September 26, 2003

German boxing legend turns 98


HOLLENSTEDT – It is as if time has stood still for the last decade – apart from a few extra wrinkles on his face and a slightly slower pace Max Schmeling has not changed a bit since our last meeting in 1993.

Remarkable that is – as Germany’s only world boxing heavyweight champion turns 98 on Sunday.

”I am not the youngest person,” says Schmeling, shrugging off his slower pace.

But Schmeling still has the same demeanour as in the past, the same gestures, expressions, laughs – not to mention his regular Wednesday card games.

The normal routine will apply on Sunday when his friends pay their respects at his home in Hollenstedt just outside Hamburg.

And as far as Schmeling is concerned, they will have to show up at least twice more.

”I would like to make the 100 years. I love life and want to see a lot more of it – although I can’t be as much part of it as in the past,” he says.

Schmeling has been out of boxing since 1948, when he lost in ten rounds to Reifdel Vogt, after winning 56 of his 70 professional bouts during his 24-year career.

Along with footballer Franz Beckenbauer he is Germany’s most respected sports icon – mainly for his world heavyweight titles in 1930 and 1931.

Schmeling made his professional debut in Dusseldorf in 1924, knocking out Hans Czapp in the sixth round, and when he won the European light-heavyweight title in 1927 it was the first bout broadcast live on German radio.

Schmeling became the first star of the new broadcast medium, with millions tuning in to hear commentaries.

In 1928, he captured the German heavyweight crown before deciding to go to the United States to further his career where on 28 November of the same year he knocked out Joe Monte in eight rounds.

Victories over high-ranking fighters such as Johnny Risko, known as the Cleveland Rubber Man, and Paolino Uzcudun earned him a shot at the heavyweight title, and on 12 June 1930 he entered the ring at the Yankee Stadium against Jack Sharkey for the vacant heavyweight title.

In the fourth round, Sharkey was disqualified for hitting low and Schmeling became the first European to win the world heavyweight title.

Schmeling successfully defended the title in Cleveland in 1931 against Young Stribling with a 15th-round technical knock out. It brought a rematch with Sharkey in New York on June 21, 1932, which the German lost on points to a split decision.

However, Schmeling’s worldwide fame came thanks to a non-title bout in 1936 against the formidable Joe Louis, at the time unbeaten.

Before a crowd of over 42,000 in New York’s Yankee Stadium, Schmeling had the 22-year-old Louis down in the fourth round before knocking him out in the 12th in what was considered, at the time, to be the sporting shock of the century.

Louis later won the heavyweight title and a rematch was fixed for 1938, and the ”Brown Bomber gained revenge by knocking out the German in 124 seconds of the first round.

Although Hitler never forgave him for refusing to join the Nazi Party, Schmeling was used as a propaganda tool by the regime which depicted the first win over Louis as a victory for ”Aryan supremacy”.

Cinemas showed the fight under the title, ”Max Schmeling’s victory – a German victory”.

As Germany’s best-known sportsman, he was also used by the Nazis to persuade the Americans to take part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics despite reservations over growing anti-Semitism in the country. Schmeling later expressed his regret at this saying he had been ”utterly naive”.

However the boxer resisted Nazi demands he separate from his Czech actress wife, Anny Ondran, or his Jewish manager in the U.S. Joe Jacobs and his many Jewish friends.

It also later emerged that Schmeling risked his own life by hiding two Jewish children during Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 when thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes in Germany were damaged in a pogrom, and that he helped Jews and dissidents escape deportation.

The 1938 episode recently led to a special honour from the ”International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation” (IRWF), named after the Swedish diplomat who tried to save as many Jewish lives as possible and then vanished at the end of World War II.

Schmeling was originally to receive the medal at the IRWF headquarters in Buenos Aires, but didn’t feel fit for the long trip and then also rejected a public ceremony in Germany.

That was also no surprise as the long-time owner of a drinks company has rarely appeared in public after the 1987 death of his wife.

© copyright 2003 Expatica Communications BV