IT was the fate of Max Schmeling to illustrate to the world that no matter how hard an athlete tries, it is sometimes impossible to avoid the influence of world politics on sport.
Schmeling knew, following his 1936 knockout of Joe Louis, that his ambitions as a boxer were being railroaded by the Nazi Party, but what could he do about it? Very little.
Schmeling, who died on February 2, 2005 in his home town of Hollenstadt near Hamburg at the age of 99, withstood considerable pressure to sack his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, even explaining his case to Adolf Hitler at a private hearing.
Hitler was not amused. These were confused, hard-to-comprehend times, and it is far too easy for us to sit here in 2005 and judge ordinary men for their instincts of the moment in that bizarre, dangerous era.
However, it should not be forgotten that in 1937 Schmeling turned down the Nazis’ Dagger Of Honour… or that, while Jews were being herded into and starved in ghettos and concentration camps, Jacobs gave the Nazi salute during the anthem when Max beat Ben Foord in Hamburg in 1938.
From the moment Schmeling knocked out the unbeaten Joe Louis in the 12th round at Yankee Stadium in 1936 until their rematch two years later, he was the hero of the Third Reich.
Even before the end of his 124-second thrashing by Louis in their rematch for the title in June 1938, the broadcast of the fight to Germany was taken off the air and replaced by classical music. He was a non-person again.
Of course, the Schmeling story did not begin or end with the influence and shadow of the Nazis.
Max Adolph Otto Schmeling was born on September 28, 1905 in the village of Klein Luckow in the Uckermark region about 40 miles north of Berlin.
When he was a child, the family moved to Hamburg and by the age of 18 he was a professional boxer.
At 19, he was beaten in two rounds by Larry Gains, but by the time he was 22 he had won the German and European light-heavyweight, and German heavyweight, titles.
At 23, he was boxing in the United States. Following the retirement of Gene Tunney in 1929, Schmeling, who had stopped Johnny Risko in nine and outpointed Paolino Uzcudun to earn a reputation as a rising star, was matched with Jack Sharkey for the vacant championship.
Some tend to think of this era as a lull between the great days of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, and they have a point, but we should not underestimate the drawing power of men like Schmeling and Sharkey.
When they disputed the championship at Yankee Stadium, New York, in June 1930, almost 80,000 fans turned out to watch. They saw an unsatisfactory end, but history made.
In the fourth Sharkey hit Schmeling low and was disqualified. Max was carried to his corner as the new champion of the world. In the dressing room, initially, he did not want to accept the championship but was persuaded that he had won it within the rules and he did so.
The New York State Athletic Commission for a time withheld his purse and refused to inscribe his name on the Muldoon Trophy. Eventually, they relented under pressure and medical evidence – a doctor confirmed the bruising to Schmeling’s groin and former champions Tunney, Dempsey and Tommy Burns said the victory was legitimate.
Schmeling expected a rematch with Sharkey, or a fight with Dempsey, who had been boxing exhibition tours, but eventually defended against William “Young” Stribling in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1931. Stribling fought hard and rough, but Schmeling wore him down and stopped him with 14 seconds left in the 15th and final round.
Then he agreed to the rematch with Sharkey at the Long Island Bowl, the outdoor arena owned by Madison Square Garden, in June 1932.
Frankin D. Roosevelt, the Governor of New York, visited him in training camp, had a conversation with him in German and told him: “I love Germany, I know it well.”
After Roosevelt became president in 1933, they continued to exchange letters and gifts.
However, the second Sharkey fight was another controversial affair. Schmeling outboxed the American only to lose the decision.
Jacobs was furious and yelled angrily into the microphone: “We wuz robbed. We shoulda stood in bed!”
At ringside Tunney called the decision a scandal and a disaster for the sport. One writer said of 25 journalists he asked, 23 thought Schmeling had won.
He returned home and married the actress, Anny Ondra, a relationship that lasted more than 50 years. Six months after the Sharkey fight, Hitler became Reich Chancellor of Germany.
Schmeling stopped the amazing former world welter and middleweight champion Mickey Walker, who had been campaigning as a heavyweight, in eight rounds. However, a shattering 10th-round defeat by Max Baer in June 1933 put him out of the picture. A points defeat by Steve Hamas in Philadelphia dropped him further down the ladder and he returned to Germany.
A rematch with Uzcudun in Barcelona was drawn, but he beat Walter Neusel, Hamas and Uzcudun in Germany, during which the Nazis made their persistent but unsuccessful attempts to dissuade him from using Jacobs.
Then in June 1936 Schmeling returned to New York to box the precocious, brilliant, 22-year-old Louis before 40,000 fans in Yankee Stadium. The German was supposed to be the fall guy, the stepping stone, but he had watched Louis beat Uzcudun and noticed his tendency to drop his left hand when he doubled his jab.
