Not many people know of the great friendship between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, at their time the world’s greatest boxers.
June 19, 1936. In famed Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The American Joe Louis versus the German Max Schmeling. Their first of two fights. Louis undefeated 24-0 and never knocked down, hits the canvas in the twelfth round. The fight is over.
Round 12 starts at 27:27. At 29:27 Louis is defenseless. He goes down. The referee ends the fight. Schmeling rushes over to help Joe Louis. Schmeling stays with Louis all the way over to his corner of the ring. Schmeling’s people have to literally pull him away from Joe Louis.
Among the attendees of the fight was Langston Hughes, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance and a noted literary figure. Hughes described the national reaction to Louis’ defeat in these terms:
“I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting in the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried.”
Poet and author Maya Angelou, recounted her recollection. A young Angelou had listened to the fight over the radio in her uncle’s country store in rural Arkansas. While Louis was on the ropes,
“My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another black man hanging on a tree …. this might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.”
June 22, 1938 – one year from the day Louis had won the world heavyweight title – the fighters meet once again in a sold-out Yankee Stadium in New York City.
Louis defeats Schmeling in the very first round. Knowing what a true and loyal friend Schmeling was to become to Joe Louis at the end of Louis’ life, it breaks your heart to see how helpless Max Schmeling was in the final seconds of this first round.
After retiring from the ring, Schmeling purchased a Coca- Cola bottling and distribution franchise in Hamburg in 1948, the first in Germany after World War II.
Schmeling reached out and developed a friendship with Louis after their boxing careers ended and provided financial assistance to his former foe in the 1950s. He also paid for part of the funeral arrangements when Louis died in 1981. Max Schmeling was one of the pallbearers.
“It wasn’t until after World War II that I saw him again,” Louis said in his autobiography. “We hugged each other and we’re real friendly and kept in touch by phone.”
The battles between Louis, a black man, and Schmeling came to symbolize for some the coming struggle between Hitler’s Third Reich and the Allies in World War II. Although Hitler had praised Schmeling after the first fight, Schmeling was not an admirer of the German leader and refused to join the Nazi party.
Schmeling, who served as a German paratrooper in World War II, later received an award from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation for risking his life to hide two Jewish brothers during the Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, when Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were attacked and destroyed by Nazis.
The boys, Henri and Werner Lewin, made their way to the U.S., where Henri became a hotel owner. Schmeling kept his act of courage secret. Henri Lewin revealed it at a dinner honoring the former champion in 1989:
“He risked his life for us. Our lives weren’t worth a penny,” Lewin said in a 2002 interview with the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. “I said, ‘If this is a Nazi, he’s a good Nazi. But I want you to know one thing: I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for this Nazi.'”
Max Schmeling never joined the Nazi Party.
August 9, 1973. Legendary boxers and great friends, Max Schmeling and Joe Louis meet in New York, as Schmeling arrives for visit.
This History Channel documentary is well worth watching.