Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling (German pronunciation: [maks ˈʃmeːlɪŋ], audio (help·info); 28 September 1905 – 2 February 2005) was a German boxer who was heavyweight champion of the world between 1930 and 1932. His two fights with Joe Louis in 1936 and 1938 were worldwide cultural events because of their national associations. Schmeling is the only boxer to win the world heavyweight championship on a foul.
Starting his professional career in 1924, Schmeling went to the United States in 1928 and, after a ninth-round technical knockout of Johnny Risko, became a sensation. He became the first to win the heavyweight championship (at that time vacant) by disqualification in 1930, after opponent Jack Sharkey knocked him down with a low blow in the fourth round. Schmeling retained his crown successfully in 1931 by a technical knockout victory over Young Stribling. A rematch in 1932 with Sharkey saw the American gaining the title from Schmeling by a controversial fifteen-round split decision. In 1933, Schmeling lost to Max Baer by a tenth-round technical knockout. The loss left people believing that Schmeling was past his prime. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took over control in Germany, and Schmeling, although he never joined the NSDAP, came to be viewed as a Nazi puppet. The same year, he married Czech film actress Anny Ondra.
In 1936, in their first fight Schmeling knocked out American rising star Joe Louis, placing him as the number one contender for Jim Braddock‘s title, but Louis got the fight and knocked Braddock out to win the championship in 1937. Schmeling finally got a chance to regain his title in 1938 in the rematch, but Louis won by technical knockout in the first round. During World War II, Schmeling served with the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) as an elite paratrooper (Fallschirmjäger). After the war, Schmeling mounted a comeback, but retired permanently in 1948. After retiring from boxing, Schmeling worked for The Coca-Cola Company. Schmeling became friends with Louis, and their friendship lasted until the latter’s death in 1981. Schmeling died in 2005 aged 99, a sporting hero in his native Germany. Long after the Second World War, it was revealed that Schmeling had risked his life to save the lives of two Jewish children in 1938. At the age of 99, Schmeling was the longest living heavyweight boxing champion in history.
Returning to his native Germany, Schmeling won three of his next four fights, with one draw, including knockout wins over first Walter Neusel, then another avenging his previous loss to Steve Hamas. However, many among the American press and fans remained unmoved on the idea of rooting for Schmeling in light of the Nazi Party’s behavior. Articles continued to be published declaring the German “washed up”, a “has been”, or a “Nazi puppet”. When he was matched with undefeated boxing sensation Joe Louis in 1936 for the German’s first fight on American soil in more than two years, he was clearly the betting underdog, considered a name opponent for Louis to roll over on his route to the title. Nevertheless, he was the number two contender for the title behind Louis. Prior to the match, Schmeling carefully studied films of Louis’s prior fights, dissecting apparent flaws in the Detroit fighter’s technique. Among the weaknesses he noticed was the fact that Louis lowered his left hand after throwing a left jab. In the ring, Schmeling exploited this subtle flaw to his own advantage, countering nearly every Louis jab with his best punch, the right cross. The fight proved to be a competitive, hard-hitting affair for the first three rounds, but, in the fourth, a counter right from the German dropped Louis for the first time in his career. Though Louis rose, he was badly dazed for the remainder of the fight. For a further eight rounds, Schmeling battered Louis, often standing toe-to-toe with the vaunted puncher and landing that same right hand to the jaw repeatedly. In the twelfth, he sent the American tumbling to the floor once more, and this time Louis could not recover. He was counted out on the floor, and Schmeling had scored the most talked-about sports upset of the year.
Now the unexpected number one contender for the heavyweight crown held by Jim Braddock, Schmeling looked forward to his chance to become the first fighter to regain the world heavyweight title by winning the fight with Braddock that had been scheduled for that September. The fight was postponed, however, when Braddock injured his hand in training. Rumors existed that the fight’s organizers were stalling, afraid of the negative publicity that would be generated over a perceived Nazi getting a shot at the world’s title. When it was confirmed that Braddock’s managers were in talks with the Louis camp, the New York Commission officially released an order for Braddock to fight Schmeling for the title. Any other fight, with Louis or otherwise, would not be recognized by New York as being for the championship. The Madison Square Garden Corporation, the largest promotional company in the sport at the time, even attempted to get a legal injunction against a Braddock-Louis fight (Louis was not on their roster). Nonetheless, in February 1937, Schmeling received the news that the champion had indeed signed to defend his championship against Louis. A furious Schmeling protested, but to no avail, and he was forced to watch from ringside as Louis knocked Braddock out and gained the championship. Sorely disappointed and convinced that he would never receive his chance at redemption, Schmeling fought just once more in America, an eighth-round knockout of future contender Harry Thomas, before returning to Germany. In his native land, Schmeling was regarded as a hero and promoted by the Nazi propaganda machine as a perfect example of German supremacy over the rest of the world by virtue of his defeat of the current champion, Louis. The government ordered parades and rallies in his honor. He became a friend to Hitler and other powerful figures in the government and also a popular subject of newspaper articles and films. He continued to press for a chance at a rematch with Louis and in the meantime padded his record against overmatched fighters Ben Foord and Steve Dudas.
In 1938, champion Joe Louis announced that he would face Schmeling for the title. The rematch became an instant international sensation. Many clamored impatiently for its happening, but others, afraid of international tensions and the possibility of Hitler taking over the championship, protested. The controversy and ballyhoo led to the event becoming the most anticipated boxing match since the rematch between Dempsey and Gene Tunney, or possibly earlier. Louis, with his poor, lower-class roots, was adopted by American fans as the symbol of America as a land of opportunity. In contrast, Americans perceived Schmeling and his ties to Hitler as an obvious threat to those opportunities and ideals. When the German walked to the ring at Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938, he did so under a hail of garbage thrown from the stands. Louis came out blazing in the first round and Schmeling tried to counter-punch as he had in the first bout, but to no avail. Driven into the ropes and battered with a fusillade of short, crisp blows from every angle, Schmeling turned his back to his opponent and clutched onto the ropes, letting out a scream that even years later, many spectators could recall vividly. Schmeling later said that he screamed because he had been hit with a blow to the kidneys. Schmeling’s knees buckled under the punishment, and referee Arthur Donovan pushed Louis away, beginning a count on Schmeling. Schmeling reluctantly stepped away from the ropes, and Donovan allowed him to continue. A few punches later, Schmeling was knocked down again. From then on, he was helpless. He rose but fell moments later, and Donovan stopped the fight.
Many years later, in 1975, Schmeling said, “Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight. 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.”