On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describing five cases of a rare lung infection, PCP, in young, otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles. It was unknown at the time, but the article is describing the effects of AIDS. Today, the article’s publication is often cited as the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
The article prompted medical professionals around the country, particularly in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, to send the CDC information about similar, mysterious cases. Because it is first detected circulating among gay men, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, as it will be dubbed the following year, was colloquially referred to as “gay cancer” and formally dubbed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency before the term AIDS was coined in 1982.
AIDS is not lethal in and of itself—rather, it severely impacts the immune system’s ability to fight off illness, leaving the patient vulnerable to all manner of infections, particularly “opportunistic infections.” PCP is one such opportunistic infection, and it was one of a handful of illnesses whose increased occurrence in the year 1981 revealed that there was an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Within a few years, the AIDS epidemic became the major public health crisis of the late 20th century, although many continued to believe it only affected gay men. Due largely to the misconception that it was a “gay disease,” it would be two years before the New York Times published its first front-page article about AIDS and four years before then-President Ronald Reagan first mentioned it publicly.
Two of the men mentioned in the study were dead by the time it was published, and the three others died a short time later. By the end of the millennium, nearly 775,000 Americans died of AIDS-related illnesses.
As Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party loomed over Europe, an American and a German boxer squared off in the ring.
Joe Louis wanted redemption, to remain the heavyweight boxing champion of the world and to avenge his sole defeat. Max Schmeling wanted repetition, the chance to regain the title he had lost and to defeat the younger man, just as he had beaten him two years earlier. As the bell rang and they walked to the center of a 20-foot square boxing ring in the middle of New York’s Yankee Stadium, all each man wanted was to have his hand raised in sporting victory.
But for the more than 70,000 in attendance, and the millions listening to radio broadcasts around the world, there was so much more at stake. The year was 1938, and as storm clouds gathered over Europe, African American Louis and Germany’s Schmeling were unintentional combatants in a preliminary proxy skirmish.
Schmeling was born in Klein Luckow, Germany, in 1905; Louis in Lafayette, Alabama nine years later. Schmeling made his debut as a professional boxer in 1925 and began fighting in the United States—then the undisputed global epicenter of the sport—in 1928. In 1930, he won the heavyweight championship against Jack Sharkey, before losing it to the same man two years later.
By 1936, he had seven losses to go with his 48 wins, and at 31 was considered old for a heavyweight boxer. He seemed the perfect foil for unbeaten up-and-coming, hard-hitting American phenom Louis.
The 1936 Match: 12 Rounds, Then a Knock-Out
But Schmeling had studied Louis and had noticed flaws in the American’s technique—particularly the way, after throwing his left hand, he briefly dropped it low, leaving his chin exposed to Schmeling’s powerful right hand. Schmeling exploited that mistake mercilessly, beating Louis for 12 rounds until finally knocking him out and handing him his first defeat.
It would prove to be the high point of Schmeling’s career. Although he had been a popular figure in the New York fight community, by the time he and Louis fought again two years later, he and the country he represented were viewed through a much darker lens. It was becoming impossible to ignore the growing threat posed by Nazi Germany to those within and beyond its borders.
Schmeling Never Joined the Nazis, But Also Didn’t Reject Them
After James Braddock (known as the “Cinderella Man”) claimed the heavyweight championship in 1935, he refused to give Schmeling a shot at his crown. Instead, he defended against Louis in 1937, who knocked him out in the eighth round to become heavyweight champion of the world. But Louis insisted that his victory was incomplete.
“I ain’t no champion ‘till I beat Schmeling,” he declared.
And so, on June 22, 1938, the two men squared off again.
Louis vs. Schmeling: Match Two
The American sporting public eagerly devoured news of the fight’s build up, seeing it as an opportunity for an American sporting hero to stick a thumb in the eye of Hitler’s Aryan dreams. The irony, of course, was that, while African Americans understandably revered Louis as a hero, much of white America draped its support in racist disdain. Margaret Garrahan of the Birmingham News, for example, opined that Louis was a “tan-skinned throw-back to the creature of primitive swamps who gloried in battles and blood.”
Writing in 2007, boxing historian Thomas Hauser noted that, “It was the first time that many white Americans openly rooted for a black man against a white opponent. It was also the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as ‘the American.’” Louis himself pierced the hypocrisy of the situation more prosaically: “White Americans—even while some of them still were lynching black people in the South—were depending on me to K.O. Germany.”
The fight itself was dramatic but brief. Louis poured everything into his preparation, while Schmeling stated publicly that he could see no way the American could correct his previous mistakes. The German was wrong. Louis tore into Schmeling from the opening bell, dropping him three times and knocking him out in the very first round. The fight had lasted just two minutes and four seconds.
“Now I feel like the champ,” said Louis, who would go on to make a total of 25 consecutive title defenses, a record that still stands. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest professional prizefighters who ever lived.
“Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight,” Schmeling said in 1975. “Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal.”
Louis and Schmeling met again when World War II had ended and became friends, bonded in perpetuity by the intensity of their rivalry. Louis died in April 1981 at the age of just 66. Schmeling was among his pallbearers.