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Louis and Schmeling — German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s heavyweight — had first fought in 1936, and Schmeling stopped Louis in 12 rounds. By the time the rematch came around in 1938, the world was on the verge of war, and Schmeling — though reluctant to accept the role — had come to symbolize Nazi superiority.

When they met on June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium, Joe Louis was fighting for everything the free world represented. It was the biggest fight in boxing history. More than 70,000 fans at the ballpark watched Louis knock out Schmeling in one round, and all of America — black and white — cried and cheered in the streets.

Because he held the heavyweight championship for 12 years, Louis became a national icon, and was awarded the Legion of Merit honor in 1945 for his service in the military.

Like so many fighters, life would not be good to Louis after boxing. He suffered financial problems from the same government that embraced him — a target of the Internal Revenue Service — and from corrupt boxing managers. He was still revered, though, up until his death in 1981 — so much so that President Ronald Reagan waived the requirements and allowed Louis to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Joe Louis fought his way to the top of professional boxing and into the hearts of millions of Americans,” President Reagan said when Louis died. “Out of the ring, he was a considerate and soft-spoken man; inside the ring, his courage, strength, and consummate skill wrote a unique and unforgettable chapter in sports history.

“But Joe Louis was more than a sports legend — his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world.”

One hundred years ago, this source of pride and inspiration was born, and his legacy remains strong — far stronger than the heavyweight championship of boxing today.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com