Boxing great Max Schmeling dies at 99

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Max Schmeling, the great German boxing champion best remembered for two dramatic bouts with the American heavyweight Joe Louis, has died. He was 99.

Schmeling, who was cast as a symbol of Nazi Germany before World War II, died Wednesday at his home in Hollenstedt, Germany, according to his foundation in Hamburg. The cause of death was not announced.

Although he was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1930 to 1932 and a prominent heavyweight in the 1930s, it was his bouts with Louis that became etched in the minds of sports fans: His sensational upset knockout of the American fighter in 1936, and his dramatic first-round knockout defeat by Louis in 1938.

Schmeling had won the heavyweight title, on his back, in 1930. In an elimination bout for the vacant heavyweight championship at Yankee Stadium, Jack Sharkey hit Schmeling with a low blow and the referee awarded Schmeling the victory and the title. Two years later, he lost the title on a decision in a rematch with Sharkey, provoking one sportswriter to write:

"Schmeling is the first guy in the world to win the title flat on his back and then to lose it standing up."

In 1936, Schmeling, 30, was the last legitimate heavyweight around who hadn't tested Louis, the rising sensation of the time. The 23-year-old Louis, an undefeated Detroit heavyweight, was thought to be one major test away from a title bout with champion Jim Braddock.

After studying films of Louis fights and attending Louis' 1935 bout with the Basque fighter Paolino Uzcudun, Schmeling told a sportswriter that he thought he saw something in Louis that he could exploit. But Americans scoffed at Schmeling's chances. He had not proven to be a consistently good heavyweight, and was thought to be past his peak. Louis was not only unbeaten, he had knocked out 23 of 27 opponents.

The only voice heard in support of Schmeling's chances was Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915.

Ring Magazine's Nat Fleischer, years later in his autobiography, "50 Years at Ringside," recalled a 1936 conversation in his office with Johnson:

"Jack Johnson predicted in my office Max would KO Louis in 1936. He stripped to the waist and demonstrated how Joe had his body slightly twisted when he faced an opponent, so that if he missed his left, he was wide open for a right hand counterpunch."

Schmeling, in film of the Yankee Stadium fight, can be seen cautiously looking for that instant when Louis would miss with a left hand, leaving the left side of his head unprotected. Louis had a habit of occasionally delivering a lazy left jab. Even worse, it would linger, dangerously, in the region of his opponent's face, instead of being quickly retracted into a defensive position.

It happened in the fourth round. Louis reached out tentatively, with an awful left jab. Schmeling, an 8-1 underdog, was ready. He rocked back slightly on his right heel and delivered a short, smashing right to the left side of Louis' face. Louis' legs began to wobble, and he staggered backward.

Schmeling rushed in, unleashed a flurry of punches toward Louis' head, but none of them landed. He unloaded a wild right that missed, but a second big right caught Louis flush in the face, and he went down. Louis desperately needed an eight-count, but Schmeling's punches had separated him from his senses. Instead, Louis arose quickly, on wobbly legs.

For the next eight rounds, Louis fought like a sleepwalker, unable to emerge from the daze that Schmeling's first big right hand had created. Afterward, Louis told reporters he could remember nothing after the third round. As the bout went on, Schmeling landed more straight rights, causing the left side of Louis' face to swell.

Finally, Schmeling ended it in the 12th. He caught Louis with a right that sent Louis down. Louis sat on his haunches briefly, tried to rise, but crumpled. Referee Arthur Donovan counted out Louis as he rolled over on his stomach, his face on the canvas.

It was a shocker. Schmeling's unexpected victory sent shockwaves across the Atlantic. All of Germany celebrated. For Schmeling, it was the zenith. Never again would he produce a victory such as this.

Schmeling earned $125,535 (the same as Louis) from the live gate. But he also had purchased European film rights to the fight from promoter Mike Jacobs. He earned $165,000 showing the film in Germany alone.

Schmeling, returning triumphantly to Germany on the airship Hindenburg, was greeted as a returning hero. Years later, he said: "Germany went mad upon my return, after beating Louis. I was later criticized for accepting an invitation from Hitler. But during those days, you could not turn down such an invitation. Today, everything looks different. During the Third Reich, you could say 'no' once, but not a second time, or your name would appear on someone's black list."

He lived the life of a country gentleman. He owned a farm in the country and a Berlin apartment. He was married to a glamorous Czech movie star, Anny Ondra, and became an expert trap and skeet shooter.

In 1937, according to an Associated Press report, Hitler asked Schmeling to appear at an outdoor reception in Munich for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The ovation for Schmeling exceeded that accorded Hitler.

