The Fight of the Century: Louis vs. Schmeling The 1938 boxing rematch between American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling is believed to have had the largest audience in history for a single radio broadcast. In 2005, the Library of Congress selected it for the National Recording Registry.
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The Fight of the Century: Louis vs. Schmeling

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The Fight of the Century: Louis vs. Schmeling

The Fight of the Century: Louis vs. Schmeling

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The sound of American history is being preserved by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Fifty recordings are placed in its care each year. For the past five weeks, we have brought you the stories behind some of those recordings. Today, our final installment.

(Soundbite of National Recording Registry intro)

ELLIOTT: The 1938 heavyweight championship fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling lasted just two minutes and four seconds. But it was an historic milestone, one that an estimated 70 million people listened to on their radios.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man (Radio Announcer): And now, ladies and gentleman, as referee Arthur Donovan calls both principals of the bout to the center of the ring for final instructions and we give you now Clem McCarthy.

Mr. CLEM MCCARTHY (Radio announcer): And boxing fans, Arthur Donovan has the two principals in the ring. I want you to listen to their instructions.

ELLIOTT: NBC radio announcer Clem McCarthy delivered the blow-by-blow account of the fight. To tell today's story from the National Recording Registry we introduce the historian.

Mr. LEWIS ERENBERG (Author): My name is Lewis Erenberg. I'm the author of "The Greatest Fight of our Generation: Lewis vs. Schmeling."

ELLIOTT: The sportswriter.

Mr. PATRICK MYLER (Sportswriter): My name is Patrick Myler. I'm a writer specializing in boxing.

ELLIOTT: And the descendant.

Mr. JOE LOUIS BARROW JR. (Son of Joe Lewis): My name is Joe Louis Barrow Jr. and I'm the son of Joe Louis. People didn't realize that his last name was Barrow. But when he was - started his boxing career very early, he was registering for an amateur bout, and it was a very small registration line and he was trying to write Joe Louis Barrow, he couldn't get the Barrow on the line, on the entire line, so that the person he was registering with said, just use Joe Louis. It's just a name. It really won't matter.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. ARTHUR DONOVAN (Referee): Now, let's go and may the best man win. Go ahead.

Mr. MCCARTHY: The old slogan of boxing, may the best man win. And she's about to start with this Yankee Stadium packed to the doors. There isn't an empty seat. Joe Louis in his corner prancing and rubbing his feet in the rosin. Max Schmeling standing calmly getting the last word from Doc Casey. And they're ready with the bell just about to ring.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. MCCARTHY: And there we are. And the go out to the ring right together with Arthur Donovan...

Mr. ERENBERG: The broadcast is important for a variety of reasons: one because of the excitement of a sporting event; two, it's an international global event that was broadcast worldwide. It had tremendous political implications in the battle of democracy against fascism. And it had tremendous implications about race and racial ideology both in the United States and at home. I think this was a peak moment in radio history.

Mr. MCCARTHY: Louis with the old one two. The first, the left and then the right. He's landed more blows in this one round than he landed in like five rounds of the other fight.

Mr. BARROW: My father fought Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938. In 1936, they both were contenders. They were both seeking to be the next heavyweight champion of the world. Max Schmeling was the previous heavyweight champion.

Mr. MYLER: Joe Louis was unbeaten in 1936 and he was heading full tilt for the world heavyweight title. It looked like nobody would stop him, but it so happened that Schmeling had studied films of Joe Louis's fights and found a flaw that nobody else seemed to have noticed.

Mr. BARROW: That was important because my father didn't think he could have lost that fight. Max Schmeling was eight years his senior. He was the former heavyweight champion and not the reigning heavyweight champion. Joe Louis was the Brown Bomber from Detroit, Michigan. No one could beat him. He was defeating everyone.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Now let us talk about the brown bomber. Let us tell the nation his story. Let us talk about the brown bomber. Well Joe Louis was a fighting man.

Mr. ERENBERG: Afterwards, Schmeling was feted in Germany by - especially by the Nazis, you know, who trumped him as the perfect specimen of the Aryan superiority, and that he beat the black American, of course. He was the Nazi hero.

