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His legacy defies Nazi propaganda

Max Schmeling, whose fights against Joe Louis helped build and debunk the myth of Aryan supremacy, is dead at 99.

By wire services
Published February 5, 2005


Max Schmeling is dead.

There was a time when those four words likely would have set off spasms of grand celebration in the United States and around the world, because the hatred for what Mr. Schmeling was assumed to be by so many ran so deep.

Hitler portrayed him as an Aryan Superman after he knocked out Joe Louis in 1936, but there was another side to Mr. Schmeling.

Mr. Schmeling, who was badly defeated in a politically charged rematch 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 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," Mr. Schmeling said in 1993.

Mr. Schmeling became the first professional fighter to knock out Louis when the two first met in a non-title match at Yankee Stadium in June 1936. At the time, few people expected Louis, a young, undefeated African-American boxer known as the "Brown Bomber," to lose to the German fighter, who held the world heavyweight title in the early 1930s.

The upset was the high point in the career of Mr. Schmeling, who had become the first German to hold the world heavyweight title in 1930 when, in a controversial bout, Jack Sharkey - ahead on judges' scorecards - was disqualified for a low blow in the fourth round.

Mr. Schmeling, who once fought for the German equivalent of $5 a fight, was considered over the hill when he knocked out Louis in the 12th round of their first bout.

He then returned to Nazi Germany a national hero and became a symbol of Hitler's master race theory. Although not a member of the Nazi Party, Mr. Schmeling appeared to bask in the attention and gratitude of the Third Reich. He received a personal appointment from Hitler to serve as an adviser to youth athletic groups. It was a tumultuous time, however, as German troops invaded Austria and the scope of the persecution of Jews began to surface.

Mr. Schmeling, who denied he was an anti-Semite, later said he was exploited by the propaganda machinery of the Nazi regime and explained how he once pleaded with Hitler to allow him to retain his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs.

In boxing, "We are not conscious of protestants, Catholics, Jews or Negroes. ... We are interested only in boxing. It was clear from Hitler's stony silence that he did not like this at all, but I insisted that I needed Herr Jacobs and that so much of what I had achieved in the United States was due to him," Mr. Schmeling said in a 2003 interview with the Sunday Times in South Africa.

Still, Mr. Schmeling, was widely seen as a Nazi boxer. The buildup to the rematch between Mr. Schmeling and Louis in 1938 reached epic proportions as the two became the human faces of their respective countries' ideals. In one corner, there was Louis and democracy; in the other, Mr. Schmeling and fascism. Louis, now the world champion, was eager to avenge his only loss. Reviled in the U.S. media as a Nazi, Mr. Schmeling faced protesters at his New York hotel and jeers in the streets.

Before 80,000 people in Yankee Stadium, Louis made good on his promise to finish Mr. Schmeling quickly. Louis stalked Mr. Schmeling at the opening bell, then unleashed a fury of power punches to the body and head that buckled the former champion. A kidney punch from Louis broke Mr. Schmeling's vertebra. Once a skilled counter-puncher compared to the great Jack Dempsey, Mr. Schmeling was left bloodied and severely beaten when the fight was stopped a little more than two minutes into the first round.

It would be Mr. Schmeling's last major fight and would be remembered as one of the greatest sports events of the 20th century. Millions around the world listened to a blow-by-blow account on their radios.

Mr. Schmeling, who soon fell out of favor with Germany's leaders, eventually was drafted into the Army. He trained as a Nazi parachute infantryman and participated in the aerial invasion of the Greek island of Crete.

In 1947, after he was cleared of any war crimes, Mr. Schmeling attempted a comeback with a lackluster performance in Kassel, Germany, that failed to impress observers about whether he could again seriously challenge for the title. He had hoped to fight in a series of exhibition bouts in the United States, but his travel visa request was denied.

Nearly destitute, Mr. Schmeling used his ring earnings to buy a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Germany, which he turned into a profitable business. He also operated a farm, where he raised animals for their furs.

He got a visa in 1954, and paid a surprise visit to Joe Louis, then living in Chicago. "I said, "Joe, you didn't believe all those bad things they wrote about me,' " Mr. Schmeling later wrote. "He said he knew that it was all bull, and so we struck up a warm friendship."

Angelo Dundee, a legendary boxing trainer who was a teenager in South Philadelphia when Mr. Schmeling twice fought Joe Louis, remembers Mr. Schmeling as a gentleman.

"I knew Joe a lot better than I knew Max," Dundee said. "Joe could be friends with anybody. It turned out pretty good that he made friends with Max.

"You know what I say? I say there are people who'd complain if an angel come down to earth, because they'd say the wings weren't right."

In a manner, Mr. Schmeling turned out to be something of an angel for Louis, providing money to the down-and-out fighter.

They were to see each other several times before Louis' death in 1981. When Louis was profiled on the television show This Is Your Life, Mr. Schmeling showed up, as he did when Frank Sinatra staged a benefit for Louis in Las Vegas. When Louis died, Mr. Schmeling helped pay for his funeral.

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

Lewin, who was hosting a party for Mr. 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."

Mr. Schmeling also reportedly used his influence to save Jewish friends from concentration camps.

He was born in Brandenburg, Germany, the son of a merchant marine officer. He enjoyed wrestling and soccer before taking up boxing as a teenager.

His wife, the former German film actor Anny Ondra, died in 1987.