Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, by David Margolick

Beyond Glory

Beyond Glory tells the tale of possibly the most famous, most significant prizefight of all time, in all its historical context.

Let me give my overall evaluation of the book right off the bat, and then I’ll get into some of the specifics that happened to catch my eye.

Beyond Glory is very good for what it is, but it’s also limited in ways that probably aren’t the author’s fault. David Margolick does a very impressive job of sifting through the massive amount of material—primarily contemporary material from newspapers and radio transcripts and such—that is relevant to the story of Louis and Schmeling, yet at the end of it all I’m left with the feeling that I only have slightly more insight into these two individuals than I did before I read the book.

The problem is, as Margolick recognizes, much of this source material is superficial or of dubious reliability. The media that he so often quotes from routinely operated from motives other than some sort of commitment to telling the unvarnished truth in a deep and sophisticated way, such as the motive of sensationalizing stories to sell more newspapers, or the motive of propagandizing so as to further some political end.

Plus the fighters and others knew they were talking to the press in these stories, so you have to take a lot of what they say with a grain of salt as spin or just superficial clichés.

It’s not like the author was around back then to sit the principles down and do in depth interviews with them and really dig into what makes them tick.

That’s not to say that Beyond Glory isn’t an informative book. It’s quite informative about the political and historical context and such; I just don’t feel that psychologically it takes us deep inside Louis and Schmeling as men. Below I’ll give what assessment I can of them as individuals, based on the limited evidence from the book, but it can only be quite minimal and tentative. But you do what you can do with what you’ve got.

Howard Cosell wrote in his first autobiography that as a sports journalist what he really valued were not the great sports stories, but the sports stories that transcended sports to have great social and political impact.

So things like the laughing stock, perennial cellar-dwelling Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series; the Miami Dolphins going undefeated an entire season and winning the Super Bowl; Wilt Chamberlain scoring a hundred points in a single basketball game, etc. are all great, memorable achievements, great sports stories. But they’re still just sports stories.

What Cosell had in mind in terms of the rare sports figures and sports stories that transcend sports were things like Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color line in baseball, Muhammad Ali’s losing three and a half years from the prime of his career due to his defiance of the Vietnam War-era draft, Curt Flood’s challenging baseball’s reserve clause in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, etc.

There is probably nothing in sports that would be a better example of a story that, as Cosell would say, belongs in history books and not just sports history books than the story of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, especially their second fight in 1938.

To summarize the basics: When Gene Tunney retired as heavyweight champion in 1928, this left the title vacant. Although boxing itself was a very popular sport at the time—maybe as popular as any time in its history—this commenced something of a down period in the heavyweight division specifically. A number of different men held the title fairly briefly over the next several years, none of whom made a huge impression on the public or was destined to be regarded as one of the all-time great heavyweights.

First, the German Max Schmeling and the American Jack Sharkey were matched up to determine who would be awarded the title. Schmeling won, though the win was tainted because he didn’t so much win the fight as Sharkey forfeited the fight by hitting Schmeling below the belt egregiously enough for the referee to disqualify him. When they fought a rematch, Sharkey prevailed by a close, 15 round decision and became champion.

Sharkey was soon defeated by Primo Carnera, who was soon defeated by Max Baer, who was soon defeated by James Braddock. In a five year period, there were five heavyweight champions, none of whom had more than two successful title defenses.

Schmeling remained active and remained a highly ranked contender, though he did not get another shot at the title during this period.

Meanwhile, a new young contender emerged—Joe Louis. Notably, Louis was black, in a division that had only ever had one black champion—the highly controversial Jack Johnson. More notably, he appeared to be very, very good. Many saw him as nearly the ideal boxer, someone who could dominate the division for years to come.

Louis picked off one contender after another, including multiple of these ex-champions, as he moved up the rankings. Generally he knocked them out in one-sided fights, as he had devastating power in either hand.

When the undefeated Louis was matched with Schmeling in 1936, he was a solid favorite. Schmeling was still somewhat highly regarded, but by now he was aging, and more importantly Louis was seen as the kind of juggernaut against whom no one would be able to survive.

But Schmeling pulled off the upset, and he did so not by some fluke or by squeaking out a close decision, but by giving Louis a bad beating. Then again, he himself absorbed considerable punishment as well; there were calls from the crowd to stop the fight when he was belted around pretty good by Louis in the early rounds.