Mr. BARROW: In speaking with my mother about that fight, she said that my father felt devastated, that there was no question that he felt that he let everyone who had supported him down, and perhaps an entire generation of African-Americans down.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) He fought from the bottom to the Golden Gloves and on to the heavyweight. Now let us talk about the brown bomber.

Mr. BARROW: My father was able to fight Jimmy Braddock in 1937 in Chicago's Comiskey Park and that's where he knocked him out in the seventh round and became the next heavyweight champion of the world.

Mr. MYLER: But Louis, to his credit, said, I won't consider myself a proper world champion until I beat Schmeling. So this set up the famous fight of June the 22nd, 1938.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. MCCARTHY: Now Max is backing away against the ropes. Louis is following him and watching for that chance. He is crowding Schmeling. Schmeling is not stepping around very much but his face is already marked. And they've stepped into a fast clinch.

Mr. ERENBERG: Well, right before the rematch - I would say let's go back just to March. In March, the Germans marched into Austria in what is known as the Anschluss; that is, they annexed Austria, which was part of Hitler's grand plan. So here is Hitler, who had for a number of years denied that he had aggressive plans, even though he was building up the military, marching into Austria. At the same time, a number of spies in, I think it was early June, just before the fight - German-American spies were indicted for subversion against the United States. So that was going on. And the whole atmosphere around the fight is filled with political implications.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. MCCARTHY: And Louis then cracked him with two statements to the face and brought up with that hard right to the head.

Mr. ERENBERG: There were radio hookups, of course, to Germany. There were radio hookups to South Africa, to Italy, to France, to Britain, to Canada, to other countries as well.

Mr. MYLER: An estimated 60 million Americans, so it's half the population, tuned into this fight. It was the largest radio audience in the history of sport, which made it probably the largest radio audience in history.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. MCCARTHY: Louis out - and Louis missed with a left swing but in close brought up a hard right uppercut...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. MCCARTHY: ...to the jaw.

Mr. ERENBERG: To Max Schmeling and Joe Louis it was just a heavyweight bout, but to the world it was really a symbolic meeting of two different philosophies. You had freedom and democracy representing the United States and you had the Aryan fascist Germany represented by Max Schmeling. The irony is that Joe Louis fought for freedom and democracy in 1938, but he couldn't practice those freedoms and democracies. He couldn't live where he wanted to live. He couldn't eat where he wanted to eat. He couldn't be educated the way he needed to be educated because of a segregated United States.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. MCCARTHY: ...the corner in helplessness as Schmeling is down. Schmeling is down. The count is four. It's - and he's up. And Louis right and left to the head. A left to the jaw. A right to the head. Arthur Donovan is watching carefully. Louis measures him. Right to the body. A left hook to the jaw. And Schmeling is down. The count is five. Five, six, seven, eight - the men are in the ring. The fight is over. On a technical knockout. Max Schmeling is beaten in one round. The first time that a world heavyweight championship ever seen ends in one round, in less than a round.

Mr. ERENBERG: In those days you didn't have competing sports. When the heavyweight championship was fought, millions upon millions upon millions of people listened simultaneously by their radios all across the world. I mean through the radios people saw, they envisioned two gladiators in the ring representing two different forms of political societies. And I think that they took their imagination and they - Clem McCarthy's call was so intense that their imagination took them wherever they wanted to go. And that was such the beauty of radio. It was a significant call and the intensity of the fight and the intensity of the people gathered in one arena was just enormous.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. MCCARTHY: The ring is packed, jammed here now with everybody trying to get at once - photographers - everybody shouting from the side. I have never seen such excitement from the side of any ring since I've been going to boxing matches. Never in my life.

ELLIOTT: The 1938 broadcast of the Louis/Schmeling heavyweight title fight. Our series from the National Recording Registry was produced by Ben Manilla and Media Mechanics. To hear how Joe Louis's wartime generosity brought him trouble from the IRS, visit npr.org. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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