Experimental rock group Yeasayer released its second album, Odd Blood, in 2010 to a generally favorable reception. As compared to the band’s previous work, critics appreciated the foray into much more accessible pop sensibilities. But beneath the catchy hooks and upbeat affirmation of the album’s first single, “Ambling Alp,” lies a kernel of historical inspiration. Unlike the mysterious and somewhat impressionistic vocals of their other songs, the lyrical allusions of “Ambling Alp” reference a particularly notable figure in sports history: the great boxer Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” heavyweight champion of the world from 1937-1949.
Oh, Max Schmeling was a formidable foe.
The Ambling Alp was too, at least that’s what I’m told
Joe Louis fought Primo Carnera in 1935, the Italian boxer whose nickname, “The Ambling Alp,” provides the song its title. He knocked out the massive Italian in six rounds, with the powerful victory setting off his career. At that time he was still on his way to the heavyweight title, a road that would hit an unexpected bump in his first fight with German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936. Though few expected Louis to have any trouble, Schmeling handed Louis his first professional loss with a knockout in the twelfth round. Louis had underestimated his opponent, and Schmeling had carefully prepared. But the importance of the fight extended beyond the ring: Max Schmeling fought under the flag of the Nazi regime, and his victory made for excellent material in the Nazi propaganda machine. Though not a Nazi himself, Schmeling’s victory over Louis, a black American, was twisted into further justification for German theories of Aryan racial superiority.
Despite the loss, Louis and his promoters managed to secure the heavyweight title bout for the next year, and Joe Louis seized the title from James Braddock in 1937. But his single loss still lingered as an unresolved question, and a rematch with Max Schmeling was inevitable. The fight was eventually scheduled for exactly a year after his title match, June 22, 1938, and as the day drew ever closer, the fight began to take on even more symbolic significance. Despite the ways in which Schmeling didn’t fit the archetype of a German hero—he was not a Nazi, and far from Aryan in appearance—Hitler’s regime had co-opted him into a national symbol, and if Schmeling succeeded in taking the title, the Nazis would likely never allow Louis a chance to regain it. This would be the fight of the decade, if not the entire century. On the morning of the match, Schmeling received a telegram from Adolf Hitler, wishing him luck, and at the weigh-in, Louis said he planned on making Hitler sorry for ever sending it. Personal reputations weren’t the only thing at stake. Politics and national pride had entered the arena. Outside the venue, American communists handed out flyers that read “SCHMELING STANDS FOR NAZISM … SO WE AMERICANS ALL PULL WITH OUR JOE LOUIS, WIN OR LOSE!”
The stage was set. The fighters took their positions. The bell was rung.
But if you learn one thing you’ve learned it well
In June you must give fascists hell
They’ll run, but they can’t hide
This time, Joe Louis came ready to fight.
Two minutes and four seconds into the first round, after a comprehensively dominating performance and three knockdowns, the referee called victory for Louis. Schmeling spent the next three weeks in the hospital with fractured vertebrae in his back. In the entirety of the fight, he had managed to throw a grand total of two punches, in comparison to Louis’s forty-one. This wasn’t a simple victory—it was annihilation, a metaphorical uppercut right on the chin of Nazi supremacist rhetoric. Joe Louis was a hero to Americans of all races and classes, one of the first African-American athletes to be accepted by the country as a whole.
That’s the reason that Yeasayer calls out Primo Carnera and Max Schmeling both: Louis’s victories over the Italian and German national heroes look forward to America’s victory against fascism through the second World War. And though U.S.-centric nationalism possesses distinctly problematic elements, as a contrast to Hitler and Mussolini and in the context of race relations of the 1930s, Joe Louis’s victory still resonates today. The boxing ring had long been ruled by the maxim of “May the better man win,” and Louis seized the opportunity to serve as a champion of all America, both white and black, proving himself as physically—and in a figurative sense, morally—superior to his German opponent.
And if anyone should cheat you, take advantage of, or beat you
Raise your head and wear your wounds with pride
Joe Louis’s heavyweight reign lasted for a record-setting eleven years and twenty-five title defenses. Despite his popularity, little of his success in the ring translated into monetary compensation. Between his managers, promoters, ex-wife, and the federal government, Louis found himself forced to continue boxing simply to repay his debts. Later in his life, as his financial problems worsened, he suffered from issues with mental illness and drugs. In somewhat of an ironic twist, he and Max Schmeling became very close friends, with Schmeling doing much to help Louis, eventually even serving as a pallbearer at Louis’s funeral in 1981.
But despite his share of problems later in life, Joe Louis did a tremendous amount to bridge the racial divide of the early 20th century. His time in the U.S. Army made the subtext of his biggest victory into text, rallying popular support for World War Two. During his military service, he facilitated the officer candidate application of Jackie Robinson, and later he would become the first African American to play golf in a PGA-sactioned event. He blazed a trail for black athletes in the decades to come, demonstrating that American heroism was based on courage and strength, not predicated on skin color. And that all goes back to June 1938, when Joe Louis stuck up for himself, and for his country.
For a more detailed on the Louis/Schmeling fight and its historical and symbolic impact, see David Margolick’s Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink.