As the summer of 1941 began, things finally came to a head between the Germans and the Soviets, as an invasion along a broad front signaled the beginning of active hostilities that would define a truncated but very much violent Second World War. Back in New York, Joe Louis, who had at last seized the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in his third attempt against Max Schmeling in Madrid, was defending his title as the German sold sausages on the East Side. Thomas Dewey won the 1940 election and governed the United States. Now then, the exciting conclusion:
July 4, 1941: Joe Louis KO13 Billy Conn, Max Schmeling KO3 Ira Hassett
On a twin Friday night bill on America’s Independence Day, fireworks were on display not only in the skies above Yankee Stadium, but in the ring as well, where the baseball team had the day off and their facility was available.
Max Schmeling, fighting for the first time since not only his loss to Louis in Madrid but since his homeland had invaded Poland and the Soviet Union in one sweep, was the co-featured performer, leading off the radio broadcasts against one of Joe Louis’ former conquests. Schmeling looked a little tentative in the first round, feeling out his opponent and clearly getting his legs back under him as a fighter, but a left hook in the second round stunned Ira Hassett and clearly hurt him. With Hassett looking very vulnerable in the corner in between rounds, Schmeling was ready to go in for the kill, and the show ended on a straight right hand right on the chin of the vanquished fighter. Max Schmeling was back.
Meanwhile, the main event was one of the best fights of 1941, and one of the best heavyweight title fights of all time. Billy Conn got to Joe Louis, a David-and-Goliath fight between two men who, while announced at 174 and 199 pounds respectively, were probably more toward 40 pounds’ difference than 25. For twelve rounds Conn gave back as good as he got, out-boxing Louis and landing the left hand on the counter seemingly at will. Indeed, if the fight had been in 1991 rather than 1941 and gone to the scorecards, Conn would have a majority decision win.
Instead, however, Conn, brimming with confidence after hurting Louis in the twelfth, decided to try and make a statement by going for the knockout. Meanwhile, Joe Louis, knowing he was behind in the fight, went for a knockout of his own out of sheer desperation, and in the rock-paper-scissors world of a true heavyweight with explosive knockout power against a puffed-up super middleweight with questionable amounts of dynamite in his own fists, the irresistible force overpowered the very much movable object. Conn, abandoning the defense that had served him so well for 36 minutes in the ring, fell in defeat.
Summer 1941: German forces sweep north, try to encircle Polish-Soviet coalition
With a broad battlefront on which to work, German forces swept north from Romania through the Ukraine and White Russia, trying to encircle the Polish-Soviet forces initially massed at the Oder river to blunt the bulk of the German advance straight out of Hitler’s home turf. The idea for Germany was to keep the Russians distracted while they sprung the trap against a lightly-defended rear guard.
As the Germans swept north, a massive human wave of Soviet troops held, barely, the Germans at bay in western Poland, occupying a wide enough strip of land to keep themselves supplied; the British, stationing a significant fleet at Malmo in Sweden as part of the Western Concorde, created a supply headache for the Germans trying to reinforce their northern army group in East Prussia.
Eventually the superior might of the German forces finally asserted itself; Warsaw fell, but not until the end of August. Summer was ending, the Russians had, with a lot of help from their friends in the West, been able to evacuate a lot of their troops across the Baltic, where they could be re-deployed in defense of the Motherland itself. Stalin was getting ready to unveil a patriotic warrior who had served Russia so well in the past…Pravda ominously reported that “Winter Is Coming.”
Meanwhile, in Washington…
Under pressure from the British, Australians, and Dutch, President Dewey imposed a complete oil embargo on Japan in July of 1941. Even the best efforts at rapprochement and diplomacy with the Land of the Rising Sun could not reverse the trend of mistrust that had formed ever since the Mukden Incident and the Rape of Nanjing four years prior; world sentiment had turned against the Japanese, and even a more isolationist American president than Thomas Dewey would have been hard-pressed indeed to ignore the growing threat in the Pacific. There was no path but war, and this would have repercussions on the boxing world.
Fall, 1941: Joe Louis and Max Schmeling continue to fight on the same cards in New York.
