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A Clashing Symbol

Shrugging off Hitler's embrace, Max Schmeling forged a friendship with his greatest ring rival

It is ironic that the last famous German who is associated with the Third Reich to die was not a Nazi. But Max Schmeling, powerful and handsome, who finally passed on last week just months shy of his 100th birthday, was at once "the Heil Hitler hero" who brought the greatest sports glory to the Führer and a very conflicted, very human citizen who wrestled with the devil as often as he boxed with the world's best fighters.

Schmeling is, of course, best known for his two fights with Joe Louis. In 1936, when the German was already 30 and supposed to be a washed-up pug, he handed the Brown Bomber his first defeat. Then, in 1938, Louis brutally reduced Schmeling to a gory pulp in less than two minutes. The fights themselves, though, were on the undercard to ideology, as Schmeling and Louis were generally portrayed as stand-ins for fascism and democracy.

Schmeling actually came to fame before Hitler took power in 1933. A mere laborer who built up his mind as well as his body, Schmeling not only became heavyweight champion but also part of the racy Berlin avant-garde set. He married a beautiful movie star, Anny Ondra. Candidly, Schmeling would later admit to having turned his head to the obvious horrors around him. He met Hitler on several occasions, but at the same time he tried to keep some distance from the Führer. Schmeling refused to accept Hitler's Nazi Dagger of Honor; he would not fire his Jewish-American manager, Joe Jacobs, and at the very risk of his life he hid two Jewish boys in his apartment on Kristallnacht, the brutal Nazi pogrom of 1938. This was after Louis had annihilated him and Schmeling was no longer a useful figure to the Nazis. They paid him back for his renegade ways by drafting him into the army when he was 34.

Schmeling was wounded in 1941 while parachuting into Crete, but he survived to become an extremely wealthy businessman--largely thanks to his holdings in that most American company: Coca-Cola. He became friends with his old foe, Louis, and often gave the indigent old champ money. No athlete ever so faced the ambiguities and dissonance of life as did Max Schmeling. --Frank Deford






With war on the horizon Louis evened the score by KO'ing Schmeling in 1938.