" race, American vs Hun. Tickets to this momentous clash sold out instantly.

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Emanuel Steward, one of the greatest trainers to ever grace the world of boxing, recalled what he had heard about the night in Yankee Stadium;

"Well, having been raised in Detroit you naturally hear a lot of Joe Louis stories. I don't believe that any athlete in the history of sports was bigger than Joe Louis until Muhammad Ali came along. From what older people have told me about the night when Louis fought Max Schmeling, I feel like I can actually experience what was in the air at the time. It was like 'the day the earth stood still.' It was more than a sporting event. It was good against evil. Hitler had created the situation surrounding this rematch, and there was so much drama and emotion in the air that I don't think there will be another event that will equal the tension that was in the world that particular night when they fought."

Louis was unperturbed by the tension and pressure surrounding the upcoming event. When asked by a newsman if the chilly evening air in Yankee Stadium might bother the fighters, Louis deadpanned, "No, we'll both be wearing gloves."

While Joe took all this in his stride, the same could not be said for his opponent. Whilst walking into the ring, Max appeared preoccupied and, as it turned out, there was very good reason for this...

Before the fight, while Max was waiting inside his dressing room, a message was delivered to him by his Nazi bosses; his wife, Annie Ondra, a German film actress, had been placed under protective custody by the dreaded SS. To make sure Max understood what was expected of him, a special envoy arrived to deliver an important message from Hitler himself; "Der Fuhrer commands you to win, as a symbol of Aryan supremacy!"

The 24-year old Louis entered the ring with Schmeling in front of 75,000 fans -one of the largest crowds in boxing history- which created a gate worth nearly a million dollars. A ringside seat sold for an eye watering $30, which for many the majority was a whole month's pay.
All across America, people were hunkered around their radios waiting for the fight to begin. The showdown became a benchmark in the lives of those who were around at the time. For this moment, America stopped in its tracks. "Where were you the night Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling?" was a question every American could answer. It could be said that no sporting occasion has ever, or will ever, capture the attention of an entire nation the way in which this event did.

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Let's get ready to rumble!

To the crowd, Max Schmeling embodied Hitler's, dark-hearted, German master race, however unwillingly. For this, the crowd vigorously booed the German at every opportunity. Joe Louis, standing under the bright lights of Yankee stadium, removed his white robe to a roaring ovation from the 75,000 people in attendance. Joe's eyes burned with determination, and the fact that no ex-champion had ever recaptured his title gave Joe even more reason to impose his will upon Schmeling. Joe wasn't fighting Hitler's chosen son, nor was he fighting for democracy. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber A.K.A Alabama Assassin, was here to avenge the loss that the 10-1 underdog, Schmeling, had inflicted on him 2-years earlier. Joe once said to a reporter after beating Braddock, "don't call me 'Champ' until I beat Schmeling." It was more than just another title fight for Joe.

Once instructions had been given by the ref and the bell rang to start the first round, the fighters started towards the center of the ring and began the deconstruction of one anothers game plan. Joe's plan was simple; get in close, overwhelm and annihilate. Max's strategy seemed to be to counter punch and try to catch Joe with a heavy hook like he'd done before. The German's plan had a good chance of success, but he needed enough time to learn Joe's timing and it was imperative for him to avoid, or block, the viscous shots being aimed at his body and head. Joe, however, had no intentions of taking his time and allowing Max to repeat what had happened 2-years ago. With swift and intelligent footwork, Joe moved into range and unloaded heavy combinations, planting his feet and throwing every punch with bad intentions.

Four or five punches were thrown by Louis with only one reactionary punch being thrown back in return. Max looked stunned by the pace and movement of the Alabama Assassin. Almost every punch found its mark and bearing in mind they were fighting with 6-ounce gloves, rather than the 10-ounce of today, you can understand why Max gave an uncontrollable wince.

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Joe was hurting him and both fighters knew it. After another lightning fast combination, Schmeling was forced onto the ropes and instinctively covered up. Louis smelled blood. With pin-point accuracy and bone-shattering power, Joe broke through Schmeling's guard. A devastating blow landed to the ribs and the German was sent stumbling, Louis following in hot pursuit. A savage 5-punch volley bounced off the head of "the great white hope". Down went Max Schmeling. Unfortunately for Max, he only sank so far as the first rope, instinctively clinging on as he fell. Joe Louis whips a merciless right hook to the body, causing the German to howl in pain. Referee Arthur Donovan moved quickly to intervene and begin a standing count in front of a broken German. The crowd were in a frenzy. Amazingly, Schmeling nods to confirm a desire to continue and the ref stops the count and moves aside. The path was clear and Joe swooped towards his prey, delivering a shuddering hook to the jaw. Down went Schmeling, all the way down. At this point you can only wonder if Schmeling thought of his wife and the SS soldiers who were "guarding her". Because at the count of just three, Max Schmeling bravely gets to his feet and readys himself again. Relentlessly, Joe rushes back to work, twisting his body to generate his most powerful punches. Five more strikes to the dome cause the contender to rock, who somehow remains upright. Only a champions willpower keeps a man standing at this point. Regardless, Joe resumes the pummelling onslaught, lefts and rights piercing through the gaps, sending Shockwaves through the victim. Down goes Schmeling but only to rise again at the count of two. Was this bravery, or desperation? It mattered not, the German's fate was sealed. Joe savoured his punches, embedding his feet before unleashing a crippling 3 punch combo, the last of which snaps back the head of Schmeling who finally capitulates.

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When louis won his heavyweight title from J. Braddock, black America burst into wild street celebrations. When Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling, the whole of America erupted onto the streets and began coast-to-coast all-night celebration.

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Schmeling had landed just 2 punches while receiving 50 in just over 2-minutes. This was the most comprehensive beating an audience could witness and the national pride it created was tangible. Never had one short moment in sporting history changed so much and with a new black sporting hero the racial stains on sport began to fade.

As for the German public, they never got to hear how the fight turned out, because once the Nazi propaganda ministry realised their man was being dominated they pulled the plug on the broadcast. The day after the fight, an unaware and assuming functionary delivered celebratory flowers -in Hitler's name- to Schmeling's wife.
Hitler had ordered the detainment of Schmeling's mother, father, wife and children. Fortunately, this cruel measure was taken not to punish the family if he were to lose, but to ensure he didn't defect and remain in America. Max Schmeling returned to Germany and served as a Paratrooper in WW2 but never considered himself to be a Nazi. In fact, although he was labelled as "Hitler's favourite" and a "Nazi puppet" he never supported the ideology. Max's promoter was Jewish and when Hitler demanded he terminate his employment Max stood his ground against the mighty Fuhrer. Schmeling stated that he was almost almost happy he didn't win that fight against Louis because he might have been even more popular with Nazis.

It's no surprise then, that Joe Louis and Max Schmeling became close friends and kept in touch long after the fight. Max even gave financial support to Joe when he was at his lowest point and when Joe Louis died on 12th April, 1981, Max not only attended his funeral but also paid for it.

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Well, that's the 2nd story of my boxing trilogy and I hope you all enjoyed it. Be sure to come back for the final part!

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