It was a dirty fight. As Louis fell farther and farther behind and took more and more of a beating, he hit Schmeling below the belt frequently, probably at least partly intentionally out of panic or desperation. Schmeling blatantly hit Louis after the bell at the close of one of the rounds.

The most important factor in Schmeling’s unlikely victory was his exploitation of a defensive weakness of the still somewhat inexperienced Louis. After Louis jabbed with his left, he would bring it back a little too slowly or a little too low, and Schmeling countered over it with a right. Louis often was unable to get his glove up in time to block the right. Time and again Schmeling nailed him with that move, eventually knocking him out in the 12th round.

(By the way, that move wasn’t something Schmeling sprang on Louis as a surprise. He had talked openly in interviews before the fight of Louis’s tendency not to get his left glove back in position to block a counter right after throwing a jab, and his intention of exploiting that.)

Yet following the fight, it was Louis who was signed to fight champion Braddock for the heavyweight title.

Unfair? Yes. Well, mostly. If you look at their recent careers other than their fight against each other, Schmeling suffered an occasional loss while Louis won all his fights, Louis’s wins were generally more impressive and one-sided, and Louis fought on average higher caliber opponents. So if you give their head-to-head fight greater weight than their other fights but not some sort of absolute weight, then it’s not ridiculous to say that Louis overall had done more to earn a title shot than Schmeling.

But I’d still say all things considered it was unjust, just not as blatantly so as if you considered only their fight against each other. But it happened, because life isn’t always fair, and because big time boxing is even less often fair.

It happened for two main, related, reasons. One, there was considerably more money to be made off a Braddock-Louis fight than a Braddock-Schmeling fight. Despite his having just lost, Louis was the more marketable fighter. He was the one people wanted to see, the one people were convinced had at least the potential for greatness.

Two, almost all of the boxing people with any influence over these matters—the big time promoters, managers, publicists, members of state athletic commissions, sportswriters, what have you—were American, and a disproportionate number of them were Jewish. (Actually a disproportionate number of fighters themselves back then were Jewish, though that was not true near the top of the heavyweight division.) If it was even remotely a close call they could be expected to give a break to an American—even a black American—over a German during the Nazi era.

But now we’re getting to what, in Cosell’s phrase, took the Louis-Schmeling story from just the sports history books and put it also in the history books.

You have to keep in mind the historical context. All these events played out in the increasingly tense ’30s, with a bombastic Hitler having solidified his power in Germany and already taking alarming actions against the Jews there, and many convinced that a war to rival in intensity and bloodshed the Great War 20 years earlier could start at any moment.

Though Schmeling was denied his title shot against Braddock, he didn’t have to wait long for another opportunity to fight for the championship. For Louis dispatched Braddock as anticipated (though Braddock put up a somewhat better fight than expected) and became champion, and the fight that made by far the most sense, the fight that much of the world was now clamoring for, was a Louis-Schmeling rematch, this time for the title.

So basically Schmeling would have to beat Louis twice to finally regain the championship after all these years. (I’ll refrain from giving details about their second fight, so as not to spoil it if there is anyone considering reading this book who knows little or nothing about that fight.)

It’s amazing to read just how significant some of the fights of that era were, especially the second Louis-Schmeling bout. The only fight to come close in more recent decades would be the first Ali-Frazier fight, with all its ramifications regarding race, the Vietnam War, the Black Muslims, etc.

Louis was a hero to black people to a degree that I don’t think even Muhammad Ali ever reached (sacrilegious as it might be to say that).

Jack Johnson had been very important to the black community as well, but in a different way. To those who were inspired by him, he was more of a guilty pleasure. They may have loved his defiance of the (white) Establishment, but for the most part they had to be very, very careful if and how they expressed that.

For better or worse, Johnson was a troublemaker, and by angering white people he indirectly made trouble not just for himself but for black people in general. As a result, some black people regarded him as the opposite of a hero.

Certainly Johnson as champion had more fans than opposition in the black community, but he never had anything like the virtual unanimity of support that Louis achieved.

