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The Fight of the Century: Louis vs. Schmeling

BMPAudio November 20, 2006

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louisschmeling19389613fullThe 1938 boxing rematch between American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling is believed to have had the largest audience in history for a single radio broadcast. In 2005, the Library of Congress selected it for the National Recording Registry.

NBC radio announcer Clem McCarthy delivered the blow-by-blow account of the fight, which lasted just two minutes and four seconds. But it was a historic milestone — one that an estimated 70 million people listened to on their radios.

In the last of a five-part series produced by independent producer Ben Manilla and Media Mechanics, Weekend All Things Considered looks at recordings recently selected for the Library of Congress’ prestigious honor.

The fight was a rematch of a 1936 bout in which Schmeling defeated Louis, who had never before been beaten.

After that upset, says sportswriter Patrick Myler, “Schmeling was feted in Germany, especially by the Nazis. You know, they trumpeted him as the perfect specimen of the Arian superiority — beating the black American, of course — and he was the Nazi hero.”

The broadcast of the second fight, and other sounds of American history, are being preserved by the National Recording Registry. The group identifies 50 recordings to be placed in its care each year.

“There are some events and some broadcasts, some sporting activities, that reach out to millions of people and touch them in a very deep way and express a lot of their deepest cultural, racial, political hopes and aspirations,” historian Lewis Erenberg says. “And this is one of those events, and we have it preserved here and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

As Joe Louis Barrow, the son of Joe Louis, says, “In those days, the most powerful individual in the world was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world…. When the heavyweight championship was fought, millions upon millions upon millions of people listened simultaneously by their radios all across the world.”

And this match, coming just months after Adolf Hitler’s army marched into Austria, meant even more.

“It had tremendous political implications in the battle of democracy against fascism,” says Erenberg. “And it had tremendous implications about race and racial ideology.”

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