December 2, 2005

Surprise Coups


Washington, D.C. In a recent encounter with Baruch Tenembaum, president of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, I learned about some unknown facts that left me with my mouth wide open.

Tenembaum was born in the Santa Fe province’s town of Las Palmeras and has become one of the most efficient promoters of universal harmony. The Foundation he presides over, inspired by the heroism of the Swede Raoul Wallenberg, has gathered numberless personalities from around the world, with dozens of Nobel Prize winners, statesmen from the five continents and social fighters that sustain the positive pedagogy of discovering, distinguishing, and rewarding those who work hard in order to save lives and approach cultures.

Well, this man of solid knowledge, that is fluent in many languages and is often required by community and religious leaders has predilection for a sport that would rather seem odd to any naïve look. It is a sport that seems incompatible with his spirituality: boxing. Noticed from my surprised incredulity, he had no trouble in showing me videos and recordings he has collected of figures that have shaken up the boxing rings, as well as information on techniques and stellar movements.

He never practiced this sport and is of course aware of the medical objections that surround it. But he admires the virtuosity of those that know how to avoid and direct punches while they deploy a magic dance and all their bodies’ muscles vibrate like the tuned chords of a violin. Maybe his peace efforts, I wondered, required the compensation of a partially sublimated violence.

The second surprise was to receive the news from him of who was the first boxer that transformed the impious fight in a well regulated sport. I ignored it. Until then, all I knew was that boxing, in a very rudimentary fashion, had been practiced in the Crete Mycenae, some 1.500 years B.C. and that it got to occupy an outstanding position in the antiquity’s Olympic Games. I also knew that it was the Romans that degraded its athletic qualities in favor of brutality. Mobs were most stirred up by seeing how gladiators tore each other, and for doing so they transformed their arms in a club wrapping it up in leather containing lead. Later this sport, condemned as bloody, entered a long lethargy, like almost all others.

Its resurrection came because of the persistence of a 18th Century man that had all the elements that we would today call globalizers: he was Jewish, English and his surname was from Spanish origin: Mendoza. The Encyclopedia Britannica affirms that Daniel Mendoza ”was the first scientific boxer in the history of boxing”. He was born in London’s borough of Whitechapel and became a professional boxer in 1790. In those times there were fifteen acclaimed heavyweight champions and Mendoza became one of them, even though his weight was not heavy, but his intelligence governed his physique and not the reverse, as it used to happen in most of those that cultivated these kinds of fights. Thanks to his obsession for transforming the mere fight in an art, he ascended into the first posts and got boxing to quit being a savage fight, bared of mystery and charm. Proud of his origin -maybe a main and very hard challenge in his time- he asked to be called ”Mendoza the Jewish”, but his fans preferred to call him ”The Star of Israel”. Daniel Mendoza was discovered by who would later become his hardest rival, Richard Humphrey. In that time, Mendoza worked in a pub when a very chunky and disgusted client attacked the owner. The boy ran into the defense of his boss, engaging in a prolonged fight, in which he avoided to use any other arms than his naked fists, even though he had at his disposal a chair’s leg and a knife’s handle. His tidy and sustained fight gathered a growing crowd, in which was Humphrey, who was most impressed at the young man’s qualities. He decided then to invite him to become a boxer and so began his shining race. From the very beginning he applied himself to agree on rules that eliminated the low blows and the dirty schemes. It was a task that consumed him long hours dedicated to negotiate and to persuade, taking off space to training or rest. It was not easy to convince that a combat with clear rules that preserved the health of the sportsman and would turn the tactics more complex, would be more advisable than a ferocious fight decided to operate any resource. His intentions had a slanted humanism that sounded strange and even ridiculous. He wrote a book that became a classic: The art of boxing. Finally he influenced the sportsmen, who followed him. His didactic perseverance began to gain followers and the wild fisticuffs entered in a decisive metamorphosis. Mendoza imposed a turn without return. His arduous performance gained him the patronage of the Prince of Wales.

Mendoza, as it would happen later with almost all the champions, was transformed into a rich man, but its generosity consumed his patrimony until he became a debtor that finished in jail. After recovering his freedom, he dedicated himself into working in a pub, the scope to which he had been devoted before initiating his full parabola of light. His life was closed as a circular and disturbing story, a matrix that amount of boxers would repeat: he died in indigence, in spite of having taken an honorable life. When in 1965 the Boxing Hall of Fame was inaugurated, Daniel Mendoza was one of first ones being chosen for the tribute.

The last blow of surprise that Baruch Tenembaum bestowed upon me was the true history of Max Schmeling, the German boxer who Hitler wanted to turn into a forceful test on the superiority of the Aryan race. Perhaps the readers would remember his combats with the American black Joe Louis, of whom almost all the humanity was pending. Also that Schmeling was assigned by a personal decision from Hitler to a suicidal body of parachutists towards the end of the war. The history that was dusted later, nevertheless, refutes that the persistence of the Nazis to turn this heavyweight into an emblem of its deliriums had counted with his approval.

His race began when he was 19 years old, in 1924. He gained the title of mid-heavy and in 1929 he arrived in New York, then the stronghold of the world-wide boxing. There he defeated two champions and in 1936 he obtained the world-wide title in front of Joe Louis, who was considered the greatest in history. The Nazi regime trembled with enthusiasm and decided to mix Schmeling in its propaganda as a proof that the Aryans were superior to other races.

The expected reamtch took place the 22nd of June,1938 in the Yankee Stadium of New York before a multitude of 70,000 people and clusters of journalists of the radial and written press of several continents. The combat was not only sporty, but it also dissolved ardent political and racial questions. Joe Louis was motivated to demolish the prejudices the Nazis maintained. The stadium radiated electricity that arrived until the borders of the globe. Those who could enter the place and those that followed it by radio expected that rounds would go away as tense ties and that probably neither colossus could gain a forceful victory. But they were mistaken. The fight hardly lasted two minutes and four seconds. Max Schmeling could not control the surprise that meant the cataract of blows that unloaded with all his energies the so called ”Brown Bomber”. It was a hailstorm unstoppable and demolishing, impossible to give back.

Upon return to its country, Schmeling crossed the fires of The Night of the Broken Crystals, the 9 of November of 1938, and was able to rescue two Jewish adolescents who were persecuted by criminals who struck and killed people. Investigations made after the war demonstrates that the boxer hid the young people in his suite from the Excelsior hotel and warned the front desk that nobody bothered him because he had the flu. After the progrom lessened, he was able to embark those young people towards the United States.

Hitler could not affiliate him with the Nazi Party, although he used an ample catalogue of seduction, pressure and threat. Hitler was advised not to send him to a concentration camp because Schmeling still enjoyed great popularity and his effect would have been negative for the regime. Then Hitler had him listed in an airborne troop that had to undertake suicidal actions. Schmeling took part in several actions but he was not killed nor was he hurt. After having gained fifty-six of seventy combats, he left boxing because of are reasons.

It was then when he began receiving more recognitions than ever from Germany and the United States because of his moral integrity. They granted him the Golden Tape that confers the Society of Sport Press of Germany. Later, the city of Los Angeles declared him Honorary Citizen, and in 1967 he received the Oscar of Sports. During that time he published his autobiography, where you can see the human quality that directed his acts at the moments of glory and those of penumbra. He became a great philanthropist and many of his ex-rivals became his friends. He helped Joe Louis in a dissembled form and, when he died, he paid for his funeral. In 2003, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation granted a distinction to him, by initiative of its president Baruch Tenembaum, who smiles from his document collection on boxing. Almost apologizing he tells me that this exceptional man died in Germany, at the age of 99.

Translation: Patricio Cavalli