Boxing legend Schmeling, Louis’ friend and foe, dies

MAX SCHMELING, the heavyweight champion whose two fights with Joe Louis set off a propaganda war between the Nazi regime and the US on the eve of WWII, has died aged 99.

Schmeling, one of Germany's biggest sports figures, died at his home in Hollenstedt, his foundation in Hamburg said.

The boxer was buried yesterday next to his wife, Anny Ondra, in Hollenstedt at a ceremony attended by a small circle of friends Pastor Olaf Koenitz said it was Schmeling's wish to be buried privately.

"He was a star, but he didn't let fame get into his head," Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said. Schmeling's extraordinary career will be remembered for his bouts with Louis, which produced a lasting bond between the boxers despite a politically-charged atmosphere when they fought.

Born on September 28, 1905, in the state of Brandenburg, Schmeling became interested in boxing after seeing a film about the sport. He became the first German and European heavyweight world champion when he beat Jack Sharkey in New York on June 12, 1930, after the American was disqualified for a fourth-round low blow. He was the only German to be world heavyweight champion.

He lost his title to Sharkey two years later on a disputed decision, but came back to knock out the previously unbeaten Louis in the 12th round on June 19, 1936, which the Nazi regime trumpeted as a sign of "Aryan supremacy". Schmeling was a 10-1 underdog and his victory is considered one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. But in a rematch at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, Louis knocked out Schmeling in round one.

At first, Schmeling was popular in the US. But by the time the rematch took place, he was viewed as a symbol of the Nazis. The fight was portrayed in both countries as good versus evil.

The Nazis sought to project Schmeling as an Aryan superman. US President Franklin D Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House to exhort the black boxer to beat Schmeling. Louis, then the champion, sent the German challenger to the canvas four times and knocked him out in two minutes, four seconds of the first round.

"I'm almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal," he said in 1975.

Despite the picture of him in the US as a tool of the Nazis, Schmeling had run-ins with the regime even before the first Louis fight. Although he had dined with Hitler and had long discussions with his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Schmeling angered the Nazi bosses in 1935 by refusing to join the party, fire his Jewish-American manager Joe Jacobs, and divorce Ondra, a Czech-born film star.

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he extracted a promise from Hitler that US athletes would be protected. He hid two Jewish boys in his Berlin apartment during Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis burned books and rampaged through the city, setting synagogues on fire. He reportedly used his influence to save Jewish friends from concentration camps.

After the war, Schmeling was nearly destitute and fought five more times for money. He retired after a 10-round loss to Walter Neusel in 1948 aged 43 with a record of 56-10-4 with 39 knockouts.

Schmeling treasured his friendship with Louis and gave the down-and- out American gifts of money. He also paid for Louis' funeral in 1981. He remained married to Ondra for 54 years. She died in 1987. The two met on a film set and married in 1932. They had no children. "I had a happy marriage and a nice wife," Schmeling said in 1985. "I accomplished everything you can. What more can you want?"

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