Hours before his second fight with Germany’s Max Schmeling, Joe Louis was asked how he felt. “I’m scared,” he said.
“Scared?” asked his trainer.
“Yes, I’m scared I might kill Schmeling tonight,” Louis declared.
Two years earlier, Schmeling had beaten Louis. This rematch was more than a fight between two boxers. Schmeling came from Germany and German dictator Adolph Hitler believed that Schmeling would easily win the fight because Louis represented “an inferior race and country.” As Louis later said, “Schmeling represented everything that Americans disliked, and they wanted him beat, and beat good.”
Born in Alabama, Louis moved to Detroit with his family in 1926. As a teenager, he took an interest in boxing. “I looked at the ring, the punching bag, pulleys, the exercise mat, and it was love at first sight,” he later admitted.
Louis entered the ring in 1934 at the age of 22. When he fought Schmeling for the first time, Louis had 27 straight victories, 23 by knockout. But it was Schmeling who knocked out Louis in the twelfth round. A year after losing to Schmeling, Louis won the world heavyweight championship. But Louis wasn’t satisfied. “I don’t want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling,” he declared.
The rematch was set for June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Louis trained hard for the fight and was confident. A sportswriter predicted that Louis would win in six rounds. Louis said he would win in one round.
He was right.
At opening bell, Louis attacked. He pounded the German, dropping Schmeling to the canvas three times before the referee stopped the fight. It took only two minutes and four seconds.
A few years later when the United States and Germany went to war, both Louis and Schmeling joined their country’s army. They never saw each other on the battlefield, and after the war, they became good friends.
Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis defended his heavyweight crown for twelve years. But none of his fights was as important as the one when, as an observer noted, “Joe Louis knocked out Adolph Hitler.”
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Photo Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit