In a turn to do A.J. Liebling proud, longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Margolick (Strange Fruit, with Hilton Als, 2001, etc.) recounts a charged moment in boxing history.
Max Schmeling, a ponderous but powerful fighter, was a pragmatist, a friend of intellectuals and artists philosophically opposed to the Third Reich, a friend as well to the Jews he encountered in the boxing world, including his manager, Joe Jacobs, who became a symbol for the Nazis of all that was wrong with professional sport. Yet, as Margolick chronicles, the Nazis easily and thoroughly co-opted Schmeling. Against Schmeling, in 1938, stood Joe Louis, himself a politicized figure, a champion of the early civil-rights movement by virtue of proving that blacks and whites could box in the same ring; as fellow fighter Henry Armstrong remarked, “You can’t Jim Crow a left hook.” Schmeling had defeated Louis in an upset in 1936; two years had invested their impending contest, in Harlem, with much more importance, for at stake was the Nazi program of racial superiority. The fight itself was over almost as soon as it began, with Louis “prancing and dancing as a Man o’ War at the bit.” A decade younger and in superb form, he defeated Schmeling in the first round and became a national hero—for whites as well as blacks. For his part, Schmeling went back to a Germany whose media and political leadership was inclined either to pretend that the fight had not happened or to blame the loss on conspiracy and technicality. Commentator Heywood Broun hazarded that the decline of Nazi prestige worldwide began with Schmeling’s defeat, but of course it took more than that to unseat Hitler: Louis went into the Army and pressed for equality in uniform, while Schmeling served in the Wehrmacht but later insisted, of course, that he was only doing his duty.
Sports and political history in a balanced, engaging blend.