Nazi-era boxer endured role with dignity

Max Schmeling

1905 - 2005

February 05, 2005|By Lem Satterfield and Mike Klingaman | Lem Satterfield and Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Max Schmeling never lived up to Adolf Hitler's expectation of him. He didn't want to.

Schmeling, the former world heavyweight boxing champion and the only German ever to hold the title, died Wednesday at his home in Hollenstedt. He was 99.

Tall, tough and square-jawed, he won the crown in 1930 and became poster boy for the Nazi regime in 1936 when Schmeling floored Joe Louis, the American favorite. German propagandists touted him as a picture of Aryan supremacy to a world on the brink of war.

But Schmeling let der Fuehrer down.

He refused to fire his Jewish-American manager, divorce his Czech-born wife or join the Nazi Party. Then, in a rematch with Louis in 1938, Schmeling was knocked out ignominiously in the first round.

Incensed, Hitler turned his back on the boxer and sent him to the front lines in Crete during World War II.

"They made [Schmeling] an army parachutist and told him to jump," said boxing historian Michael Katz.

Back in the ring

Though injured in the war, Schmeling returned to the ring, fought again and forged a lasting friendship with Louis.

"Max Schmeling was an exemplary sportsman who never complained, even though I suspect it's somewhat humiliating to be knocked senseless in front of a worldwide audience," said Thomas Hauser, author of the definitive biography of Muhammad Ali.

"Max Schmeling was cast by fate in a very difficult role, but he accepted his place in history with dignity and grace."

Born in 1905 in Brandenburg, Schmeling took up boxing after seeing a film about the sport. He turned pro in 1924 and won the world championship in 1930, dethroning America's Jack Sharkey.

Two years later, Sharkey wrested the title back, winning on a split decision.

In 1936, Schmeling took on fast-rising Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who had his eye on the crown. Schmeling entered the fight a 10-1 underdog but won in 12 rounds.

"Louis was undefeated, considered a superman going against a washed up ex-champion, but [Schmeling] did an absolutely masterful job," said Buddy Ey, a boxing historian from Highlandtown.

Before the fight, Schmeling had detected a flaw in Louis' defense, said Katz:

"What he saw was that Joe dropped his left hand when throwing the jab, and Max just kept pounding that right hand off Louis' head. It's amazing that Joe took it for so long."

Schmeling returned to his homeland a hero and was pictured with Hitler as a symbol of Aryan dominance.

"There were lots of photos in magazines with him and Hitler, where Schmeling gives that Nazi salute, over and over," Ey said.

Then Schmeling's allegiance began to cool.

In the wake of the 1936 Olympics, and the success of American track star Jesse Owens, Hitler insisted the fighter show a more overt display of national pride. Schmeling resisted.

Moreover, in 1938, during Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass," Schmeling sheltered a Jewish family in his home as a marauding mob of Nazi soldiers burned Jewish books and synagogues.

"Because I [had dinner] with Hitler, that does not make me a Nazi," the fighter once said. "I had dinner with Franklin Roosevelt, but that did not make me a Democrat."

Also in 1938, Schmeling wrangled a rematch with Louis, then the heavyweight champion. This time, Louis dispatched him in 124 seconds.

Schmeling returned to Germany, an outcast in the eyes of the Third Reich.

Signs with Coke

After the war, destitute and virtually penniless, he fought five more times, retiring in 1948 with a record of 56 victories (40 by knockouts), 10 defeats and four draws.

Schmeling's fortunes changed after his retirement, when he signed with Coca-Cola to promote the drink overseas.

"He became one of the richest men in West Germany," said boxing historian Bert Sugar.

Later in life, when Louis fell on hard times financially, Schmeling picked him off the canvas.

"Max gave Joe Louis gifts of money on several occasions," said Sugar. "He once knocked on Joe's door, pressed a thousand dollars into his hand and left. He paid for Joe's funeral" in 1981.

A film about the relationship between the two fighters is in the works, said screenplay writer Budd Schulberg. Spike Lee might direct the movie.

"We'll show ... what chances Max took [to save the Jews] and the friendship he maintained with Louis throughout his life," Schulberg said.

In 1976, during a gathering of boxing champions in Las Vegas, Schmeling met Muhammad Ali.

"Ali went over and hugged Schmeling. He kissed him on the cheek," said Gene Kilroy, Ali's longtime aide. "Ali called Schmeling `a man of class,' and Schmeling grinned from ear to ear."

Said Ali on Schmeling's death: "Max Schmeling risked his life for respecting Joe Louis and protecting the Jews. I'm sure he's up in heaven with Joe, and that they're discussing their fights."

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