In boxing – and in American sport – few titles carry as much symbolic importance as heavyweight champion of the world. A symbol of virility and power, the title has become a source of pride for ethnic, religious and racial groups. In the 1920s and 1930s, American Jewish champions such as Benny Leonard and Barney Ross became heroes to their people. Perhaps the most important boxing champion American Jewry has embraced, however, was Joe Louis, a non-Jewish African-American, who in June of 1938 knocked out Max Schmeling, Nazi Germanys best heavyweight. American Jewry claimed Louiss victory as their own, a refutation of Hitlers argument that German Aryans constituted a "master race." Art Buchwald, who grew up in New York, recalled that as a child in 1938 he was sure of three things: "Franklin Roosevelt was going to save the economy . . . Joe DiMaggio was going to beat Babe Ruths record [and] Joe Louis was going to save us from the Germans."
Louis might not have fought for the heavyweight title if a New York Jewish promoter, Mike Jacobs, chose not to handle his fights. Born on the Lower East Side in the 1880s, by the mid 1930s "Uncle Mike" Jacobs had become the sports leading promoter. In 1942 alone he promoted 250 boxing cards, and in the course of his career staged 61 championship fights. He excelled at developing a fighters public identity.
Jacobs recognized Louiss boxing talent, but also knew that, as a black man, Louis would have a difficult – if not impossible – time getting a title shot. Jack Johnson, the flamboyant and self-confident previous black champion, won the heavyweight crown in 1908, but his relationships with white women created a backlash that led to Johnsons conviction on a morals charge. The next black champion, if there were to be one, would have to be low-keyed and circumspect, and he would have to be marketed as representing all Americans, not just African-Americans.
Mike Jacobs recognized that American boxing crowds, and particularly the numerous Jewish fans, ached to see both Schmeling and Primo Carnera, an Italian heavyweight and symbol of fascist might, defeated by an American fighter. In the early 1930s, Schmeling and Carnera had each briefly held the world title. The first fight Jacobs lined up for Joe Louis was in 1935, with Carnera, whom Louis knocked out in six rounds. The same year Louis knocked out Max Baer in the fourth round, setting up a showdown with Schmeling to determine who would be in line to fight the reigning champion, Jim Braddock.
While many in the Jewish public longed for Louis or anyone else to conquer Schmeling and embarrass Hitler, some Jewish groups opposed giving Schmeling a platform. Several of them applied pressure on Mike Jacobs to cancel the Louis-Schmeling fight. Jacobs replied that Louis would defeat Schmeling, giving the lie to Nazi propaganda. More than 45,000 fans filled Yankee Stadium expecting to see the "Brown Bomber" defeat Schmeling. They left disappointed. After a lopsided battering, Louis was knocked out in the twelfth round. Hitler cabled Schmeling to congratulate him on his "splendid patriotic achievement."
Schmeling had earned the right to fight for Braddocks crown, but Jacobs and Braddocks Jewish manager, Joe Gould, decided the American public would rather not run the risk of seeing Schmeling, as one sportswriter put it, "take the title back to Germany and present it to Adolf Hitler for the German Museum." Jacobs guaranteed Braddock a whopping $500,000 payday to fight Louis instead, and the match was made. Louis knocked out Braddock and became champion. As historian Peter Levine observes, the fight "launched [Louiss] reign as one of boxings greatest champions and secured his place as a hero of an oppressed American black population. It also set the scene for one more battle with Max Schmeling that enhanced Louiss status as a hero for all Americans." One might add: especially for Jews.
The second battle between the two men, in June 1938, was promoted as a battle between democracy and fascism. When Schmelings ship docked in New York harbor it was met by hundreds of anti-fascist pickets. The Non-Partisan Anti-Nazi League and the American Jewish Congress urged Jacobs to cancel the fight. Jacobs offered to donate 10 per cent of the gate to groups helping Jewish refugees. Louis proclaimed that he was "backing up America against Germany," and promised he would be "going to town" against Schmeling.
Louis delivered on his boast, knocking out Schmeling in the first round. Americans cheered, and African Americans and Jews celebrated the loudest. In their eyes, Louis had vindicated American democracy. In 1946, after the world had learned how brutally far the Nazis had carried their racial theories, a story in the American Hebrew praised Mike Jacobs for giving Joe Louis the opportunity to strike "a terrific blow to the theory of race supremacy." While Schmelings defeat did not save European Jewry from the Nazi killing machine, Louiss knockout helped American Jews believe that Germans could be defeated by a member of an American minority. The lesson was not lost on the hundreds of thousands of American Jews who fought against Germany in World War II.
Incidentally, Schmeling opposed the Nazis and ultimately developed a personal friendship with Louis. In fact, Schmeling paid for a part of the American boxer's funeral arrangements in 1981.