- The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs. Schmeling
It is, invariably, a controversial call to label any boxing battle as the greatest fight of our generation. In April of 2009 the relatively unknown Englishman, Carl Froch, fought American Jermain Taylor for the WBC super middleweight title. At the start of the final twelfth round Froch looked beaten and was behind on two of the three judges' scoring cards. That final round is a testament to boxing rediscovering former glories. Froch launched an extraordinary assault and battered Taylor into submission. The referee stopped the bout with fourteen seconds to go. Add this to Manny Pacquiao's lethal flattening of Mancunian Ricky Hatton (MGM Casino, Las Vegas, May 2, 2009) in round two, and one is forcefully reminded that the noble art of self defense is given its historic robustness because of athletic displays, fuelled by overwhelming ferocity, and naked aggression.
The exemplar of boxing's stunning fire power and ring savagery has always been associated with the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling world heavyweight championship fight (June 22, 1938). In front of a massive crowd of 75,000 in Yankee Stadium, Louis thumped and bashed and bruised and bullied the German. The fight lasted only two minutes and four seconds- it was the shortest heavyweight title fight in sports history.
Lewis A. Erenberg, a professor of history at Loyola University, Chicago describes this brutal beating in a little over one page. Literally, Louis used Schmeling as a punching bag. Yet to read Erenberg's account is not easy. There is a palpable sense of destruction and collapse that creates a word picture of not just defeat but something akin to execution in front of a massive audience: "Louis then moved into deliver the heavy blows. With Max caught on the ropes, the Brown Bomber unleashed a terrific right hand to the body. To avoid its full impact, Schmeling twisted out of the way, and the blow fell on the area just below the ribs. The pain was unbearable, and Max let out a scream that was heard across the ringside seats" (p. 143). [End Page 163]
But, of course, the second Louis-Schmeling was much, much more than a re-match and a grudge fight. As Erenberg notes, "American flags flew in abundance, but no swastikas were evident. The symbolism could not have been stronger. Whatever the deepest racial attitudes of those in the audience, the fight itself was playing out in the minds of Americans as a drama about nation more than about race" (p. 143) Erenberg also tells the story of Schmeling's unexpected twelfth round knockout of Louis, again at Yankee Stadium, on June 19, 1936. As a result Schmeling became a German folk hero and was held up as a poster boy by white supremacists. This created a ground swell for their second fight and transformed it into an allegorical clash of Nazism versus American democracy. In Erenberg's able hands this boxing saga is elevated and is held up as a significant account of transnational history, cultural studies, and the central positioning of manhood in the political, rather than the athletic, arena. The manner in which boxing served as a prism to explore racial divisions, international conflict and economic collapse, is masterfully told by Erenberg.
The Greatest Fight of Our Generation concludes with an over-reaching epilogue in which the author makes the case for the historical importance of the Louis- Schmeling fights: "In the United States, the radio broadcasts helped unite the nation around an ideal of fair play and open competition in which the best man won. That this democratic ideal included in theory the African American hero who won the day helped create a powerful national ideal that could be used to battle the racial inequalities that actually existed in the segregated nation" (p. 230).
Erenberg does not overplay his hand, but makes a compelling argument that Louis came into the ring to face Schmeling in 1937 as a man tormented...