Louis vs. Schmeling: “The Fight” – A Must See

10.25.04 - By Matthew Hurley: PBS’s excellent documentary, “The Fight”, about the 1938 heavyweight title bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling is a must see for boxing fans and for those not partial to the sport but who have a keen interest in American history. The bout encapsulated a pivotal moment in the culture of race in the United States and it’s significance reached across the globe into Europe where Nazi Germany was slowly expanding it’s dark cloud across the landscape.

The impact of Louis’ first round knockout over Schmeling was so heartfelt amongst Americans that it unified, if for just a short time, the racial divide in a country facing the inevitability of war against another country, or entity, dominated by racism which was slowly decimating its bordering countries and ultimately beginning the horrific goal of the genocide of Jews and achieving world domination. For today’s school children, who are inundated with violent images in movies, music and everyday life, the history lessons of World War II must seem almost mundane.

Children have been so desensitized by the mass media that history has become something easily ignored rather than studied and learned from. But images are often more powerful than words, no matter what writer, be it Norman Mailer or James Jones, scribbled or typed those words down on a page of paper. That is the power of the “The Fight”. The images of not only Max Schmeling standing alongside Hitler and being embraced by the German public after defeating Louis in their first bout, but also of the throngs of black people rejoicing in Harlem after Louis won the rematch are exhilarating.

These images provide a black and white window into what truly was going on just before the United States went to war. The irony of a black man being held aloft as a hero for defeating the enemy when he himself was looked upon as an enemy in his own country because of the color of his skin is so thick you could choke on it. And through it all, the quiet, sad dignity of Joe Louis shines through. But it’s a burning light that you know will be extinguished by the very people who lit the match. A Shakespearean arc ascends and descends over these two fighters.

Joe Louis’ life story is one of triumph and tragedy and has been written about extensively, but whether focusing on the hardships of his upbringing, his rise as a boxer, the Schmeling fight, or his sad decline, it remains such a compelling and truly American story that it demands retelling.

As Jimmy Cannon famously wrote, “a credit to his race: the human race.” And yet the government used him, bankrupted him and tossed him aside when he was no longer useful. Ironically, Germany did much the same with Schmeling. The two men are forever linked by history – how it conspired to bring them together, how it elevated them to mythic stature, how it broke them and then ultimately redeemed them. It’s more than a compelling sports story, it’s a story of humanity.

The documentary is filled with wonderful archival footage, including Golden Glove tournaments and interviews with friends and historians. It’s a fascinating program that hopefully is a harbinger of continued excellence in the upcoming documentary on Jack Johnson.

PBS will be rebroadcast “The Fight” throughout the month. Check your local listings.

Article posted on 24.10.2004

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