- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2005


By Patrick Myler

Arcade, $25, 246 pages, illus.


It was A. J. Liebling, I believe, who first referred to boxing as “the sweet science.” That is an interesting, if not wholly accurate, description of the only sport of which I know, the purpose of which is to hurt one’s opponent. The winner of a boxing match, unless the fight has been fixed, almost always is the fellow (or these days perhaps the woman) who hurts the other fellow the most.

There have been in my day some very good boxers, usually at the lighter weights, who were adept at not getting hit and who, in turn, didn’t hit their opponents with much authority. Two lightweights, Willie Pep and Fritzie Zivic, come immediately to mind and they were delights to watch.Sweet scientists both. And rarities.

With few exceptions, however, heavyweights don’t fill that bill. Two who didn’t are the subject of a new book by the Irish boxing writer, Patrick Myler. The book is titled “Ring of Hate” and it is about the careers of two heavyweight world champions, the black American, Joe Louis, and the German, Max Schmeling.

Published this week, it hit book stores almost simultaneously with the opening of “Cinderella Man,” a movie on the life of James J. Braddock and the publication of a Braddock biography. Braddock was the man Louis knocked out in eight rounds to win the heavyweight title.

Braddock, an overgrown light heavyweight with brittle hands, wasn’t near the fighter that either Louis or Schmeling was, but his story is a poignant one and the movie, starring Russell Crowe, has opened to rave reviews. But Braddock was a fluke champion who beat an overconfident, undertrained Max Baer to win the title, then lost it in his first defense and fought only one more time after that. He is a minor character — and properly so — in “Ring of Hate.”

Interestingly the two protagonists of the book, Louis and Schmeling, though not in the same tear jerker class as Braddock, both come out as sympathetic characters, although no woman in her right mind would want to be married to the skirt-chasing Louis.

Before World War II when the Great Depression was still afflicting a racially segregated America and Adolph Hitler was beginning to inflict National Socialism on Germany and the rest of Europe, Louis and Schmeling fought twice. Both fights, for different reasons, were classics. Each man won once, but there is no doubt that the greater fighter was Louis. Indeed, it would be hard to find a boxing authority who did not rate Louis among the top two or three heavyweights of all time and equally hard to find one who would rate Schmeling much more than average.

No matter. In an era of intense nationalism, especially in Germany, the two men, almost in spite of themselves, were not merely representing their sports, they were representing their countries. Louis, born Joe Louis Barrow, an Alabama share- cropper’s son who was raised in Detroit, fought in a racially segregated America, yet became an emblem of all that was good and noble about his country. He served in the Army during World War II, athough more as an entertainer, not a combatant.

It is difficult to ascertain whether Louis actually said some of the patriotic statements he is credited with during those times, but one wartime quote, whether his or a public relations man’s, has been remembered through the years: “… we’ll win, because we’re on God’s side.”Most Americans were relieved to know that that was the case.

Schmeling, like Louis, was a victim of the times in which he lived.Essentially a decent man, he was no Nazi. In fact, he risked his freedom by refusing to give up his Jewish-American manager, Joe Jacobs, and by hiding two Jewish children during the government-instigated, anti-Semitic “Kristallnacht” riots. Yet he was a loyal German who served briefly as a paratrooper during World War II.

The two men fought twice, both times before the war broke out. Schmeling, the older by nearly 10 years, had already won the championship from Jack Sharkey on a foul and lost it back to him on a disputed decision. Louis had yet to win the championship at the time of their first encounter but had won it from Braddock by the time they fought again.

Louis was the favorite in both fights, but before the first one Schmeling who had studied films of Louis’ fights, said, “I think I see something.” What he saw was that Louis tended to drop his left hand after throwing a jab, thus leaving his jaw open to a straight right-hand punch.

For 12 rounds Schmeling took advantage of what he’d seen, knocking Louis down in the fourth round and battering him unmercifully in most of the others. In the 12th round he knocked Louis out. It was a major upset and it made Schmeling a hero in Germany where Nazis viewed blacks as inferior beings and where only weeks later Hitler would snub the great black American sprinter Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics

That fight was the highlight of Schmeling’s boxing career. The low point came almost exactly two years later when in a rematch Louis now the champion and hungry to avenge his only — at that time — defeat, destroyed an older, slower Schmeling in the first round.It was not a great fight; it was a great demonstration of the ability of one human being nearly to kill another with his fists.

“Cinderella Man,” the film about James J. Braddock, fittingly ends on a triumphant note with Braddock’s victory over Max Baer.If life were a movie the story of Joe Louis could well have ended with the second Schmeling fight when he was young, rich, married to a pretty black woman named Marva Trotter and hailed as one of the greatest fighters of all time.

But this is real life and Mr. Myler gives us Joe Louis with all his faults, warts and weaknesses, some of which the papers printed, others of which they hid. It is generally known that Louis went through money as if it were water. It is less well known that he went through women the same way, regardless of their hue.

In Louis’ favor he fought anyone who wanted to fight.In Los Angeles one year he fought a club boxer named Jack Roper whom he knocked out in the first round. Asked what happened Roper replied in these immortal words, “I zigged when I should have zagged.”

He was not the only fighter who made that mistake.

Louis retired in in 1949 undefeated as heavyweight champion, but lost two fights in comeback attempts, once by a decision to Ezzard Charles and his final bout to Rocky Marciano who knocked him out in the eighth round.

Louis made millions with his fists but the money slipped through his fingers like grains of sand. As a result he wound up broke, owing huge sums in back income taxes, and working as a casino greeter in Las Vegas. When he died his old opponent and latter-day friend, Max Schmeling, paid for his funeral.

As for Schmeling, he was a different sort. Far from being a woman chaser, he married the actress, Anny Ondra, in l933 and stayed married to her until her death 54 years later. Neither was he a spendthrift. After the war he was awarded the Coca Cola franchise for West Germany and, in Mr. Myler’s words, became “a very rich man.” He was 99 when he died.

Mr. Myler to the contrary not withstanding, the second Louis/Schmeling fight was not the “fight of the century.” It was over so quickly that it was hardly a fight at all. Nevertheless it was the one bout, more than any of his others, that confirmed Louis’ greatness as a fighter and for that reason alone deserves to go down as a classic in ring annals.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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