"Louis or Schmeling? These two names beat upon your eardrums as steadily as the tom-toms of a Zulu tribe moving to a raid."
Grantland Rice, 1938
"On this day, two men will hold an entire world in the utmost tension."
'Der Angriff', the Nazi propaganda sheet run by Joseph Goebbels, 1938
"No single sporting event... had ever borne such worldwide weight. The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige of two powerful nations. Each fighter was bearing on his shoulders more than any athlete ever had."
'Beyond Glory: Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis And a World on the Brink' by David Margolick
For Wladimir Klitschko, the thrillingly dramatic build-up to the second heavyweight fight between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis still reverberates 72 years later. Klitschko knows that his name, and that of Eddie Chambers, who tomorrow night in Düsseldorf will attempt to relieve him of his IBF, WBO and IBO world titles, are not beating on anyone's eardrums as steadily as tom-toms. And yet it is an intense source of pride to him that he is what Schmeling once was, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. When he climbs into the ring against Chambers determined to maintain that status, he will carry with him the memories of the Schmeling he knew. In Germany especially – where he used to live and where despite being Ukrainian he is something of a national hero – they are never far from his mind.
Klitschko and his older brother Vitali – currently the WBC heavyweight champion – first met Schmeling a decade ago, when Schmeling was 94, a beetle-browed old man made rich by his post-war Coca-Cola distributorship in northern Germany. They met at the Coca-Cola offices. Schmeling was impeccably dressed, in a suit and tie, and his mind was as precise as his attire.
"Meeting him I got goosebumps," Klitschko recalls. "He told us about his fights against Joe Louis [Schmeling won the first, in 1936, but lost the second], and how he had prepared on the ship going to the United States. He ate a lot of steak, and I'm the same. I sucked in the information he gave us. He was amazing. He told us that we should fight in the United States, as he had."
They followed this advice, indeed such was Schmeling's impact on the brothers, both fluent German speakers, that Vitali later paid the old man the compliment of naming his own son Max. Five years later they met him again. "He was 99, and it was not long before he died," Klitschko tells me. "Even then he was clear-minded. He knew all the news, and he remembered everything. He was a good man. In Nazi times he saved a Jewish family, and he helped Joe Louis through some bad times."
Actually, Schmeling did partly return Nazism's fond embrace; he was hardly a dissenter in the 1930s. But he did shelter two Jewish brothers on Kristallnacht, and he did later help his old opponent, which he could afford to do thanks to Coca-Cola, the iconic American brand which had conspicuously refused to touch the iconic, but black American, Louis.
"I've seen all the old photographs," Klitschko continues. "And when you think of all the hands he shook. He shook the hand of Hitler, of course. Hitler used him to show how strong Germany was. I thought about that when I first met him. That I was shaking the hand of history."
The hand of history, to extend the metaphor, has touched Klitschko in more ways than one. His father was a Soviet air force general whose last job before the Eastern Bloc crumbled was as military attaché in Bonn. Klitschko, 34 next week, was 15 in 1991, and I ask him what he remembers of the collapse of the Soviet Union; was it something he welcomed?
"I was just a witness. For my parents it was different, they had to move money from their bank account because the law didn't exist any more, nothing was functioning. The rouble had no value. In the 1990s in Ukraine it was like Chicago in the 1930s. There was a lot of crime. A lot of gangs."
A man of his height (6ft 6in) and width would have made a good criminal, I venture. We are sitting in a private members' club in Covent Garden during his stopover in London on the way to Germany. He eyes me with suspicion. "It is not about size. To wear a gun you don't need big biceps." No, but as an old-fashioned heavy? The ghost of a smile. "Yes."
Wondering how I came to suggest to this fiercely bright polyglot that he would have slotted right into the Ukrainian underworld, I attempt in rather cack-handed fashion to make amends. It's unusual, I say, to find a man with such a keen intellect making a living as a boxer.
"Who said that?" he says, sharply.
Erm, I did. I'm not talking about intelligence – nobody could question the intelligence of dozens of world champions, from Schmeling himself, through to Muhammad Ali, and Manny Pacquiao today – but Klitschko has a PhD from the University of Kiev, for heaven's sake, focusing on the "pedagogic control over young athletes in the old Soviet Union".
"I think you're wrong," he says, quietly. "Pythagoras, a great philosopher, was also a great boxer. And boxing has been a great part of Nelson Mandela's life." But doesn't he ever worry that too many blows to the head might damage his formidable brain? "That is a cliché," he says. "It is like saying all female tennis players are lesbians, all politicians are liars, all journalists you can buy."
I've never heard that last one, I say, and he obliges me with a mighty laugh. "In Ukraine you would know it," he says. We are friends again.
