Literary Review - December 2005 / January 2006

Page 63


C RISPIN J ACKSON Striking Blows For Freedom


★By Lewis A Erenberg (Oxford University Press 320pp £16.99)


★By David Margolick (Bloomsbury 432pp £18.99)

T HEDEFEATOF heavyweight boxer Joe Louis by Max Schmeling in 1936 was one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. It was also an unfortunate one. Louis was young, black, apparently clean-living and possessed of a God-given ability to knock out opponents with either hand. He was widely expected to win the world title and so end the racial segregation that still blighted the sport. Though affable and generally liked in the US, the much older Schmeling had one irredeemable fault: he was German, and his twelfth-round knockout of Louis was inevitably seized upon by the Nazis as proof of their racist theories. ‘The last round is quite wonderful,’ Goebbels noted in his diary after watching the film of the fight. ‘He really knocks out the nigger.’ Their second meeting in the ring in June 1938 – by which time Louis had taken the title from the game but pedestrian James J Braddock – was a contest of colossal symbolic importance as it forced white America to choose between a white boxer who, however inadvertently, represented a racist regime, and a black fighter who stood for tolerance and Uncle Sam. It is for this reason rather than the fight’s merits – it took Louis little more than two minutes to batter Schmeling into submission in what was one of the most one-sided championship fights in history – that the men’s rivalry is now commemorated in these two momentously titled studies. Erenberg’s is much the better book, analysing (there are over 400 numbered notes) where Margolick’s merely itemises. There is minimal contradiction between the two works, although Erenberg implies that Louis’s demise in the first fight began with his knockdown in the fourth round, whereas Margolick quotes Louis’s own testimony that he was effectively out of the fight after Schmeling caught him with a big right in the second.

However, Erenberg does provide the clue as to how Louis so comprehensively outfought the German in the rematch. Watching Louis defeat the tough Basque boxer Paolino Uzcudun in 1935, Schmeling noted a flaw in his technique: a tendency to drop his left hand after a jab. This made Louis particularly susceptible to his own speciality punch: the right cross. In turn, Louis’s canny trainer Jack Blackburn made a crucial observation of his own: that Schmeling needed time to line up his right. Consequently he told Louis to go for all-out attack from the opening bell of the second fight so that Schmeling would be unable to launch an effective counter. This Louis did, with devastating effect. Erenberg offers a much more detailed account of the subsequent careers of the two fighters, which contrasted as sharply as their boxing styles. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Louis volunteered for the infantry as a private soldier. Although he never saw action, he fought tirelessly against segregation in the US armed forces. Schmeling was dragooned into the Parachute Corps and endured the horror of the bloody Battle of Crete. Thereafter his main activity seems to have been making goodwill visits to British and American POWs. Erenberg’s book includes a photograph of him peering nervously out of the side door of a Junkers 88; he looks more frightened than he ever did facing Louis. Louis died in 1981, his body wasted by drug and alcohol addiction; Schmeling died only this year, a few months short of his hundredth birthday, having eschewed fast living for regular sessions on his exercise bike. Both authors agonise over the extent of Schmeling’s complicity with the Nazis. It is perhaps reprehensible that he did not, like Dietrich, turn his back on Germany when the true complexion of Hitler’s regime became apparent, but it is absurd to suggest that he fought for the glorification of National Socialism. As one journalist so neatly put it, Schmeling had ‘a lyrical enthusiasm for the American dollar’. He fought for gold and personal glory: nothing else. Both authors have chosen to rely entirely on secondary sources, despite the fact that there must still be plenty of people alive who remember the two bouts and the men who fought them. Some years ago I met an elderly, silver-haired Polish aristocrat who recalled how his German governess had gloated over Schmeling’s victory but was resolutely silent the morning after the second bout. Eventually her young charge plucked up the courage to ask her who had won the fight. ‘Louis,’ she snorted, ‘but it does not count: Schmeling is a man, and Louis is just an animal.’ I prefer Jesse Jackson’s judgement, delivered at Louis’s memorial service, and quoted by Erenberg: ‘He was our Samson, our David who slew Goliath … a giant who saved us in time of trouble.’ To order these books, see order form on page 78


LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006