Obituary: Max Schmeling

Boxer who was briefly world heavyweight champion and famously defeated Joe Louis

MAX SCHMELING was the first European boxer of the 20th century - and the only German to date - to capture the undisputed world heavyweight championship, which he held from June 1930 to June 1932. Despite this distinction, Schmeling will be best remembered for his two sensational bouts with the legendary Joe Louis, and for his courageous loyalty to his manager and other Jewish friends in the face of Nazi disapproval.

Schmeling was born in Klein Luckow in Uckermark in 1905, and was brought up in Hamburg, from where his father worked as a navigator for the Hamburg America shipping line. At the age of 14, after excelling at sports at school, Schmeling was apprenticed to an advertising placement agency. In 1921, inspired by film of the heavyweight bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, he began to consider a career in boxing.

After moving to Cologne-Mulheim, he joined the Mulheim Boxing Club and represented western Germany in the national amateur championships. In 1924, he turned professional, and shortly afterwards enjoyed the opportunity of sparring with his idol Dempsey during the latter's honeymoon tour of Europe.

Schmeling made steady progress through the ranks, more often than not stopping opponents with his heavy right hand. In 1927, he won the European light-heavyweight championship, which he defended twice before moving up to the heavyweight division and winning the German national title. Two years later, with little meaningful opposition available in Europe, Schmeling travelled to America, where an impressive stoppage of the durable Johnny Risko propelled him into an elimination tournament for the world heavyweight title recently vacated by Gene Tunney.

It was on this trip that Schmeling joined forces with the voluble Joe Jacobs, who was to remain his manager for the next decade. Jacobs undertook the difficult task of promoting a foreign contender with customary bombast, trumpeting his charge as "The Black Uhlan of the Rhineland", and playing up Schmeling's strong physical resemblance to the revered Jack Dempsey.

At home, Schmeling was now a celebrity, participating in the pulsating social and artistic life of Weimar Berlin, and mixing on equal terms with such luminaries as Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jennings and Kurt Weill. As well as posing for paintings and sculptures, Schmeling was persuaded by the film director Reinhold Schunzel to appear in the part-silent, part- talkie Liebe im Ring (Love in the Ring, 1930).

Having won a decision over the tough Spaniard Paolino Uzcudun, Schmeling returned to New York in June 1930 to contest the heavyweight championship with the American Jack Sharkey. Schmeling emerged the victor, but unfortunately for him his moment of glory arrived as he writhed in pain, the recipient of a ferocious low blow from Sharkey which not only gave Schmeling the title but also the unsought distinction of being the first fighter to win the championship on a disqualification.

While the manner of his victory satisfied neither Schmeling nor the boxing world, the German confirmed his right to the title with a successful defence against William "Young" Stribling in Cleveland in July 1931, stopping his well-regarded opponent in the 15th and final round.

The following year, Schmeling signed for a rematch with Sharkey. The fight, which took place in New York in June, was a dull affair, enlivened only by the controversy that erupted when Sharkey was declared the winner on points. "We wuz robbed! We shoulda stood [stayed] in bed!" yelled Joe Jacobs in his heavy Yiddish accent, thereby coining one of boxing's most memorable phrases. But the decision (regarded by contemporary observers as one of the worst in heavyweight history) stood. After two further defeats, including a KO loss to the future champion Max Baer, Schmeling's career as a leading contender appeared to be over.

In July 1933, Schmeling married Anny Ondra, the beautiful Czech-born film actress best known outside Europe for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929). The couple appeared together in the German film Knock- Out (1935), directed by Ondra's ex-husband Karel Lamac, and remained happily married until Ondra's death in 1987.

While Schmeling worked his way back into title contention, he found himself increasingly lionised by the Nazis, who were keen to promote him as a symbol of Aryan supremacy. At the same time, he was keenly aware of the sudden disappearance of friends from the entertainment world, particularly Jews, as they were forced into exile or arrested; many were later murdered in the death camps. In his 1977 autobiography Erinnerungen ("Memoirs"), Schmeling wrote bluntly,

After the war, many, perhaps hoping to fool themselves, claimed to have no knowledge of what went on. In truth we all knew.