Louis was the anti-Johnson, and intentionally so. Louis’s people carefully crafted for him a persona as a man of few words, unfailingly humble and polite, uninterested in partying and white women, respectful to the point of deferential toward white people and toward authority, and conventionally religious—as unthreatening outside the ring as he was threatening in it. Decades later this behavior would be denounced as Uncle Tomism, and frankly to a significant degree it was, but at that time there weren’t all that many black people calling upon him to be more controversial and defiant.

Johnson himself was still around. The portrait painted of him in Beyond Glory is very consistent with how his behavior during this period is described in Unforgivable Blackness, the biography of Johnson I read recently. That is, he was basically a clown, doing and saying whatever he hoped would generate some publicity that he could somehow exploit for a few dollars, since he was always broke. Most often this took the form of being the contrarian about Louis, the one to belittle his skills, pick against him in every fight, etc.

While Louis was pretty much universally loved by black Americans, the sentiments of white Americans were more complex, varied, and prone to change. Actually the demographics of support for these fighters was fascinatingly complex in general, but let’s start with white Americans.

Sometimes Americans rallied around Louis in a way that for that time seems surprisingly colorblind. In the Schmeling rematch, for instance, numerous former heavyweight champions (all white) came to Louis’s training camp to give him whatever pointers they could to assist him in keeping the coveted title in America and away from the Nazis. It was the mirror image of Johnson’s time, when the former champions of that era took up the cause of Johnson’s “white hope” challengers.

Louis was the “good colored boy” (certainly compared to Johnson), and evidently even most white Southerners rooted for him against Schmeling, though you’d think their racism would put them on the same side as the Nazis. After the war started and the United States and Germany were on opposite sides, sure, but this was before the war, when Hitler’s rhetoric—and actions—were quite consistent with Jim Crow ideology.

Then again, there is evidence that there was a fair amount of satisfaction in the white community, especially in the South, when Louis lost the first fight to Schmeling. So white support for Louis was surely inconsistent and fickle compared to black support for Louis.

Not surprisingly, Jews were nearly unanimously against Schmeling, due to his being German and the Nazis having built him up into an Aryan hero. (Margolick shares an interesting anecdote, though, about what he calls “Germany’s last crop of rabbinical students,” furtively listening to the second Louis-Schmeling fight on the radio, in defiance of both the German authorities and their rabbi, with the students split between those who were rooting for Louis and those that were rooting for Schmeling, depending on whether they considered themselves Jews first or Germans first.) But whereas some Jews were enthusiastic supporters of Louis, others refused to indicate any preference because they didn’t want the fight to take place at all. There were vociferous protests and boycotts from the Jewish community, designed to prevent Schmeling from getting a title shot against Louis just as he had been prevented from getting a title shot against Braddock.

Meanwhile, the Nazis themselves were inconsistent in their messaging regarding boxing in general and Louis and Schmeling in particular.

Sports and fitness were hugely important to Nazi ideology, a key way for them to seek to establish Aryan superiority. In fact, outsiders sometimes sought to use this as leverage to influence the Nazi regime. The Nazis were prevailed upon to loosen up in their domestic racial policies so as not to potentially lose their opportunity to host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. (The softening was not only temporary for that pragmatic purpose, but was 95% rhetoric and 5% substance.) The promoters and those pushing for the second Louis-Schmeling fight to proceed used arguments that would be echoed decades later as defenses of “constructive engagement” with South Africa, to wit that it was better to give Germany incentives to behave better in order that they and their athletes could remain members in good standing of the international sporting community than to boycott them to where they had nothing to lose.

But it was amateur sports specifically that the Nazis glorified. They were highly suspicious of professional sports, certainly including prizefighting. It was beneath the dignity of the true Aryan. Professional sports celebrated the individual; amateur sports put the nation above the individual.

On the other hand, when there was money to be made, and they could get a cut, the Nazis were perfectly willing to bend their ideology. So Schmeling’s non-amateur status was tolerated.

But it was more than that. The Nazis were even willing to hold their noses and work with Jews when it was in their self-interest to do so. Schmeling’s manager for most of his career—the colorful Joe Jacobs—was Jewish (and you know took a lot of grief from his fellow Jews for working with the enemy), and while the Nazis grumbled about it here and there and at times made moves to break Schmeling and Jacobs up, in the end they always backed off because they believed Jacobs (being so naturally shrewd about money matters and all that) would make more money for Schmeling and them than anyone who might replace him. For that matter, the promoters for many of Schmeling’s biggest fights were Jewish, but again the Nazis grimly refrained from interfering.

There were further complexities or inconsistencies in Nazi propaganda about Schmeling, or other Germans, fighting members of the lesser races (e.g., Jews or blacks). On the one hand, the presence of these inferiors really shouldn’t be allowed to desecrate a gentlemanly endeavor such as sports; on the other hand, an opportunity to see a superior Aryan beat one of them up is not to be missed.

So they went back and forth on it. For example, in 1933 when ex-champion Schmeling fought future champion Max Baer (who was thought to be Jewish by many, but was not), the Nazi propaganda periodical Der Stürmer denounced Schmeling for accepting the bout, calling it a “racial and cultural disgrace.” (What was even more disgraceful is that he lost.)

I’ll mention a few other points I picked up from the book.

Speaking of Baer, he was a decidedly odd fellow. Obviously Beyond Glory is primarily about Louis and Schmeling, but it contains a certain amount of information about those other fighters who were briefly champion during that era.

All of those champions from Schmeling to Braddock are generally considered among the weaker of the heavyweight champions in history, but if there is one who is regarded to have had the potential to rise above that level and be an elite champion I think most observers would agree it was Baer.

Baer had impressive skills, and knockout power in either hand. The problem is, he was a head case. He wasn’t as serious in his training as he should have been, and he often got lazy or clowned around during fights.

Then when an opponent died from injuries sustained after a fight with him, he became even more messed up and unable or unwilling to put forth his best effort in the ring.

He was a heavy favorite the night he lost his title to Braddock, but by this time he couldn’t be relied on to beat even the fighters he should have beaten.

He was petrified of Louis. When they fought after he lost his title to Braddock, he lasted less than four rounds.

As I say, Baer was not Jewish, but he often was assumed to be. He generally passively accepted this misperception if he thought it would help in the promotion of a fight (ethnic rivalries always being a big draw in boxing), and then later in his career he more actively encouraged it by wearing a Star of David on his trunks.

Schmeling was something of a whiner, always coming up with an excuse when he lost. Many boxing people looked askance on the very fact that he won the title against Sharkey while lying on the canvas clutching his groin. And that was hardly the only time he was quick to insist he had been fouled during a fight. Granted, he was no Phaintin’ Phil Scott, but “working the ref” was a key weapon in his arsenal.

When he lost, he typically announced afterward that he had been very sick but had kept it secret so as to not jeopardize the bout, but that really he had been seriously handicapped in the ring.

In the aftermath of the second Louis fight, he—and his Nazi supporters back home—initially insisted he had been the victim of an illegal kidney punch from Louis. (At least he pretty quickly dropped that one, as it was going precisely nowhere. Film of the fight shows no evidence for his claim.)

The second Louis-Schmeling fight was broadcast on the radio all over the world. Margolick states that its estimated radio audience was the largest in history. He provides a long list of all the famous people who listened to the fight, where and under what circumstances. By the end you start to wonder if anyone the slightest bit significant or famous from that era wasn’t listening. (Well, I’m confident Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t, so there’s at least one.) Again we’re reminded just how almost unbelievably big this sporting event was, and how intensely millions of people around the globe cared about its outcome.

The book contains many examples of just how racially-tinged the press coverage of Louis and of boxing was back then. It’s the kind of thing that would make the politically correct folks of today’s heads explode.

It’s also interesting how fundamentally dishonest virtually all the media outlets were. I mentioned above that their accounts of the fighters and the fights were often of dubious reliability. Well, this was because it was very much the norm for them to lie and spin in service to their ideology or profits. I’d say in that regard they were almost all on about the level of Fox News, and considerably more dishonest than the bland corporate media of today other than Fox.

But whether it was the mainstream media of that era, black newspapers, official Nazi pronouncements, the communist Daily Worker (not a fringe newspaper back then, but one with a very large readership), or whatever, just about every public source of information shaped its coverage of boxing—and I’m sure everything—to further whatever their agenda was, with little or no concern about truth or objectivity.

Finally, what of Louis and Schmeling themselves? How do they come across in Beyond Glory? As I said initially, I don’t think we ever get a very clear picture of them. But I’ll share what superficial impressions I developed of them.

Let’s start with Louis. Louis strikes me as simple-minded. My guess is he was below average in intelligence, and further that what intellectual potential he had was never developed because he was molded into being the greatest boxer he could be from a young age, with everything else in his life being neglected.

