Max Schmeling wanted to be a heavyweight champion, not a symbol of Nazi supremacy. Though he thrilled Germany by knocking out Joe Louis, there was another side to the fighter that Hitler tried to portray as an Aryan Superman.
Max Schmeling, who fought Louis in two of the most politically charged sporting events ever on the eve of World War II, once hid two Jewish boys in his apartment from marauding Nazis and later reportedly helped some Jewish friends escape death camps.
He said he feared only one thing in a long life that ended Wednesday February 2nd at the age of 99. "I don't want anyone to say I was a good athlete but worth nothing as a human being, I couldn't bear that," Schmeling said in 1993.
The German had nothing to fear in the end. Tributes poured in across his homeland, where he remained a huge idol renowned for his generosity long after his fights with Joe Louis sparked a propaganda war between the Nazi regime and the United States.
German president Horst Koehler, on a state visit to Israel, lauded Schmeling as a "great example in sport" and for "his humanity." Formula One champion Michael Schumacher called Schmeling "a man of firm principles."
Over the years, Schmeling gave hundreds of thousands to help the elderly and poor through the Max Schmeling Foundation. He treasured his friendship with Louis and quietly gave the down-and-out American gifts of money. He also paid for Louis' funeral in 1981.
Gene Kilroy, Muhammad Ali's old business manager, said he talked to Ali on Friday. Kilroy said Ali told him: "Max Schmeling had a lot of class. He had a lot of respect for Joe Louis in the ring and out of the ring. I'm sure he's in heaven now. He and Joe are talking about their old fights."
Schmeling took numbers of young athletes under his wing during the final decades of his life, among them Ukrainian heavyweight fighters Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.
"A friend and mentor to us has died. He meant a lot to us," said Vitali Klitschko, the WBC heavyweight champion. "He sent us faxes by victories and comforted us in defeats. Max Schmeling showed us the way to America."
Max Schmeling was buried February 4th next to his wife, Anny Ondra, in Hollenstedt, Germany at a ceremony attended by a small circle of friends. Pastor Olaf Koenitz said it was Schmeling's wish to be buried privately.
Max Schmeling's extraordinary career will be remembered for his bouts with Louis, which produced a lasting bond between the boxers despite a charged atmosphere when they fought.
Born on September 28, 1905, of humble origins in a small town in the state of Brandenburg, Schmeling became interested in boxing after seeing a film about the sport, and became the first German and European heavyweight world champion when he beat Jack Sharkey in New York on June 12, 1930, after the American was disqualified for a 4th-round low blow. He was the only German to be world heavyweight champion.
Schmeling lost his title to Sharkey two years later on a disputed decision but came back to knock out the previously unbeaten Louis in the 12th round on June 19, 1936, which the Nazi regime trumpeted as a sign of "Aryan supremacy."
Schmeling was a 10-1 underdog and his victory is considered one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. However, in a rematch at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round.
The fight was a huge event worldwide and left a lasting impression on his era of Germans, who followed blow-by-blow on radio.
"Millions of people literally crawled onto the radio because of the tension -- I couldn't sit still, either," recalled German singer and actor Johannes Heesters, now 101. "Someone like him will never be forgotten, not as an athlete and not as a human being."
At first, Max Schmeling was popular in the United States. But by the time the rematch with Louis took place, he was viewed as a symbol of the Nazis. The fight was portrayed in both countries as good vs. evil. President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House to exhort the black boxer to beat Schmeling. Louis, then the champion, sent the German challenger to the canvas four times and knocked him out in 2 minutes, 4 seconds of the first round.
"Looking back, I'm almost happy I lost that fight," Max Schmeling said in 1975. "Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal."
After the loss, the Nazis distanced themselves from Schmeling. In 1940, he was drafted into the military as a parachutist. A year later, he was severely injured and hospitalized for months.
Despite the picture of him in the United States as a tool of the Nazis, Schmeling had run-ins with the regime even before the first Louis fight. Although he had lunched with Hitler and had long discussions with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Schmeling angered the Nazi bosses in 1935 by refusing to join the Nazi party, fire his Jewish-American manager, Joe Jacobs, and divorce Ondra, a Czech-born film star.
During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Schmeling extracted a promise from Hitler that all U.S. athletes would be protected. He hid two Jewish boys in his Berlin apartment during Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis burned books in a central square and rampaged through the city, setting synagogues on fire, and reportedly used his influence to save Jewish friends from concentration camps.
After the war, Schmeling was nearly destitute and fought 5 more times for the money. He retired after a 10-round loss to Walter Neusel in 1948 at 43 with a record of 56-10-4 with 39 knockouts.
Schmeling would use the money from the bouts to buy the license to the Coca-Cola franchise in Germany and grew wealthy in the postwar era. He also marketed his name, retaining his huge popularity in Germany despite his problems with the Nazis.
In his final years, Schmeling spent three or four hours a day watching television in his home in Hollenstedt. He remained married to Ondra for 54 years until she died in 1987. The two, who met on the set of a film in which Schmeling appeared, married in 1932. They had no children.
"I had a happy marriage and a nice wife," Schmeling said in 1985. "I accomplished everything you can. What more can you want?"
According to his good friend, German soccer great Uwe Seeler, the former boxer did pass away with one regret after all. "He absolutely wanted to live to a hundred; I would have wished him that," Seeler said. "But he passed away peacefully in his sleep."
©2005 Tank Productions.