Schmeling began cautiously, survived a bad third round and then lured Louis on to a clean right cross that hurt him. Another one shortly afterwards sent him staggering across the ring and a third put him down.
Louis stayed in the fight, rallied in the seventh, but had his knees buckled again in round eight. This time he didn’t recover and in the 12th, at the end of a systematic beating, right hands bounced off Louis’ unprotected head. One spun him around and he fell by the ropes, knocked out.
There were riots in Harlem but in his hotel suite Schmeling sat, surrounded by flowers, reading telegrams of congratulations from Marlene Dietrich, Primo Carnera… and Adolf Hitler.
He was flown home on the Hindenburg airship to a tumultuous welcome at Frankfurt airport. Within days he had met Hitler again, this time with his wife and moth- er, and together they watched the film of the fight, which Schmeling had brought home.
Amazingly, he held the overseas rights himself. Hitler had it made into a documentary, which included the full fight footage, which was screened in cinemas across Germany. This was also the year of the Olympic Games in Berlin, which the Nazis also used as a propaganda tool.
The Third Reich couldn’t help him get a world title fight. He signed to box the champion, James J Braddock, but the American instead opted to take a fantastic offer to defend against Louis, who of course beat him in 1937.
Schmeling didn’t get another fight until December 1937, when he knocked out Harry Thomas in eight rounds. Even Thomas got a world title shot before he did.
Back in Germany he beat Ben Foord and Steve Dudas, as Hitler annexed Austria and accelerated the rate of imprisonment in death camps of those who opposed the Reich or who were considered inadequates. In the same spring, British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, formed an agreement with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that included recognition of Italy’s “annexation” of Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
“The clouds of mistrust and suspicion have been cleared away,” said Chamberlain. As I said, these were confusing times.
When Schmeling returned to New York for the rematch with Louis at Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938, he found the atmosphere horribly changed. He was not, now, a boxer, but a representative of a political regime.
As the ship, the Bremen, docked in New York, protesters lined the harbour with placards calling him a Nazi and an Aryan Show Horse. If he left his hotel, he was taunted on the streets with mock-Nazi salutes. Hate mail arrived by the sack-load.
Louis also recalled that some members of the American version of the Nazis, the Bund, appeared at his train- ing camp to watch him work, and to laugh. Over an apparently unrelated issue, involving heavyweight Tony Galento, Joe Jacobs was barred by the New York Commission from working Schmeling’s corner.
Of course, Yankee Stadium was packed, a seething bowl of noise, with a capacity crowd of more than 70,000, paying more than $1 million. On the way to the ring, surrounded by 25 police officers, Schmeling was pelted with debris. When the bell rang, he seemed to freeze. Louis found him easy to hit, then took him apart with as ruthless a display of punching as any one could wish to see.
It was all over in 124 seconds. Schmeling was down three times and also severely injured by a left hook, which as he twisted around, landed on his back. Peter Wilson, writing for The Daily Mirror, said Max let out a scream that “razored through the surrounding din, half-human, half-animal.”
The punch had split a vertebra.
Before the fight Hitler had cabled Schmeling, addressing him as the new heavyweight champion. After it, his name disappeared from the newspapers. He was in hospital for 10 days, with among the few visitors a representative of the New York Commission, who wanted to know the exact nature of the injury because they were considering withholding his purse for lack of effort!
Schmeling returned to Germany on the Bremen, still confined to bed, and once home was unable to leave his room for six weeks.
He did box again before war broke out, winning the European title in one round against Adolf Heuser in Stuttgart, but then obviously everything went on hold. He was called up to war service, not as expected as a physical training instructor, but as a paratrooper. On his first landing in Crete in May 1941 he landed heavily in a vineyard and, not surprisingly, re-injured his back.
Photographs were published in Germany of him in full battle dress and he was awarded the Iron Cross.
In his autobiography he recounted the absurd story when, able to walk only with the help of two canes, he was given the job of taking a wounded English prisoner to a field hospital. When they had rounded the corner out of sight of his superiors, he said they joined arms to support each other on the journey, and on the way shared an orange.
He was released from the army in 1943.
After the war Schmeling was as broke as most people in the ruined Germany. He returned to the ring on his 42nd birthday in September 1947 and had five fights, but points defeats by Walter Neusel and Richard Vogt persuaded him to stop.
Even so, a career that began in 1924 and ended in 1948 had lasted almost double that of the “Thousand Year Reich”.
For a while he farmed, among other things, mink, and in 1957 was awarded the German franchise for Coca-Cola. In that single move he made a new fortune that made him secure for the rest of his days.
He sought out Louis and they became close friends. As Louis’ health deteriorated, Schmeling helped him out more than once. Eventually, Max retired to Hollenstadt and remained fit and healthy until the Christmas holidays just past, when he caught a heavy cold, and faded away.