Schmeling's own position with the Nazis was severely strained when, in 1935, Joe Jacobs was photographed at one of Schmeling's fights giving the Nazi salute with a large cigar in his fist. The boxer was called before the Reich Minister for Sport and told to discharge Jacobs. Schmeling not only refused, but proceeded to insist on a meeting with Hitler. Although Hitler received Schmeling, he refused to discuss the matter, leaving Schmeling in no doubt as to what was expected of him. None the less, Jacobs remained Schmeling's manager until his early death in 1941.

In 1936, Schmeling was matched with Joe Louis, the current heavyweight sensation, who was regarded as virtually unbeatable. Schmeling, however, had noticed a tiny flaw in Louis's style, a tendency to drop his left hand after throwing a hook. When the pair met in New York in June, Schmeling exploited this failing to perfection, repeatedly landing his right over Louis's dropped guard, and flooring the "Brown Bomber" in the fourth round. Although Louis fought back, the German continued the punishment until Louis was counted out in the 12th round. The result was greeted with hysteria in Germany, and with rioting in Harlem and Chicago.

Schmeling was now the only legitimate contender for the title, then held by the unremarkable James J. Braddock, but politics intervened to deprive Schmeling of his chance to become the first man to regain the championship. A combination of Germany's increasing unpopularity abroad and America's unwillingness to lose what was regarded as a national birthright saw Braddock escape with a risible fine (and the title) after failing to appear at the scheduled weigh-in in 1937.

Braddock was subsequently dethroned by Louis, and it was only at the latter's honourable insistence that Schmeling was granted a rematch. On his return to New York in 1938, Schmeling, the quiet opponent of prejudice, found himself cast as a hate figure and dubbed an "Aryan show horse", while Louis, a victim of prejudice in his own land, was labelled the champion of the American Dream.

In any event, this time it was Louis who pounced on a failing of Schmeling's - the German had always been a slow starter - overwhelming him with punches in a mere 124 seconds, and in the process cracking two vertebrae in Schmeling's back. Schmeling's scream of pain was heard above the crowd, and the live radio link to Germany was abruptly cut off. When Schmeling was shipped home on a stretcher, he soon discovered he was persona non grata with the Nazi regime.

On recovering from his injuries, he returned to the ring in 1939, knocking out Adolf Heuser in the Adolf Hitler Stadium in Stuttgart to win the European heavyweight title (and leading a confused local newspaper to run the headline, "Max Schmeling KO's Adolf Hitler in Adolf Heuser Stadium").

With the outbreak of war, Schmeling found himself conscripted (at the Minister of Sport's suggestion, and with Hitler's approval) into the armed forces, despite being, at 35, over the age of conscription. Schmeling served in the Third Parachute Regiment for three and a half years, taking part in the May 1941 airborne invasion of Crete, during which he injured his leg and back. He was discharged in 1943 with the rank of corporal and the Iron Cross 2nd Class (awarded for propaganda purposes).

Having lost his farm in eastern Germany, Schmeling, then aged 42, returned to the ring in 1947, managing three wins (all by knockout) and two losses (both on points), before finally retiring in 1948 with a record of 56 wins, 4 draws, and 10 losses.

Following a number of agricultural ventures, Schmeling was awarded a lucrative Coca-Cola bottling and distribution franchise in 1957, which he continued to run until Anny Ondra's death 30 years later, after which he retired to his Hamburg home. He became firm friends with Joe Louis, and helped financially when the latter's health began to fail.

In a poll conducted in the era of Boris Becker, Steffi Graf and Michael Schumacher, Max Schmeling was voted Germany's outstanding sports personality of the century, a fitting accolade for a fine boxer (who, as one fellow fighter eloquently put it, "could hit like a bastard") and a brave man.

Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling, boxer: born Klein Luckow, Germany 28 September 1905; world heavyweight boxing champion 1930-32; married 1933 Anny Ondra (died 1987); died Hollenstedt, Germany 2 February 2005.

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