It was a very interesting tour of sorts for the champion and the former champion. Joe Louis continued to defend his heavyweight title; Max Schmeling continued to fight guys who made him look like he was ready for a fourth fight with Joe Louis. In a manner that would seventy years in the future portend fights like Mayweather-Alvarez, the promoters masterfully set the stage and whetted fans’ appetite for a clash once again between Motor City pugilistic thunder and Teutonic fistic lightning, with Schmeling’s image softened from the Nazi lapdog heel he had been in 1938 to the brave refugee from the evil German regime who was tremendously popular with patriotic German-Americans.
December 7, 1941: A Day That Will Live In Infamy
Whether spy and ambassador Richard Sorge convinced the emperor, or whether Isoroku Yamamoto’s insistence that the Americans could only be defeated if they were attacked before they could bring their forces to bear forced the hand of an oil-starved Japan, the result was the same. Several ships lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the American public was shocked out of its isolationist shell, and Thomas Dewey was about to become a wartime president. Perhaps more importantly, the heavyweight champion of the world was about to become more valuable to the United States as a soldier than as a boxer. In any event, the United States and Japan were now formally at war.
Meanwhile, outside Smolensk…
All that distraction from fighting off the Polish in the summer had badly overextended the German supply lines, and the Western Concorde, aided by the British and the Danes, had Germany bottled up in the Baltic Sea, its own oil supplies by no means secure as the Wehrmacht tried to fuel the panzers.
Soon enough, on the outskirts of Smolensk and still 250 miles from Moscow, the German army ground to a halt, preparing to overwinter in hostile territory. Forget the Siege of Leningrad. Forget Army Group South. Germany had at last bitten off more than it could chew, and the Polish government-in-exile in Moscow had plenty of opportunities to get cuddly with their Russian protectors and would-be liberators even as their territory was, for the moment, in German hands. Winter had begun to arrive in earnest, and as the snows covered the fodder for the German horses that had been pressed into service as an old-school supply train, all while Polish partisans heeded the call of their government to impede German efforts to fix the rail infrastructure, things were not well.
March 14, 1942: Max Schmeling UD15 Joe Louis
Joe Louis was set to join the US Army as part of the war effort with Japan. President Dewey, who had relied upon the help of both of the combatants in this fight during his election campaign, decided that he would go back to his New York roots as a prosecutor to do the very thing he’d fought so hard against but which is so endemic to boxing that to imagine the sport without it is for suspension of disbelief to founder upon the absurdity of idealism. The United States Armed Forces were going to fix a fight.
Nearly two years to the day after that fight in Madrid, the greatest debacle in boxing history unfolded at Madison Square Garden. Two men, choreographed as sure as if the event were professional wrestling, pulled punches, put on a dance routine, and made life easier for the lapdogs at ringside who quite possibly had J. Edgar Hoover in their ear threatening to out them for the slightest of illegal activities if they refused to toe the government-accepted line.
It was a sham. It was a complete, utter sham that The Ring magazine referred to with the headline “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges”. Laws are silent in times of war. Joe Louis could go fight for his country; Max Schmeling could fight as something of a symbolic screw-you to Adolf Hitler on American soil.
Spring-Summer 1942: Stalemate in Russia, Germany Begins to Grow Desperate
Even a master of armored warfare like Heinz Guderian could only do so much with the tight fuel rations that could be squeezed out of the Romanian oilfields without any help from the North Sea crude oil that was still firmly in the hands of the Western Concorde of which Norway was a member. Japan wasn’t much distraction for the Americans; by the time the Battle of Midway dealt an ultimately fatal blow to the Japanese ability to field an effective carrier fleet, although it may not have seemed obvious to all involved that the war was a fait accompli, the odds had turned to the Americans’ favor.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was able to get their evacuated troops reorganized; they would enter field service throughout the year, and Hitler, knowing the stakes and way too far from Stalingrad to have any chance at the Soviet oil refineries there, was about to become a very unfortunate mouse in a lair full of cats.
August 25, 1942: Private Joe Louis arrives in Alborg, M1 in hand
Things finally came to a head in late July. Germany issued an ultimatum to the Western Concorde; either show a willingness to trade some of that North Sea oil since the Germans and the Concorde were not at war, or prepare to have Scandinavia knocked out of the battle so Germany could have its oil.