"Actually you are right," he adds. "Too many punches in the head will not make you any smarter, for sure. I try not to get punched in the head."
His record currently stands at 56 fights, 53 wins. Of those 53, 47 have been knockouts. Nobody doubts that he can punch. But there are lingering questions about the strength of his chin, and he is well aware of them. "I like these questions about my chin," he says, cheerfully. "I love them. Let people think what they want. And let them also think of the fighters with great chins. Samuel Peter has a great chin. He fought Vitali, and then he fought me [in 2005]. I was hitting him like crazy and he just shook his head and took all the punishment. I couldn't believe it. But eventually he went down. All the fighters with strong chins, eventually they go down."
The point is well-made, that a boxer needs the complete package: attack, defence, strong punch, solid chin. I invite him to delve into his impressive knowledge of boxing's past, and tell me who he considers to have been the most complete heavyweight ever to step into the ring?
"In certain ways Max Schmeling, in certain ways Jack Johnson. Also Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis in certain ways. I respect all their accomplishments. But to be really great you also must be great outside the ring. Muhammad Ali spoke against the war in Vietnam, he supported the black movement. It is great that our sport has such a person."
The fighting Klitschkos are good for the sport too, bringing a degree of credibility to the heavyweight division in an era of unprecedented ordinariness. And even by the lacklustre standards of the age it is remarkable that two brothers should hold all the belts but one (the one possessed by David Haye, of whom more later). The demand that they should fight each other has recently increased in volume, with Lewis the latest to weigh in. "Brothers fight. Why not get paid for it?" Lewis has said.
Klitschko reckons he has a good enough answer. "Our mother wouldn't survive," he says. As it is, she never wanted either of them to become boxers, and nor did their father, the general. "Our parents were always completely against it," he adds. "But I started when I was 14 because I was following my brother [Vitali is almost five years older]. There was already a long tradition of boxing in the Soviet Union, but amateur, not professional. The collapse of the old regime changed all that."
The brothers went to a school specialising in sport – the marvellously-named Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky Pedagogical Institute – and it was there that the younger Klitschko experienced at first hand what he would later study as a doctoral thesis, the state's baleful control over teenage athletes. "The training programmes were all wrong," he says. "It is an age when the body is changing all the time, and so is the mind, but the programme stayed the same. It broke people more talented than me."
Klitschko now lives mainly in Florida, where his Soviet upbringing must sometimes seem like a distant dream. "Life is fun," he says. "I love kite-surfing, and I love golf. My official handicap is 36. But my unofficial handicap is double that." Here, his manager interrupts, telling me that he actually plays to a handicap of about 17. But he claims 36? I accuse him of being that lowest of golfing animals, a bandit. A grin. "It is like I said with the chin. Let people think what they like."
He is also, unsurprisingly, an enthusiastic chess player. Is it fanciful to imagine that his skill at chess also helps him in the ring? "No, it does help," he exclaims. "Always, you are thinking several moves ahead, making plans. In the ring I use many things I have learnt in life. When I prepare for a fight, my plan is how to take my opponent apart. When it works out like that in the ring, I love that process. I have been helped very much by [trainer] Emanuel Steward, who is a genius, but we do all our creative work long before the fight. And he doesn't tell me what to do. He asks my opinion. I never had such a symbiosis with a coach."
Assuming this symbiosis leads to the beating of the relatively unfancied (and considerably shorter) Chambers in front of Klitschko's vociferous German fans tomorrow, only Haye will prevent a family monopoly of all the heavyweight belts. Both brothers are itching to fight him, but it is Wladimir who has come closest, in a contest scheduled for June last year that was called off when the "Hayemaker" hurt his back.
Before it was cancelled, however, Haye did his damnedest to wind up his opponent, and succeeded, by wearing a T-shirt bearing an image of himself holding up the severed heads of both brothers.
"That was extraordinary," says Klitschko. "It made me embarrassed for the sport. Showing the bloodied bodies of my family members? That is nothing to do with sport. David Haye has a big mouth. He compares himself to Evander Holyfield, but he went down against my former sparring partner, Monte Barrett. He says he's been sent to save the heavyweight division. He should just shut up." A big sigh. "My messa ge to David Haye is don't touch history," concludes the man who has shaken history's hand.
Brothers in arms
Born 25 March 1976, Kazakhstan
Height 6ft 5in
Record 56 fights, 53 wins (47 KO)
Titles Gold at 1996 Olympics. IBF, WBO, IBO and Ring Magazine heavyweight championship belts
Born 19 July 1971, Kyrgyzstan
Height 6ft 7in
Record 41 fights, 39 wins (37 KO)
Titles WBC Heavyweight TitleReuse content