Schmeling, during his boxing career, always carried more popular clout with the German people than with the Nazi hierarchy. It is a fascinating element in the Schmeling story that during the 1930s Nazification of Germany, Schmeling's two principal advisors were American Jews -his manager, Joe Jacobs, and his trainer, Max Machon.

Schmeling was scolded one day in the mid-1930s by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who said: "Max, you are the only German athlete who is advised by Jews."

And the Nazis tried to separate Schmeling from his advisors.

"In 1934, I got a letter from Hans von Tschammer-Osten, head of sports during the Nazi regime, advising me to think about a separation with my manager, Joe Jacobs. I have carried this letter with me for a long time, and at the time, thought about what I could do.

"Finally, I contacted the Reichchancellery and Hitler's office for advice. A separation from Jacobs, who was an American Jew, would have meant the end of my career. Secondly, I had no intention at all and no reason to separate from him.

"Hitler read the letter but never took a position. Nobody ever talked to me about it again. Joe Jacobs remained my manager until 1940, when he died in the States."

In 1989, a Las Vegas hotel executive, Henri Lewin, a teenage German Jew in the 1930s, told a remarkable Schmeling story, set in Berlin in 1938.

Lewin, who was hosting a party for Schmeling, told about a thousand people: "I'm going to tell you what kind of champion Max Schmeling is.

"Beginning on Nov. 9, 1938, when I was 14, the Gestapo began picking up Jews off the streets all over Germany. Beginning that night, Max hid my brother and me in his Berlin apartment for four days.

"Max risked everything he had for us. If we had been found in his apartment, I would not be here this evening and neither would Max."

Schmeling's rematch with Louis came two years and three days after the first bout. The circumstances for the rematch were entirely different.

In 1936, it was two contenders battling in a non-title bout. But on June 22, 1938, Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion of a world on the cusp of major conflict.

With tickets scaled from $5.75 to $30, 70,043 filled Yankee Stadium. The first 38 rows around the ring were all $30 seats. Outside, scalpers got $75 to $125 for the $30 seats.

Schmeling, sportswriters never failed to point out, albeit incorrectly, was Hitler's and Goebbels' fair-haired boy. Der Max, they called him.

Schmeling seemed to be more popular than Louis that night at Yankee Stadium, at least during the introductions. His ovation was clearly louder than Louis' from the crowd.

In 1938, many Americans still weren't ready for a black champion. However, most did appreciate the sweet taste of revenge. And in the stone-faced Louis, they looked at a great athlete, in his prime, who had waited two years for a second chance to fight the man who had humiliated him.

Also: Schmeling was 33, Louis 24. In the interim, Louis had defeated Jim Braddock and won the heavyweight championship. He said little about Schmeling in the two years, but was surely affected when told of Goebbels-inspired articles in German newspapers stating that Schmeling's 1936 victory over Louis proved that black athletes "lacked the essential courage and mental capacity to stand up under a white boxer of equal ability."

Louis, in black trunks, weighed 198¾; Schmeling, in purple, 193.

For 1 minute, 25 seconds, Louis was a determined but careful aggressor. Schmeling, appearing timid and backing up, threw one right hand that landed on Louis' face. But Louis backed up only a step, a one second delay in an impending slaughter the likes of which hadn't been seen in a heavyweight title fight since Jack Dempsey nearly killed Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio in 1919.

At 1:25 of the first round, the thunder and lightning began.

Louis, appearing far more alert than he did in the 1936 bout, backed Schmeling into the ropes on the side of the ring nearest where Lou Gehrig covered first base for the New York Yankees. There, Schmeling was about to experience the worst minute of his life and Louis would reach the pinnacle of one of boxing's great careers.

The punch that began it all was a solid right to Schmeling's jaw. It wobbled his head and caused him to back up along the ropes, where he clutched the top rope with his right hand. Louis threw two more savage punches, forcing Schmeling to turn and cower toward the ropes. But there was nowhere to hide.

The fourth punch was a crushing right to Schmeling's left kidney region, a punch that literally broke Schmeling's back. Later, his handlers would cry foul. They would also display X-rays, showing a cracked vertebra. On video cassettes of the fight today, you see Schmeling's head rise up, his face twisted by pain.

More thundering punches. Arthur Donovan, again the referee, apparently thinking Schmeling was being held up only by Louis' punches, separated the two.

At that point, Schmeling was desperately in need of a nine-count. But he remained standing. With his right hand still clutching the top rope, he looked left for his cornermen, but couldn't see them. Then he faced Louis again. He looked alone, and afraid.

He stood there, dazed, while Louis rushed in again. A short left preceded a tremendous right. Schmeling's head wobbled uncontrollably and his hair shook like a mop as he plummeted, face down, to the canvas.

