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'Fight' gives '38 bout its place in history

Certain sporting events -- and no, playoff series between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox aren't among them -- transcend the diversionary nature of professional athletics and unfold with greater sociological significance. Sprinter Jesse Owens's domination at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin undermined Adolf Hitler's insidious notion of Aryan supremacy. In 1973, a tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, billed as the "Battle of the Sexes," highlighted the women's movement and the fight for gender equality.

And in 1938, there was "The Fight," which also serves as the title of a compelling "American Experience" documentary airing tonight at 9 on Channel 2. On a steamy June night, more than 70,000 people filled Yankee Stadium to watch a heavyweight bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, but the fight was freighted with meaning beyond a championship belt.

Schmeling was German, and, though not a member of the Nazi Party, he was reviled as a symbol of Hitler's anti-Semitism and menacing militarism. Louis, who a few short years before couldn't get fights in the best arenas because he was black, was anointed America's great hope, the man whose mighty right hand could smite fascism.

Louis and Schmeling fought twice -- their first meeting was in 1936, when Louis was defeated. But much of this 90-minute film takes place outside the ring. Louis's rise is especially compelling since he came up through the ranks at a time when the country was still shackled by racism and segregation. From the beginning, many recognized Louis's boxing talent but also understood he would have to be presented as a "good Negro." He was promoted as the antithesis of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who, two decades before, vexed white America by humiliating white men in the ring and dating white women outside it.

In Germany, Schmeling presented himself as apolitical, though he was disturbed by the Nazi policies and their devastating effects on his Jewish friends. (Even his manager, the feisty Joe Jacobs, was a Jew.) Still, he allowed himself to be used by Hitler and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, in soft-peddling abroad the growing atrocities at home.

Until he was defeated by Louis in 1938, Schmeling was hailed as one of Germany's great heroes. Still, it was nothing compared with how African-Americans, in desperate need of a hero, embraced Louis. But they weren't alone. At its best, "The Fight" spotlights one of those rare moments in society: Rooting for the black son of Alabama sharecroppers to defeat a white German and the nefarious society he seemed to represent, blacks and whites stood shoulder to shoulder as Americans, undivided by ethnic or racial qualifiers.

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