The tall, smiling man moves around his office like a boxer. His springy stance is balanced slightly forward, shoulders poised as if to strike or block a blow.
Max Schmeling is 83 now, but the former world heavyweight boxing champion appears to be in good shape physically; mentally, he is an alert and pleasant man, who, 50 years after his career in the prize ring, remains one of Germany’s all-time favorite sports figures.
His office is adorned with pictures and mementos of his days as the Continent’s foremost boxer, though from outside the door comes the unlikely rattle of a bottling assembly line: Schmeling runs Coca-Cola in Hamburg.
And, of course, there is a picture of his most famous antagonist: Joe Louis, the U.S. heavyweight whose defeat by Schmeling in 1936 was regarded by many Americans as a national tragedy, one that had to be redeemed. And it was, 50 years ago, when American honor was vindicated by Louis in a second bout against “Hitler’s man” that was preceded by enormous transatlantic ballyhoo and propaganda.
“Joe and I later became very good friends,” Schmeling recalled in a rare interview. “But in the 1930s, everything was overshadowed by politics, Roosevelt and Hitler, national honor.
“After the war, I was invited to Milwaukee, and (I) asked where Joe Louis was living. I was given an address in Chicago and I drove to his home, but he was out golfing. So I waited. He arrived a half-hour later and we had a wonderful talk.
“I said, ‘Joe, you didn’t believe all those bad things they wrote about me.’ He said he knew that it was all bull, and so we struck up a warm friendship. He even visited me right here where you are sitting.
“Over the years, we must have gotten together at least a dozen times. The last time, I went to a benefit organized for him by Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. I didn’t only like him, I loved him.”
“After Louis died in 1981, I met President Reagan in Germany and thanked him for having Joe buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The President said: ‘Max, he deserved it.’ ”
It was the Schmeling-Louis confrontation that gripped the Western world in the 1930s, when Louis was the young, unstoppable “Brown Bomber” and Schmeling, the heavyweight “Nazi” champion.
Schmeling had won the world championship in 1930 when he was fouled by Jack Sharkey in the fourth round of their fight in New York in a bout to determine the successor to Gene Tunney, who had retired.
“I didn’t want to win on a low blow,” Schmeling said, “but (writer) Paul Gallico told me, ‘Max, you’re crazy. Take the title.’ So I went on to fight and beat Young Stribling.”
But Sharkey regained the title in 1932, when he scored a 15-round decision in Long Island City, N.Y., a bout many thought Schmeling should have won.
“Jack Sharkey is still alive, by the way, in Hartford, Conn.,” Schmeling said. “He must be nearly 90.”
Between the wars, Schmeling, who was named Maximilian but known throughout Germany as “Maxey,” was part of boxing’s golden age. His first professional bout was in 1924, and his first trip to America was in 1928, where he attracted attention because of his resemblance to his hero, former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.
Schmeling knew, and sometimes fought, the major heavyweights of the time: Dempsey, Tunney, Max Baer, James J. Braddock, Primo Carnera, Mickey Walker and Georges Carpentier.
In 1933, he married Czech actress Anny Ondra and they became part of the glittering Berlin crowd.
But Schmeling also liked America. As he put it, “I always saw America as my second home. Actually, Jack Dempsey advised me to become an American citizen. But I said, ‘Jack, you can’t change your country like a shirt.’ My wife was in Germany, my home was in Germany.”
On June 19, 1936, Schmeling faced the hard-charging, undefeated Louis in Yankee Stadium. Schmeling was an 8-1 underdog in the non-title bout. To the astonishment of nearly everyone, Schmeling knocked out Louis in the 12th round, one of boxing’s greatest upsets.
Said Schmeling: “I went to America to watch Louis fight against Paulino Uzcudun, the Spanish champion, and noticed that after a jab, he would drop his left arm leaving the left side of his head open. So I knew I could beat Louis, though everyone laughed at me for thinking that.
“I caught him with a right in the fourth round and he went down for the first time in his career, but he recovered very strongly. He had a big heart and was a good puncher. In the 12th round, I hit him hard and then I got him again and he was staggering. I tried to finish him. I hit him with a right and he went down and didn’t come up.”
Americans, by and large, were aghast that Germany’s “Heil Hitler Hero,” as Schmeling was called in the press, could inflict Louis’ first professional loss.
At the time, Jim Braddock was the world heavyweight champion, and the winner of the Louis-Schmeling bout was supposed to fight Braddock for the title. But, according to Schmeling, Braddock managed to delay the fight, failing at one point to turn up for his physical, so that Schmeling had to return to Germany without getting his second shot at the heavyweight crown.
Instead, Braddock fought Louis in 1937 in Chicago and was knocked out in eight rounds. Louis, as champion, signed to fight Schmeling on June 22, 1938, a bout that received an international build-up.
“By then everything was politics,” Schmeling recalled. “People said Hitler had told me that I had to kill this black man. I was the ‘Nazi bastard,’ though I was no Nazi. It was silly.
“I was almost 33, and I didn’t have the reactions of a man of 24, like Louis. The fight was very short. He overran me without hesitation. My trainer yelled, ‘Move, Max, move.’ But I couldn’t get away. And I couldn’t stop him. This is no excuse. But on that day, nobody could beat Louis.”
Schmeling was knocked out after a brutal sequence of blows in 2 minutes 4 seconds of the first round.
Schmeling returned to Germany, but this time there were no greetings.
“Nobody was there,” he said. “I was forgotten. But that’s just life.”
However, he regained the European heavyweight championship in 1939, and Joe Jacobs, Schmeling’s American friend and manager, wanted to set up a third bout with Louis.
But the war changed all plans. Louis entered the U.S. Army and served in sports programs. Schmeling joined the German paratroops, at the advanced age of 35, partly to spur enlistment in that hazardous service.
He jumped with airborne troops in the 1941 invasion of Crete, was wounded, and received the Iron Cross for bravery. He left the service in 1943.
After the war, Schmeling fought five times in Germany, winning three, before retiring at 43.
Schmeling had known James A. Farley, former U.S. postmaster-general and Democratic Party chairman, who as a Coca-Cola official suggested that the ex-boxer join the firm in Germany.
Ever since, Schmeling has been with the company as an executive and a goodwill emissary, widely sought for appearances. These days, he still visits the office almost daily from his home in Hollenstedt, between Hamburg and Bremen.
“I try to get into the office every day,” he said. “Usually a half-day. I believe that what you can’t do in 3 or 4 hours, you can’t do in 10. I have a small apartment here if I need to stay overnight.”
His wife died early last year, and he spent a year in virtual mourning, making no public appearances.
To stay in shape, Schmeling rides a bicycle and hunts. He also likes skeet and trap-shooting. His formula for a long and active life is to keep busy.
“The human is born to do something with his whole life,” he said. “If he stops, he won’t make it much longer.”
As for keeping his public image, he signs about 20,000 autographs a year to fans bridging three generations. Of that, he says: “It’s as easy to sign your name as saying no. I still get mail from America and send back a signed photo.”
Recently, Schmeling was asked by the young West German tennis star Steffi Graf how he maintained his popularity for 60 years.
“I told her that a smile doesn’t cost anything and your fans won’t forget it,” he said. “And, most important, to keep both feet on the ground.”