- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

Back in the generally sleepy ‘50s, I used to hope NBC’s Friday night boxing telecasts from Madison Square Garden would end with a mercifully quick knockout. That way I could watch “Greatest Fights of the Century” before the 11 o’clock news and see Joe Louis belting Max Schmeling around the ring each week over the intro.

Bam! There went Max’s jaw. Smash! There went Max’s kidney. Pow! There went Max. As he slid to the canvas, a picture of a Vaseline bottle slid onto the screen, and Schmeling would live to be pounded another day.

The fight in question took place June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium, and the memories of those subsequent telecasts came flooding back last week when Schmeling died at his home in Hollenstedt, Germany, at 99. At the time, Max was generally detested in this country because (a) he had knocked out the supposedly invincible Louis two years earlier and (b) Hitler had trumpeted the upset as proof of the Aryan race’s supremacy.

Probably no other fight in history carried such wide political implications. Louis seemed to bear the hopes of most white and all black Americans, even in an era when racial segregation was a fact of life in the United States. Thus burdened, Joe started slowly. It took him all of 124 seconds to reduce Schmeling to a bloodied, helpless hulk who required two weeks in a hospital before returning to Germany and Der Fuehrer’s scorn.

So much for Max, but not quite. It was startling to learn, decades later, that he and Louis became good friends long after World War II. How good? Well, when Louis became in middle age an impoverished ex-pug deeply in hock to the IRS for back taxes, Schmeling sent him money regularly. And when Joe died in 1981 at 67, Max paid for his funeral and was one of the pallbearers.

It’s a lovely, heartwarming story — one that reinforces the old idea, now too often forgotten, that athletic opponents can survive combat with regard and perhaps even admiration for each other.

Too often these days, athletes are taught or encouraged to hate the enemy as if sporting competition were really a “battle.” Trash-talking is in; respect is out. It’s the same brainless attitude that prompts people like Terrell Owens to do outrageous things in the end zone after a touchdown. As a coach whose name escapes me once said, “Act like you’ve been there before.”

Like millions of others in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Schmeling was a victim of the Nazis. After his upset of Louis in 1936, Hitler used him and his unexpected victory to call attention to the upcoming Olympic Games in Berlin — the ones in which Jesse Owens drove another dagger into the theory of Aryans Uber Alles.

Of course, Max went along. What else could he do? At the behest of German sporting officials, he assured USOC chief Avery Brundage that Jewish and black athletes from the United States would be treated fairly. Years later, Schmeling described himself as “incredibly naive.”

His slaughter by Louis, Schmeling later claimed, was really a blessing because “another victory over Joe Louis would have forever made me the Aryan show horse of the Third Reich.”

There is ample evidence, albeit after the fact, that Schmeling was no Nazi — merely an unfortunate and ambiguous symbol. In its obituary, the New York Times noted that Max attended the annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg three months after his defeat. But two months later, during the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom, he sheltered the two children of a Jewish friend in his Berlin hotel suite.

Schmeling once explained how he pleaded with Hitler to let him retain his Jewish boxing manager, Joe Jacobs. “In boxing, we are not conscious of Protestants, Catholics, Jews or Negroes,” Max said. “We are interested only in boxing. So much of what I achieved in the United States was due to Herr Jacobs. I needed him.”

Of his later relationship with Louis, Schmeling said, “We were victims of bad propaganda. There was never any bad feeling on my part.”

Quite rightly and dramatically, the two men were athletic antagonists. Politics should never have played a part; politics should never play a part in sports. While the two endeavors require some of the same assets — determination and perseverance, to name two — they should never be entwined. Call it the separation of State and Sweat.

By all latter-day indications, Schmeling was a better person than we, or perhaps even he, knew. I’m glad “Greatest Fights of the Century” isn’t around anymore. I don’t want to watch Max Schmeling get beaten up again.


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