The bouts between Louis and Schmeling were invested with great passion and drama. Joe Louis, undefeated and regarded as likely to become only the second black world’s heavyweight champion, was knocked out in the 1936 fight in a shocking upset. Max Schmeling, embraced by Hitler and the Third Reich, was then viciously dismantled in a first round knockout in the 1938 rematch. Louis’ revenge for his earlier defeat was personal, but given the historical context, his victory also represented a national triumph. As a result, Louis assumed heroic stature as America’s representative gladiator, and the cheering was understandably most ardent among blacks and Jews.
As Margolick’s title suggests, mere athletic glory is too confining for these protagonists. Their liberating effect enabled them to transcend racial and political barriers as the world edged toward war. This is an engrossing book for even the casual sports fan.