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schmeling american racial sport

Today the sport of boxing is associated with a variety of racial stereotypes. In the late twentieth century these included the belief that no white man would be able to contend for the world heavyweight championship. This idea results from the general racial stereotype circulating in the Western world that persons of African descent are simply better athletes compared to persons of European descent. In addition, stereotypes concerning the innate violence of the African American male support the notion that Africans or African Americans should dominate boxing, which is by nature a violent sport.

In the early 1990s both the in-ring and out-of-ring behavior of then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson contributed to bringing these disturbing images to the forefront of European American consciousness. Tyson was convicted of raping Desiree Washington, then Miss Black Rhode Island, as well as being in possession of twenty-nine pounds of marijuana and cocaine. Tyson served three years of a six-year sentence. In 1997, in his match with Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson’s ring behavior sank to a new low. In the third round, Tyson clinched Holyfield, biting off a piece of his ear. This display feeds into the modern idea that violence and blackness are associated. For example, in 1995 President Bill Clinton stated that “violence for white people too often comes with a black face” (Hutchinson 1995).

The history of boxing does not indicate that Africans or African Americans per se dominate it. Rather, this history shows that participation in professional boxing is multiethnic and mostly associated with poverty rather than socially defined race. This becomes more apparent as one examines boxing participation across weight classes as opposed to just the heavyweight category. Also, virtually every cultural group has some form of boxing, including the Eastern martial arts and Latin American forms such as Brazilian capoeira.


The sport we know today as boxing probably began in ancient Greece and was included in the first Olympic Games. In ancient Rome, the sport was part of gladiatorial contests, and the boxers often wore a metal-studded leather hand covering called the cestus . Serious injury or death often resulted from these contests. The sport came to England with the arrival of the Roman Empire (Fleisher and Andre 1993). Modern boxing began there in the eighteenth century. In 1719, James Figg was recognized as the first heavyweight champion, and he is now recognized as the father of boxing. Figg openly advertised exhibitions of his skill and taught the sport. He was also a master swordsman, and thus he attracted the patronage of the English “bloods,” the socially well-to-do sportsmen of the country. His boxing exhibitions were held on a stage with wooden rails; the referee called the bouts while standing outside the ring. In 1734, another English champion, John Broughton, formulated the first set of rules and invented the boxing glove, though boxing gloves were used only at sparring exhibitions. Boughton’s rules governed boxing until 1838 and eliminated the practice of hitting opponents when they were down or grabbing opponents by the hair.

In 1838, the Original London Prize Ring rules were devised. Soon after, these were modified to form the Revised London Prize Ring rules (1853), and finally, at the turn of the century, the Queensberry rules were adopted. John Graham Chambers authored these rules under the patronage of John Sholto Douglas, eighth marquis of Queensberry.

Boxing in eighteenth-century England was dominated by contests of brute strength. Champions tended to be men who both could inflict great bodily harm on their opponents and withstand such harm themselves. Daniel Mendoza, a man of Spanish-Jewish descent, is credited as being the first boxer to change this model. After sustaining significant injuries in his first victorious bout, he spent three years developing a system of guarding, sidestepping, and effective use of the straight left (today called the left jab). Mendoza utilized these tactics to be crowned English champion in 1794. However, this victory was not without a price. Many boxing critics of the day characterized his tactics as “cowardly,” as opposed to standing up in the true “British bulldog” style (Fleisher and Andre 1993). Yet it was fighting in this style, as well as the adoption of the Queensberry rules, that would establish boxing as a legitimate sport as opposed to its prior image as a barbaric spectacle.


Bill Richmond was the first person of African descent to make a mark in English boxing. During the occupation of New York by the British in 1777, Richmond was noticed by General Earl Percy after he routed three English soldiers who accosted him in a tavern. Percy took Richmond into his household as a servant, and later that year sent him to England to apprentice as a carpenter. There he developed a style of fighting similar to that of Mendoza. Richmond stood 5 feet 6 inches and weighed 170 pounds. He listed among his most important victories those over George Moore, Paddy Green, and Frank Mayers. His prowess in the ring earned him the nickname “The Black Terror.” In his later years, Richmond ran a boxing academy in London, dying in that city on December 28, 1829, at the age of sixty-six.

Tom Mollineaux was born in Virginia on March 23, 1784. He arrived in England in 1809 and was trained by Bill Richmond. A year later, Mollineaux fought in the first international title involving a person of African descent. His opponent was Tom Cribb. The bout, which took place in December, lasted thirty-nine rounds, after which Mollineaux collapsed from exhaustion. English boxing correspondent Pierce Egan described Mollineux as “the tremendous man of colour” and wrote that he had “proved himself as courageous a man as ever an adversary contended with” (Fleisher and Andre 1993). Egan was also impressed with both Mollineaux’s strength and knowledge of the science of boxing. Cribb and Mollineaux fought a rematch in September 1811 before a crowd that swelled to more than 25,000 spectators. Once again Cribb was the victor.

Molllineux would defeat William Fuller in 1814. These fights made Mollineaux a celebrity in England. He lived there for the rest of life, engaging in periodic sparring bouts. He died in Dublin, Ireland, in 1818.

At this point in history there seemed to be no specialized racial theory of boxing, apart from the general racial theories of the time. The ability of non-Europeans in any sector of social endeavor was always viewed through the prism of the existing racial ideologies, which uniformly viewed such persons as inferior. Successful non-European individuals were exceptions to the general racial norms of day.


The next notable heavyweight champion was Jack Dempsey (“the Manassa Mauler”), who took the title from Jess Willard on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Dempsey was a European American born in Colorado, one of eleven children, and started fighting as a matter of survival. He rode the rails looking for work in assorted mining towns. Dempsey amassed sixty wins, fifty by knockout, over his career. Dempsey lost the title to Gene Tunney on September 23, 1926. Tunney, also European American, grew up the son of a longshoreman. He also learned how to fight to survive on the brutal streets of New York City. He won the armed forces title while a member of the expeditionary force in France during World War I. Tunney’s lifetime record was sixty wins, forty-five by knockout. Dempsey’s and Tunney’s championships occurred at a time when America had locked the African-American athlete out from competition for the world heavyweight title. This reaction was a direct response to the success of Jack Johnson.

With Tunney’s retirement, the heavyweight championship passed over to Europe. A series of contenders vied for the belt, but on June 30, 1931, German Max Schmeling was declared world champion after a bout with Jack Sharkey. Schmeling’s victory came at a time when boxing had completely moved out of its former criminal/sideshow atmosphere into the mainstream of respectable public entertainment (Bathrick 1990). Indeed, boxing in general and Schmeling in particular took on tremendous importance in the cultural transformation of German society during the Weimar period (1918–1933). This transformation involved the glorification of the human body. In the 1920s, Germany, which had labored in the corset and stiff collar, moved to embody a new cult of nakedness in cultural venues from vaudeville to sport (Bathrick 1990). This was also the period in which racial hygiene ideas were gathering strength throughout German society. The eugenics (racial hygiene) of the Weimar Republic was mainly concerned with preventing the decline of the German “volk,” or “rasse” (Weiss 1990).

In this way, achievement in sport represented the antithesis of racial degeneration. The one-time European heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier (a Frenchman) stated that boxing had done more to improve the moral and physical character of the younger generation than had previous centuries of physical and moral teaching. He also stated that there was reason to hope that France’s military prowess would increase because of boxing (Carpentier 1926). Carpentier’s claims about the value of boxing seem to be at odds with modern science. A 2005 study of 477 boys in Norway found that participation in boxing was associated with a significantly greater probability of being involved in violent or antisocial behavior outside the ring (Endresen and Olweus 2005).

