The Paradoxical Friendship of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling

This current subset in my series, New Year; New Types of Friends is about friendships from the world of sports. This next post is about boxers, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Similar to The Unlikely Friendship of Jesse Owens and Luz Long, the matches between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling symbolized racial and political differences. But their rivalry never came between their friendship. As you will read later in the post, their friendship created both a paradox in sports economics and a paradox in a friendship.

About Joe Louis

Joseph Louis Barrow (May 13, 1914 – April 12, 1981) was an African-American professional boxer who competed from 1934 to 1951. Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber,” Louis is one of the greatest and most influential boxers of all time. Louis had the longest single reign as champion of any boxer in history. He reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1937 until his temporary retirement in 1949, with victory in 25 consecutive title defenses, a record for all weight classes at the time.

Louis’s cultural impact was felt well outside the ring as well. He was a focal point of anti-Nazi sentiment after the 1936 Olympics, which featured Jesse Owens, leading up to and during World War II. Louis is widely regarded as the first person of African-American descent to achieve the status of a nationwide hero within the United States, ahead of Jackie Robinson’s Major League Baseball debut in 1947. Joe Louis was also instrumental in integrating the game of golf, breaking the sport’s color barrier in America by appearing under a sponsor’s exemption in a PGA event in 1952.

The years after Louis’ retirement from boxing were full of financial woes and bad health. While still a revered public figure, money was a constant issue for Joe due to unpaid taxes. Married four times, Joe was also romantically involved with celebrities such as singer, Lena Horne, and actress, Lana Turner. After battling a cocaine addiction, he was committed to psychiatric care in 1970. Heart surgery in 1977 left him constrained to a wheelchair. Louis passed away from cardiac arrest on April 12, 1981. 

About Max Schmeling

Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling (September 28, 1905 – February 2, 2005) was a German boxer who was the heavyweight champion of the world between 1930 and 1932. 

Schmeling became interested in boxing in 1921 and turned professional three years later. He won the German light heavyweight title in 1926 and added the heavyweight title in 1928. He pursued more challenging fights in the United States, where victories over top heavyweights Johnny Risko and Paolino Uzcudun in 1929 Those fights led to the 1930 fight against Jack Sharkey. In round 4, Sharkey hit Schmeling with a low blow so severe that Schmeling could not continue. Schmeling won the world title on a disqualification, becoming the first and only Heavyweight World Champion to win the title on a disqualification.

During World War II, Schmeling served with the German Air Force as an elite paratrooper. Long after the War, it was revealed that Schmeling risked his life to save the lives of two Jewish children in 1938. 

After the war, he tried a comeback but retired from boxing permanently in 1948. After the war, during which Max largely lost the fortune he’d built as a professional boxer, he remade himself into a successful businessman. Tapping into his network, he became the chief distributor of Coca-Cola in northern Germany, as well as an enthusiastic brand ambassador.

At the age of 99, Schmeling was the longest living heavyweight boxing champion in history. Ring Magazine ranked Schmeling 55 on their list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.

The Louis-Schmeling Fights

The two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 were worldwide cultural events with many viewing the battle between Americanism and Nazism. Their first bout took on heightened nationalistic and racial overtones. Schmeling was a personal favorite of Adolf Hitler and an example of Aryan supremacy. Louis, the black American, was considered inferior and could not win.

Their 1938 rematch had even higher stakes. Louis annihilated Schmeling with a controversial first-round knockout, making Joe a hero to both Black and white Americans.

When he returned to Germany after his defeat, the Nazis shunned Schmeling, who was outspoken against Hitler. Years later, Schmeling said, “Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war, I might have been considered a war criminal.”

The Louis-Schmelling Paradox 

The rivalry between these two boxers gave rise to a theory called the Louis–Schmeling paradox, a concept in sports economics first identified and named by Walter C. Neale. In his 1964 classic paper, “The Peculiar Economics of Professional Sports,” Neale used the epic fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling to illustrate that normal business firms seek out monopolies to minimize competition and maximize profits, whereas a boxing monopoly would have “no one to fight and therefore no income” since “the competition is what arouses interest.”

The theory applies to all sports: competitors need high-quality opponents to generate the largest earnings. Louis needed a Schmeling, the Lakers needed the Celtics, and the Cubs needed the White Sox to generate maximum revenue. 

The Paradox of a Friendship

The paradox of the friendship between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis was that these two men would pummel each other, yet remained dedicated and caring friends. The two rivals enjoyed each other’s company outside the ring and appreciated each other’s character.

Some suggest that Joe Louis was too generous of a man. After he started making serious amounts of money in his boxing career, Louis immediately started helping others. He chose to pay back the welfare that his stepdad had received. He bought a house for an elderly man.  Louis also helped out a lot during World War II and bought uniforms for some black officers in the army. He either spent or gave away much of his money to charity. Unfortunately, Louis got in trouble with the IRS over his taxes. 

The friendship between Louis and Schmelling shows how one friend helps the other when one gets knocked down to the proverbial canvas.

Instead of dying poor and destitute, Joe Louis’ good deeds paid off. His friends stepped up when Joe needed them most. Schmeling provided financial assistance to his former foe during his financial struggles. When Louis suffered from some heart problems, another friend, Frank Sinatra, paid for all of the medical bills.

At one point during her husband’s financial traumas, Louis’ wife, Martha said “Joe’s not broke. He’s rich — rich with friends. If he said he needed a dollar, a million people would send him a dollar and he’d be a millionaire.” Their friendship lasted until Joe’s death in 1981.

In 1981, Max Schmeling helped pay for Joe Louis’ funeral costs and was one of the pallbearers.

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Joe Louis was rich in friendship due to his relationship with Max Schmelling. The paradox of their friendship is that the quest for success and prosperity often sends friends down different paths. While friends help each other succeed, they also help keep that pursuit in check. And when success knocks one man out, his friends can him get back up from the proverbial canvas.

My next post is about the friendships between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

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2 Responses

  1. What a magnificent article. How rare and deep friendship in the hyper competitive sports world.

    1. Thanks, Michael! You might also enjoy these other posts:
      The Unlikely Friendship of Jesse Owens and Luz Long
      Magic and Bird: Opposing Personalities but a Great Friendship
      I couldn’t figure out how to link those in these comments so use the search bar to find them.

      Thanks again for reading about GodBuddies!

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