On the battlefields of Denmark, the United States, which had already established a presence in Iceland and which had been assigned the task of defending the Danes in case of invasion so the British and French could keep their troops at home, got its first taste of combat in the European theater. Private Louis, who to this point had been mainly a source of morale, boxing in exhibitions against Danish army members who had themselves been fighters in civilian life, took up his M1 Garand and put a few extra holes in the people across the field from him who had been so smugly sure of their superiority over “the American Negro.” Speaking to Stars and Stripes, Louis clearly had a “who’s superior now” attitude; as his kill count edged higher with each battle, the man became almost a mythical figure, and cartoonist Will Eisner created “Private Midnight”, a sort of black Captain America who was clearly modeled on the more heroic gossip ascribed to Joe Louis during the fight.
September 7, 1942: Billy Conn KO11 Max Schmeling
Billy Conn’s name hadn’t come up in the initial draft list when the US conscripted a contingent to fight first the Japanese and then the Germans, and with issues to sort at home, Conn decided that he would continue to fight, perhaps even putting the heavyweight title back in American hands. After all, the man had nearly beaten the great Joe Louis.
The public knew that Max Schmeling was a phony champion, and they knew from having seen it with their own eyes that the fight that gave Schmeling the title was not on the up and up. What better backdrop for a title defense?
As in the Louis fight, Conn out-boxed Schmeling throughout the first ten rounds, as the German, now 36 years old, hit that great wall that all fighters hit eventually, that moment when they “get old overnight”. Finally, in the 11th round, the same left that had staggered Louis stopped Schmeling. The people of Pittsburgh rejoiced; not only was their steel a critical part of the war effort and a source of tremendous patriotic pride, but now one of their own was the champion of the world.
Conn would defend his title throughout 1943 as the government decided to leave him alone. If his name had been selected for service, nobody ever told him that; clearly his entertainment value was needed to keep spirits up on the homefront. The assortment of 4-F draft washouts, degenerates, and reprobates that Conn beat up were hardly the Nazi grunts who were stacked up like ghoulish cordwood at the business end of Joe Louis’ M1, but all that shows is that heroes come in a variety of exciting flavors. Take your pick.
Winter, 1942-43: Holding Ground in the East; A Spring Tenses in the West
If there was a silver lining to the Nazi advance grinding to a halt barely into Russian territory proper, it’s that the line was at least defensible. The Germans pushed their toughest hardware into the field, holding the Soviets at bay with air power, which had become the main consumer of Romanian oil, and heavy artillery. Indeed, the scene threatened to devolve into trench warfare, with very little movement on either side throughout the winter.
So it went in every theater in Europe. A battle line had formed in the south of Denmark that wasn’t moving overmuch, the French were gearing up for something but doing very little along the Maginot Line, the British had pushed their chips into Belgium and the Netherlands, and Mussolini spent the bulk of his time in Rome making buffoonish speeches, shitting his pants at the idea of having to get involved in an actual fight, and doing absolutely nothing of value to assist the Germans other than keeping them from being completely encircled.
And in the Pacific? Americans kicking Japanese ass and taking Japanese names, thanks to their soldiering commitment in Europe being a smaller share of the load than it would have been had the French been knocked out of the war. Cheese-eating surrender monkeys? Maybe, but it’s a lot easier to enjoy a slice of Brie when your main antagonist didn’t take a crack at you when they had the chance.
April 1, 1943: The April Fools’ Day Massacre
Finally, as the day dawned on the first of April, one of the most delicious combined-forces offensives in the annals of military history got underway. American marines sailing from Malmo made a daring landing at Rostock, right in German territory. France pulled everything it had up to the Siegfried Line and pinned down the German defenses as the British swept out of the Netherlands and into the Rhineland and the Ruhr.
Scrambling to defend this new and very much precarious position to his west, Hitler had no choice but to abandon his own attempts to break the stalemate in Russia, pulling troops out of the Smolensk battlegrounds to keep from being overrun on all sides. This got the Russian war machine moving, as they made a few surgical strikes through the weakened part of the German lines, causing chaos among the rest of the ranks and by the middle of May driving the Wehrmacht into full retreat. Everything fell apart like a house of straw against the big bad wolf.
