IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Louis vs. Schmeling: World War in the ring

Nothing in the annals of sports has aroused more passion than the heavyweight fights in New York in 1936 and 1938 between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling — bouts that symbolized and galvanized the hopes, hatreds and fears of a world moving toward total war. Vanity Fair editor David Margolick takes us into the careers of both men in his new book, “Beyond Glory.” Margolick was invited on the “To
/ Source: TODAY

Nothing in the annals of sports has aroused more passion than the heavyweight fights in New York in 1936 and 1938 between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling — bouts that symbolized and galvanized the hopes, hatreds and fears of a world moving toward total war. Vanity Fair editor David Margolick takes us into the careers of both men in his new book, “Beyond Glory.” Margolick was invited on the “Today” show to discuss the book. Read an excerpt.

Five years earlier, on the morning of April 14, 1933, the North German Lloyd liner Bremen steamed into New York Harbor, with Max Schmeling aboard. The setting was spectacular — the mighty vessel, after its five-day crossing, making its way toward the Statue of Liberty, with the towers of lower Manhattan beckoning — but scarcely more epic, at least in the world of sports, than the events about to unfold. Schmeling would soon attempt something that had never been done: to regain the heavyweight crown. And his prospects looked good; after all, many believed he should never have lost it.

Schmeling, twenty-seven years old, had been coming to the United States for five years now, and the arrival ritual had grown routine. Meeting him aboard the ship would be the usual mob of fight reporters, who had commandeered a cutter to bring them there: all ten New York City newspapers had at least one boxing writer, as did the wire services, and there were emissaries from Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and Chicago, to name just a few other cities with boxing correspondents of their own. Then there would be the photographers and newsreel boys, who would put Schmeling through the same staged scenes and make him utter the same wooden dialogue for the cameras. The previous June, Schmeling had lost the title in a much-criticized decision to Jack Sharkey. "We wuz robbed!" his fiery, outlandish manager, Joe Jacobs, had immortally declared afterward. But now, Schmeling, with characteristic determination, had set out to win it back. And why not? He had already defied the odds three years earlier, when, in an equally disputed fight, he'd become the first European ever to win the heavyweight title.

A personable sort, Schmeling had long since come to know most of the reporters by name. They were friendly, irreverent types — smart alecks — likely to ask an impertinent question or two, but not to be too persistent or obnoxious about it; whatever edge they had was certain to be dulled by the good German beer Schmeling always brought with him. The floating press conference would then pull into the pier, where he would be greeted by a mob of fight fans coming to show their support or simply to glimpse a celebrity. Schmeling could easily have been unpopular; he'd won the title under the most debatable circumstances, spoke English with a heavy accent, and came from a country with which America had been at war only fifteen years earlier. After he'd beaten Sharkey for the title, he'd dragged his feet on a promised rematch, offending Americans and Germans alike. But when he lost the crown he'd been a gentleman, picking up an aura of martyrdom. Though he revealed only so much of himself, there always appeared to be something endearingly earnest about him.

And then there was the good fortune of his physical appearance. Schmeling looked uncannily like the man who epitomized boxing's golden era, the legendarily hard-hitting and much-missed Jack Dempsey, who'd retired only a few years earlier after producing all five of boxing's million-dollar "gates" — that is, fights where ticket sales went into seven figures. Schmeling had the same build, the same wavy, dark, slicked-down hair, the same heavy brows. Schmeling's style in the ring, though, was not the slashing, overwhelmingly aggressive assault Dempsey favored but something cooler, slower, more methodical — "Teutonic," as it was often described. And outside the ring he was as self-contained and calculating as Dempsey was gregarious.

Dempsey was promoting Schmeling's upcoming fight on June 8 in Yankee Stadium against a promising young California heavyweight named Max Baer, and was among those greeting Schmeling. The next day's papers would be filled with pictures of the two men together, wearing nearly identical suits and topcoats, all but daring readers to tell them apart. At the pier the confusion had already begun; an excited young woman broke through the crowd, grabbed Dempsey's hand, and tried to kiss it. "Oh, Max!" she cried. "You're wonderful!" Accompanying Schmeling on the voyage, as always, was Max Machon, his longtime German trainer. And just as predictably, greeting him at the pier was Joe Jacobs, an ever-present cigar jutting out of his mouth.