Bertolt Brecht, considered by many the most important German playwright of the twentieth century, also became enamored with boxing in the Weimar period (Bathrick 1990). In the same years, Adolf Hitler wrote of the importance of boxing in Mein Kampf : “There is no sport that cultivates a spirit of aggressiveness, that demands lighting-quick decisiveness, that develops the body to such steely smoothness.” Further, Hitler argued that had Germans studied boxing instead of etiquette, then the deserters, pimps, and rabble responsible for the Weimar Republic could have never taken power (Margolick 2005).

Schmeling became the world heavyweight champion on June 11, 1930, defeating Jack Sharkey before 79,222 fans in Yankee Stadium. Schmeling met Sharkey again for a second defense of his title in June 1932, losing by decision in fifteen rounds. Four years later Schmeling would be matched against Joe Louis (nicknamed “the Brown Bomber”) in Yankee Stadium before 39,878 fans. The term “Brown Bomber” had been developed by the American press to stir up racial animosity in preparation for the Louis-Carnera fight of 1935. Louis was portrayed as symbolic of Ethiopia, fighting off the Italian fascist invasion, symbolized by Primo Carnera (Sammons 1988). The cultural significance of the Louis–Schmeling bouts will always be intertwined in the context of American and German racism and the international political situation culminating in World War II. This is ironic, since neither fighter was particularly racist or anti-Semitic; for example, Schmeling’s manager, Max Jacobs, was of Jewish descent. Schmeling, however, would become the darling of Nazi sports culture, especially after he defeated Louis in the first fight. He would support the Nazi Party throughout his career, although there is no conclusive evidence that he agreed with its anti-Semitic and genocidal policies. Schmeling was a man of the period, and before Louis–Schmeling I, American newspapers were still portraying Louis using racist Sambo stereotypes. One newspaper showed Louis trembling with fear of Schmeling, after the Mantan Moreland character “feets don’t fail me now,” while another represented him as a chicken-stealing thief in farmer Max’s henhouse (Wig-gins 1988). German caricatures of Louis were just as bad. A cartoon that appeared in Der Kicker on June 23, 1936, portrays Schmeling spanking a Sambo caricature of Louis (Margolick 2005). Response to the Schmeling victory followed racial and ethnic lines: Jews, African Americans, Africans, and other colonized populations were plunged into immediate depression, while southern whites, Germans, South Africans, and other European populations in racially stratified societies jumped for joy. Films of the first Schmeling–Louis fight were rapidly made available throughout the United States. This was in contrast to the ongoing ban of films from the fights that Joe Louis had won against white opponents (Margolick 2005).


Louis–Schmeling II was undoubtedly the greatest professional fight of the twentieth century. This was not because of the technical mastery that either fighter showed in the ring but rather the social significance of the fight. No one was neutral. Aryanists, German Bundists in the United States, South African colonialists, and American white supremacists were all pulling for Max Schmeling to win again. American Jews, as well as the Communist Party, had originally opposed the fight to protest treatment of Jews in Germany. However, both groups realized that a Joe Louis victory would be a crushing blow to the theory of Aryan supremacy. African Americans were divided. Many were worried that Louis would lose again, but all of them were praying for the Brown Bomber. W. E. B. Du Bois sat listening to the fight with a group of academicians in Atlanta, Eleanor Roosevelt sat by the radio, and the owner of the Hope diamond, Evalyn Walsh McLean, had a ringside seat. The fight was carried live over German radio from New York. No one had to wait long; Louis defeated Schmeling by technical knockout (TKO) at 2:04 in the first round. Schmeling was knocked down three times, the last ending the fight. After the fight, to save face, Schmeling claimed he was fouled, but no one believed him.

Despite the abuses that occurred during some of the celebrations following, some argued that the Louis victory did more to improve race relations in America than any event since the Civil War. One writer wrote that the decline of Nazi prestige began with a left hook delivered by a former unskilled autoworker who had never read Neville Chamberlain’s policies (Margolick 2005, p. 322). Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels distanced himself from the Schmeling loss immediately, as did Nazi Germany as a whole. The United States entered the war against the Nazis with a segregated army. Louis served the war effort more as an icon than as a soldier, although he later served in the U.S. Army.

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