It's a lesson from day one in boxing school that you take a nine count in such situations. But Schmeling, his mental capacity in disorder, arose immediately. His legs jerked spasmodically as a vengeful, cold-eyed Louis rushed in again.

It was high drama, and the entire Yankee Stadium crowd was on its feet, roaring. Thousands who had cheered Schmeling in the introductions had switched allegiances in less than two minutes. In Germany, millions listened at dawn to the broadcast.

Two lefts and two rights sent Schmeling down again to all fours. Again, he arose immediately. Again, Louis was on him quickly. He hit Schmeling with another right to the same kidney area and followed with a right to the jaw. Schmeling fell for the third time, and another roar rose up like a great wave from the throng. The count had reached "four" when a towel from Schmeling's corner sailed into the ring, a European signal for the referee to stop the bout, but not recognized in America.

Donovan stopped counting, threw the towel out of the ring, and started to resume his count. But Schmeling's cornermen had by then climbed into the ring, to comfort their fallen battler. They half-carried him to his corner.

After 2 minutes, 4 seconds, it was over.

He was born Max Siegfried Adolf Otto Schmeling on Sept. 28, 1905, at Klein-Luckow, a marshland village north of Berlin. His father was a pilot who grew potatoes on the side. Schmeling's earliest memories are of digging potatoes out of a field as a child, growing up in the chaotic post-World War I years in inflation-ravaged Germany.

In his adult years, Schmeling often said that to stay alive, he grew and stole potatoes. When his father tried to send him to a commercial school in Berlin, he ran away from home. He became a well digger on a labor crew near the Rhine when one day he scored a one-punch knockout of his foreman.

He turned into a boxing pro in the early 1920s, and a few years later was an established light-heavyweight in Germany.

In 1926, Schmeling won the European light-heavyweight title and, later, the European heavyweight title.

On June 12, 1930, he fought Jack Sharkey for the heavyweight title that had been vacant for two years, since Gene Tunney retired.

It was a long-awaited matchup , and over 79,000 fans jammed Yankee Stadium to see it.

Sharkey, a 9-5 favorite, outclassed Schmeling from rounds 1 through 3, beating him to the punch and generally pummeling him about the ring. But with five seconds left in the fourth round, Sharkey hit Schmeling with a left hook that was low. The German dropped to the canvas, writhing in pain.

Neither referee Jimmy Crowley, nor Judge Charles Mathison saw the blow. The second judge, Harold Barnes, did. On his word, Crowley disqualified Sharkey.

Schmeling was a champion in disgrace. He regained a measure of revenge by presenting a strong showing in losing the rematch, in 1932, on a decision. Most of those present that night agreed Schmeling should have been awarded the decision.

In 1938, when Schmeling returned to Germany after his one-round loss to Louis, the difference in receptions was startling. In 1936, he returned to a tumultuous welcome in Berlin and to parades throughout Germany. In 1938 only a few family members and a dozen reporters greeted him. He had spent two weeks in a New York hospital after the fight, recovering from the cracked vertebra.

During World War II, he was a paratrooper and was decorated for bravery in the Crete campaign.

This is actually Schmeling's second obituary. Germany mourned his death once before. A May 1941 report had it that Schmeling had been killed by the British during fighting on Crete. Wire service obituaries appeared in U.S. newspapers, and numerous boxing figures mourned his passing. One, ex-champion Jack Dempsey, said: "That's too bad. He was a great fighter and a great fellow. And he really wasn't in favor of the Nazis at all. He told me that once in a private conversation."

Schmeling, it turned out, was alive but ailing (from food poisoning) at a German Army hospital in Greece.

Like his American rival, Louis, he resumed his boxing career after World War II, but found himself past his peak. After five lackluster performances, he retired in 1948, at 43. He was active in various business enterprises. He was a mink rancher and tobacco farmer into the mid-1950s, when he became part owner of the Coca Cola bottling franchise in Hamburg.

He loved to reminisce about his years in boxing, and of his friendship in later years with Joe Louis, who died in 1981.

He lived his last years in Hollenstedt, located between Hamburg and Bremen. His vigorous good health in his later years was a source of constant comment in the German press. He was an avid deer hunter and trap and skeet shooter into his 80s. And Westerman told the story of Schmeling visiting Mexico City in 1975, with a group of Coca Cola executives touring Latin American bottling plants:

"One day the group was bused to the ancient Teotihuacan pyramids, north of Mexico City. It was hot, and some of the executives began complaining about having to walk several hundred yards to the pyramids. Max was appalled at their physical condition and said so. He was very proud of his good health. To prove it, he ran to the top-he was 70, mind you-of the highest pyramid (210 feet), turned and waved to them, down below. It simply amazed everyone."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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