Schmeling tried to be boyish and lighthearted with the press, as if nothing had changed since his last visit to New York the year before. Anyone bending over to inspect his lapel pin — "Athletic Club," it said — got water spritzed into his eye. But Schmeling now faced more than the usual inquiries about the kind of shape he was in, how and where he planned to train, and the state of his punches. Three months earlier, Hitler had come to power in Germany. Almost instantly, life for Germany's 600,000 Jews had changed profoundly, and terrifyingly. Already, Jews were being banished from universities, public schools, symphony orchestras, the legal and medical professions. Jewish-owned newspapers, soon to be confiscated by the government, had to chronicle the mighty flow of anti-Jewish enactments. In but a couple of months, the dark ages had descended upon the German-Jewish community. It was hard to know whether the storm would pass, and while many Jews quickly left, far more stayed. But it was sobering indeed when the Angriff declared that Germany's Jews were done for, morally and commercially.

Nowhere was their fate followed more closely than in New York, a city with two million Jews of its own, many of them passionate fight fans with deep ties to Europe. Three weeks before Schmeling's arrival, 100,000 of them, including 20,000 Jewish veterans of World War I, had marched through the snow from the Lower East Side to city hall to protest events in Germany. Four days later, 22,000 of them rallied at Madison Square Garden, with 35,000 more on the streets outside. Such protests only fired up the Nazis further. By the time Schmeling boarded the Bremen, there had been a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany, torchlight processions in support of the anti-Jewish measures, and paroxysms of violent anti-Semitism. "Hundreds of Jews have been beaten or tortured," the Berlin correspondent of the New York Evening Post, H. V. Knickerbocker, reported shortly before Schmeling steamed in. "Thousands of Jews have fled. Thousands of Jews have been, or will be, deprived of their livelihood." Germany's entire Jewish population, he wrote, was in a state of terror.

New York, by contrast, must have seemed the picture of tranquility to Schmeling when he arrived. But it had also grown less receptive to him, more wary. The goodwill he had built up in the United States, like the goodwill he had by now established with the Nazis, was impressive but thin, and would require delicacy and dexterity to preserve. Schmeling faced two fights in America. The first, in the ring, was hard enough: Baer was a furious puncher who had beaten one rival to death and very nearly killed another. But Schmeling also faced the formidable challenge of placating the American fight public without offending the regime back home, of mollifying Jews and Nazis simultaneously.

Twelve years earlier, on July 2, 1921, fifteen-year-old Max Schmeling stood outside a newspaper office in Cologne, following an account of Dempsey's fight against the Frenchman Georges Carpentier as it came across the wire from the United States. He rooted for Dempsey, not just because he liked him, but because he wanted the heavyweight championship to remain in America long enough for him to go there and get it. Afterward, Schmeling spent some of his meager earnings watching films of the fight repeatedly in a local theater. He convinced his father, a navigator on the Hamburg-America line, to pay for some boxing lessons. Then young Max bought some used gloves and hung them over his bed.

Max Siegfried Adolph Otto Schmeling was born in Klein Luckow, a town in northern Germany eighty miles north of Berlin, on September 28, 1905, and grew up in Hamburg. He left school early and worked variously at an advertising firm, as a pipe fitter, and as a strongman in the circus. He flirted with soccer, but found himself drawn to boxing. Interest in the sport, which had been illegal and underground in Germany before World War I, had recently exploded. German soldiers had learned it as prisoners of war in Britain, or from the Americans who occupied their country once the war was over. In Weimar Germany as in the United States, the sport became a great passion not just of the working classes but also of artists and intellectuals, who saw in it something pure and manly, elemental and elegant, timeless and modern. When he visited Germany in 1926, Nat Fleischer was astounded to see how Germany had embraced the sport. Germany had forty thousand amateur boxers, he pointed out, and if only a dozen stars emerged, they could soon menace American hegemony.

