Sports wouldn't be sports without rooting interest, yet it's a curious and fickle phenomenon, one that does a disservice to athletes as much as it bolsters their heroics. Fans' identification with players is usually more symbolic than personal, which leaves them open to lionization or infamy, depending on the unpredictable vicissitudes of history and fate. The two matches between heavyweights Joe Louis and Max Schmeling—one an African-American representing a racially divided country, the other an Aryan mascot fighting for Hitler—attracted perhaps the strongest rooting interest in sports history, and these titans could only get tossed around in the swell. It takes David Margolick's absorbing chronicle Beyond Glory a few felled trees worth of pages to put these fights into context, but in the end, he untangles Louis and Schmeling from the much larger groups that had a piece of them.
After Schmeling shocked the heavily favored Louis in a humbling 12th-round knockout in 1936, the stage was set for the rematch two years later, but world events brought it the significance of a war without armies. Though boxing was frowned upon in Germany before Hitler came to power, the Führer and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels embraced it heartily, promoting Schmeling as a prime example of Aryan superiority at a time when the Nazis were terrifying the world with their nationalist fervor. Of course, there was the uncomfortable fact that Schmeling's American tours were handled by Jews like his longtime manager Joe Jacobs, who stayed by his side no matter how egregiously compromised his position. (One notorious shot has Jacobs half-saluting Hitler after a Schmeling fight in Hamburg.) It was said that no black heavyweights would ever be champion after Jack Johnson's controversial run, but the soft-spoken Louis presented a clean-living image and mostly let his fists do the talking; though he managed to ingratiate himself to much of white America, support for Schmeling was surprisingly strong under the circumstances. When Louis and Schmeling met in Yankee Stadium for a rematch, the entire world paused to watch (or hear, in the case of 100 million people) Louis delivering an explosive 124-second pummeling that laid the psychological groundwork for the world war to come.
Sorting through many contradictory records, including three Schmeling autobiographies that play especially fast and loose with the truth, Margolick focuses heavily on newspaper commentary from both sides of the Atlantic, though its racial and national agendas transcended the tape's honest tale. In a way, boxing has a blunt finality that clears up the politics of perception—though both matches drew conspiracy theories from people who couldn't accept being on the losing end—but Schmeling and Louis were swept up in it in spite of their apolitical natures. Only in the sad coda, when they were long done with fighting for titanic forces, could the two finally see each other as men and lay their turbulent past to rest.