He was never encouraged to think for himself or speak for himself. He tended to say very little, and what he did say was generally scripted by his handlers to fit the persona that had been chosen for him.

Then like so many boxers, he probably was adversely affected neurologically by all the punishment he took in the ring over the course of an unusually long career. After he retired, he really went downhill. He suffered from mental illness, abused drugs, was financially ruined, and was reduced to humiliating ways of making money like refereeing fake wrestling matches.

I think he was always far more impressive as a boxer and as a symbol than as a person. Not that he was a bad guy; I just don’t see a lot of substance there.

Sizing up Schmeling was controversial during his career and has been controversial ever since. There were more than a few people—especially back then—who regarded Schmeling as an out-and-out Nazi and wanted no part of him. There have also always been people who insist that all that was hype to promote his fights by having him play the villain role, and that in truth he did only the minimum necessary to keep on the good side of the Nazis while living under their totalitarian rule.

You can easily cherry pick evidence to support either extreme evaluation. If you’re anti-Schmeling, you can cite all the buddying up he did to the Nazis, including to Hitler himself, the way he gladly accepted all the rewards of being a celebrity in Nazi Germany, the many statements he made in support of the regime, and the fact that he never attempted to escape from the Nazis, never sought asylum elsewhere.

If you’re pro-Schmeling, you can cite the fact that Schmeling is now known to have secretly protected two Jews during Kristallnacht, and is suspected of having similarly helped a few other vulnerable people over the years.

The simple response is to say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but in this case I think the simple response is the accurate response.

Yes, he helped some Jews in ways that he didn’t have to, and that likely put him at some risk. But he’s hardly another Oskar Schindler.

Like most people would have done in his shoes, he did what he needed to do to survive, and truth be told he compromised somewhat more than that so that he could not only survive but thrive.

I doubt he was all that committed a Nazi. I see him as mostly an apolitical, amoral, moderately skillful maneuverer.

I don’t know how harshly you should judge him for the degree to which he supported the Nazis. I mean, there may come a day when people look back at the United States and are appalled that more of its citizens didn’t do everything in their power to oppose its almost perpetual warfare (think of how many years of its history it has been fighting at least one war somewhere in the world); the condition of its prisons, which would count as torture by any reasonable definition; its almost Third World level of income inequality, the purchasing of enormous political influence by the moneyed classes, its suppression of labor unions, and all its other ways of facilitating capitalist exploitation of the masses; and so on. But the norm, the default, is that people go along with what their country does without much question or critical thought. That’s kind of the conventional amount of patriotism that most people have; they don’t go out of their way to oppose their own country.

Schmeling was a patriotic German to about that standard degree. That doesn’t make him evil, unless we want to say that the vast majority of the human race is evil, but it doesn’t make him a hero either.

Schmeling certainly seems to have had a much better post-boxing life than did Louis. For one thing, he lived to the extraordinary age of 99. That’s damn unusual for anyone, but virtually unheard of for athletes who spent long careers competing in brutal sports like boxing and NFL football that are so abusive to one’s body.

After he retired, Schmeling always spoke well of Louis and referred to him as if he were a dear friend. He traveled to America often, and made it a point to seek out and visit Louis, attend public events with him, etc. Reportedly, he quietly helped him out financially here and there.

I suspect all this buddy-buddy stuff was partly sincere and partly public relations. Schmeling probably did like and respect Louis to a significant degree, but he also knew that it would look good to be the good sport, and that his best chance of remaining in the public eye was to remind people as often as possible of the glory he had shared way back when with Louis. And how better to do that than to appear in public with him, do joint interviews, etc.?

I sense that Louis kind of went through the motions to reciprocate Schmeling’s displays of friendship and affection, but never totally went along. Toward the end as he deteriorated he may not have even remembered who Schmeling was, but I mean before that. I think he had had to generate in himself a hatred of Schmeling in order to be at his best in their rematch, and I don’t know that he could ever fully let that go, treat it as hype for the fight or a way of psyching himself up and then discarding it when it was no longer needed.

In conclusion, Beyond Glory is the definitive account of the Louis-Schmeling fights in their historical context. It doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know about Louis and Schmeling, but I suspect it tells us just about everything important that’s knowable about them.

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