July 16, 1943: Things Go Boom in New Mexico
In August 1939, the Einstein-Szilard Letter hinted at the possibility of an engine of great destruction that could be brought into a terrifying existence through the splitting of the atom. Upon the election of Thomas Dewey, who sought a way to cause more casualties in less time than conventional warfare could ever have allowed, the focus of the scientific community shifted toward the construction of these super weapons. As such, the Manhattan Project got underway fully a year and a half earlier and with plenty of help from the British, who had launched their own atomic program in 1940, and with more funding than even the $2 billion USD that the project got in the prime timeline, efforts rushed forth to get an atomic bomb built.
The high-speed effort paid off. On July 16, 1943, at the Trinity Site, the results of Glenn Seaborg’s discovery of plutonium two years prior were seen in brilliant, eye-melting detail. The atomic bomb had arrived.
August 6, 1943: Nuclear Bombs KO2 Japan
Hiroshima. Nagasaki. An American naval rush two years ahead of schedule thanks to increased available resources in Europe…not much to be said other than “Japan Surrenders”. Wasn’t much of a war, really, but then again Max Schmeling wasn’t Japanese.
August 20, 1943: Germany Surrenders
The only question that remained was who was going to get what in Europe. The Germans fought a lot more fiercely in the east, but with four powers bearing down on them, and with the Western Concorde in prime position to seize German territory, there was no Yalta Conference, no Soviet Occupation Zone. Germany surrendered in full to the Concorde, Poland was liberated, the Russians took over East Prussia as the Kaliningrad Oblast…but there was no East Germany going forward. In a touch of irony, Poland did more to preserve the West against Communism by getting cuddly with the Soviet Union than it ever did trying to fight alongside the British and French.
Meanwhile, Mussolini fell victim to a coup d’etat in his own country, the result of Italians knowing which way the wind was blowing and casting the yoke of fascism off of themselves, thence to be followed by fifty years of the government falling as an annual event. Albania was liberated, Libya declared its independence, and everyone went back to eating spaghetti.
The unfortunate souls in Hungary and Romania found themselves integrated whole hog into the Soviet Union; the Hungarian SSR and Romanian SSR, rather than being theoretically free and independent sovereign nations, were governed directly from Moscow. Ultimately, they Westernized after the fall of the USSR.
Which leaves one final thing to wrap all of this up:
February 14, 1944: Joe Louis KO8 Billy Conn
Sergeant Midnight, promoted from Private during the war, became the Brown Bomber’s new moniker, and Billy Conn never stood a chance. Louis got to him early, got to him in the middle rounds, and got to him late, beating the snot out of Conn and getting back to building his legend. Louis would hold the heavyweight title for the rest of the decade before finally hanging up the gloves after his loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951.
Max Schmeling, for his part, continued to run his meat shop in New York, enjoying his retirement, growing his business into one of the leading suppliers of German delicacies in the Northeast. A deal with Hormel Meats made Schmeling a multimillionaire; he retired and died a very wealthy man, an exemplar of the American Dream and its superiority to Nazism. He remained friends with Joe Louis throughout his life.
Thomas Dewey was re-elected in 1944, remembered as not only the youngest president in American history, only 38 when he first took office, but as the greatest wartime president since George Washington. He was succeeded in 1948 by Harry Truman, who served a single term as a forgettable steward of an economic downturn before he was voted out in favor of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
With Rocky Marciano as heavyweight champion and Dwight Eisenhower as president, with the Cold War feature-complete but for East Germany, and with the nuclear terror poised to create mutually assured destruction, the timeline found its own center…until Marciano fought on. But we’ve already covered that.
NEXT WEEK: What if Marvin Hagler beat Sugar Ray Leonard? We settle the question of just how high the ceiling was for a man some consider the greatest middleweight of all time. Stay tuned.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series for The Boxing Tribune and contributes occasional features in the “prime” timeline as well. He covered ESPN Friday Night Fights for this publication from 2011-13. Fan mail, hate mail, and discussions of the comparative merits of Hearts of Iron II and Panzer General can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.