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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Max Schmeling, 1905-2005

The one-time heavyweight champion of the world and unwilling Nazi symbol of Aryan racial supremacy Max Schmeling has died:

In one of boxing's more memorable nights and surely among the most electrifying 124 seconds in the history of sport, Louis, then heavyweight champion of the world, crushed Schmeling in front of 70,000 fans at Yankee Stadium. For Louis, the first-round knockout was sweet revenge: two years earlier, in what many consider one of the greatest upsets in heavyweight history, Schmeling had knocked out the undefeated and heavily favored Louis in the 12th round.

Between the two fights Louis had beaten James J. Braddock and become world heavyweight champion, a title that Schmeling had held from 1930 to 1932. But Louis hungered for a rematch. "I don't want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling," he said.

And in the supercharged politics of the late 1930's, with Hitler on the march, the Western democracies imperiled and race relations poised to enter a new and more contentious era, what ensued far transcended sport.

The Nazis had embraced Schmeling after his victory over Louis, touting him as proof of German racial superiority. Schmeling never joined the Nazi Party himself. But from the moment Hitler came to power in 1933, Schmeling had walked a tightrope, seeking simultaneously to please the Nazis while maintaining his relations in New York. That was the world capital of boxing, where Schmeling made most of his money, and where a large percentage of the boxing world - managers, promoters, fans - was Jewish.

Despite never choosing the mantle himself, in the eyes of many Americans Schmeling was the personification of Nazism, a standard-beared for National Socialism.

By the time of the rematch in the summer of 1938, Hitler was in full war cry. In March, he took Austria. Then he moved against Czechoslovakia. News of the persecution of Jews and suppression of civil liberties in Germany made it easy for fight fans, and everyone else, to see Schmeling as representative of Hitler. Louis, then, took America on his shoulders...To Schmeling's credit, he did nothing to portray himself as Hitler's fighter. "This is just another heavyweight fight," he said. "Of course, Hitler and all Germany is interested ... but sport is sport in Germany--nothing more.... "

Louis's defeat of Scmeling caused celebration throughout America.

It was no wonder that throughout black America Louis' swift and decisive victory was greeted with jubilation...Blacks of all ages celebrated in the streets. Years later, 'Jersey Joe' Walcott remembered that in his hometown of Camden people came 'pouring out of their houses. They were so happy. It was like New Year's Eve'. In Detroit, meanwhile, the city most closely associated with Joe Louis, 10,000 blacks in the 'Paradise Valley' section joyously sang and danced.

In the pre-Civil Rights era most black heroes were entertainers and sports stars. Joe Louis was fast becoming the greatest of black idols. At a time when 'coloured people', to use the term then in vogue, were overwhelmingly poor and powerless, Louis was becoming rich by dint of his power to render whites unconscious. At the same time a growing number of whites in the United States who had come to regard Hitler's totalitarian regime with dread and disgust embraced Louis as the standard bearer of Americanism.

There was a wonderful interview with Max Schmeling in Sport Illustrated back in 2001, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be online anywhere (well, it's almost certainly on Lexis-Nexis, but I don't have access to that). You can read a bit about that article here (scroll to the bottom).

|| RPH || 2:37 PM || |