A title won on a foul and a career marred by the political usage of his image were not enough to outweigh his masterful win against one of the best of all time in his prime. The great Max Schmeling was born 117 years ago today.
Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling was born on September 28, 1905 in Klein Luckow, a village within the current district of Jatznik, in Germany. In the late 1910’s, his father took him to watch a film of Jack Dempsey’s defense of the heavyweight title against Georges Carpentier. Schmeling claims he was inspired by that film to become a boxer. After a solid amateur career, he turned pro in 1924, and one year later he was in the ring with Jack Dempsey himself, in a four-round exhibition.
Encouraged by his performance against his hero, Schmeling moved to the United States in 1928. He stopped Johnny Risko in what became his coming-out party in 1929, and then decisioned rugged Paulino Uzcudun to earn his chance to dispute the vacant heavyweight title against another Dempsey fan in Jack Sharkey (who had renamed himself using Dempsey’s first name and Tom Sharkey’s last name).
In an anticlimactic ending, Schmeling became the only boxer to win the world heavyweight championship on a foul when Sharkey hit him with a low blow in the fourth round and was disqualified. Schmeling retained his crown successfully in 1931 by a technical knockout victory over Young Stribling but lost it in a rematch with Sharkey in 1932 by a controversial fifteen-round split decision.
In 1933, Schmeling lost to Max Baer by a tenth-round technical knockout and followed up with a 0-1-1 streak, but then embarked in a four-year, 7-0 unbeaten run that included a win over the great Joe Louis, by then poised to become the next heavyweight champion of the world.
In one of the most politically-charged boxing matches of all time, Schmeling defeated Louis during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, and he was used as a prop by the new regime to support their ideas of white supremacy.
Those ideas came crashing down spectacularly two years later, when Louis, already the new heavyweight champ, demolished Schmeling in one of the most brutal one-sided first-round knockouts in heavyweight history in 1938, as World War II was already on its path to destroy most of the Western world.
Schmeling had a homecoming bout in a stadium named after Adolf Hitler back in Germany the following year, winning the German title and then retiring as the war was set to begin. He would make a brief two-year comeback after the war, going 3-2 against mediocre opposition before quitting for good.
Although he was enrolled in the German air force as a paratrooper during the war and used as a motivational figure by the Nazi regime, Schmeling never fully supported those ideas, and it was later known that he helped several Jewish individuals escape Europe during the conflict.
He also became friends with Louis later in life, helping finance his funeral and keeping in touch regularly. After a long and successful life after boxing as a businessman and spokesperson for Coca Cola among other things, Schmeling died in 2005 at the age of 99, being the longest living heavyweight boxing champion in history.
In 1992, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.