In Düsseldorf, then in Cologne, Schmeling spent most of his spare time in boxing clubs. It was in Cologne that he honed his distinctive style: methodical, scientific, and patient. He became well versed in the fundamentals of footwork, body movement, and defense; his style was to bide his time, study his opponent, and wait for openings rather than to slug it out too early. His right was his money punch, his left, as someone later put it, merely something for holding his fork. Schmeling's personal code was regimented: a careful diet, no alcohol or tobacco, regular hours. When he'd go to the Roxy-Bar (a favorite hangout for Berlin's athletes and aesthetes) he'd always order fresh orange juice and "Café Hag" — that is, decaffeinated coffee. He was, as the German weekly Box-Sport once wrote, a Musterknabe — a prig. Nothing distracted him from his objective. One of his fights came only four days after he'd crashed his motorcycle, killing his fourteen-year-old sister. He won.

Schmeling turned professional in 1924, and won nine of his first ten fights. But "professional" was a relative term: when Box-Sport's editor, Arthur Bülow, became his manager, Schmeling had only nine cents in his pocket. Dempsey visited Cologne in 1925, and Schmeling was one of three local boxers who fought him in two-round exhibitions. Fleischer, too, saw Schmeling there, and immediately cabled the majordomo of American boxing, Tex Rickard of Madison Square Garden, about him. In August 1926, Schmeling won the German light heavyweight championship in less than a minute. The following January, Box-Sport called him "our greatest hope" and extolled his "cold, sure eye, technique, brain and general ability." To his critics, Schmeling was almost too calculating; Box-Sport faulted him for what it called "an insufficient will to annihilate." But that June, before a frenzied, ecstatic crowd in Dortmund, he beat a Belgian, Fernand Delarge, for the European light heavyweight championship. For a country still traumatized by losing a war and in the throes of political and economic upheaval, it was an epic event. Moments after he knocked out the Italian Michele Bonaglia in January 1928, eight thousand fans stood up and sang "Deutschland über Alles."

Schmeling gained entry into elite German intellectual circles, meeting the filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, the artist George Grosz (for whom he became a model), Heinrich Mann, the novelist, and other Weimar cultural luminaries. He relished the role. "Künstler, schenkt mir Eure Gunst – Boxen ist auch 'ne Kunst!" he wrote in the guest book of one artistic hangout: "Artists, grant me your favor — boxing is also an art!" That someone with his limited background and education could make himself comfortable in so alien a world was an early indication of Schmeling's extraordinary adaptability. Conversely, German society was showing its ability to adapt itself to him, to see in him whatever it wanted.

Even before seeing or meeting Schmeling, Paul Gallico, a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, a man who spoke German and read the German newspapers, began praising him and urging him to come to the United States. Schmeling had his lapses and his losses, which some attributed to his new and highfalutin life. But in April 1928, despite fracturing his thumb early in the fight, Schmeling outpointed Franz Diener for the German heavyweight championship. Now, America really beckoned; a cartoon in Box-Sport showed Schmeling "swimming after the dollar" across the Atlantic. That May, Schmeling, accompanied by Bülow, arrived in New York for the first time. His appearance rated only meager coverage in a few newspapers — all of which misspelled his name.

Schmeling's injured thumb precluded any immediate action. For months, he lived off the charity of Madame Hranoush Aglaganian Bey, a Constantinople-born grande dame who ran a famous training camp in Summit, New Jersey. Gradually Schmeling's idleness, poverty, and his poor prospects soured him on Bülow, and Harry Sperber, a reporter for the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, a German-American paper, urged Schmeling to find himself an American manager, someone familiar with boxing in New York and wily and aggressive enough to get him a few fights. Schmeling initially hired Nat Fleischer, who advanced him $250 to tide him over until his thumb healed. But everything changed when Joe Jacobs came by Madame Bey's to see one of his fighters. Before long, Jacobs had elbowed Bülow and Fleischer aside — a maneuver that earned him the nickname "Yussel the Muscle," "Yussel" being the Yiddish diminutive for Joseph.* (In one story, someone asked Schmeling where he got the three crisp $1,000 bills he was brandishing. "Joe Jacobs gave 'em to me," he said. "He told me to buy myself some cigars.") Schmeling believed the Jews controlled New York, and now he had someone to help him negotiate around the place. For Schmeling, it was the beginning of a long and bitter feud with Bülow, with whom he technically remained under contract. It was also the start of what was surely one of the most incongruous and tumultuous partnerships in the history of sports.

Excerpted from "Beyond Glory," by David Margolick. Copyright © 2005 by David Margolick. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.