As all boxing fans are now aware, the world’s oldest living boxing champion finally passed away a few days ago at the age of ninety-nine. We live in an age where irrelevance and obsolescence among our contemporary sports and entertainment idols occurs with almost seasonal regularity. That is why it was heartening to see the amount of attention Maxmillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling garnered from the mainstream press with his death, almost 75 years after he was awarded the vacant heavyweight title via foul from Jack Sharkey.
Already four months into his hundredth year on God’s green earth, Schmeling was blessed with a full, functional and fulfilling Golden Age, only recently being hospitalized with the pneumonia that eventually stilled his great champion’s heart. Schmeling was long a fistic hero in his native Germany, with statues and plaques in abundance throughout the country. Perhaps the biggest tribute to the former heavyweight kingpin, however, will be the continued existence of the Max Schmeling Sports Foundation, a nonprofit entity started by him that has for decades provided the underprivileged youth of Germany the means to participate in organized sporting activities.
The flip side to Schmeling’s longevity is the tendency on the part of some chroniclers of his life and career to merge fact with fancy, to imbue sensationalism and romanticism into an existence that needs no such embellishments. Schmeling’s legacy is one made notable by the intelligent, craftsman-like boxing skills he employed and the rich spirit of human decency and generosity he exhibited in his life outside the ring.
Many written accounts appearing in print and on the Internet have gotten even the most basic of facts wrong about Schmeling and his life. No less an authority than Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News, in recounting the infamous 1930 bout against Sharkey that saw the championship strap handed to a seated, pain-contorted Schmeling, got it wrong. He had Arthur Donovan as the pivotal third man in the ring, when it was referee Jim Crowley who made the decision to award the title to Max due to a Sharkey low blow.
Others, perhaps a little too reliant on the questionable biographical tidbits appearing on boxing newsgroups and on various blogs, pegged Schmeling as the willing representative of Hitler’s Nazi party in World War Two, pointing out that he was a combatant in the German paratroopers. That he wore the uniform of the German Army is indisputable, but talk to any American veteran of that war and he will be glad to explain the difference between the uniform Schmeling honorably carried – that of the regular German Army -and the black tunic of Hitler’s own murderous band of criminals, the SS.
Some errors were pathetic in their inaccuracy, ranging from misspelling Schmeling’s name with two ‘l’s’ to listing the 1936 bout in which Max shockingly knocked out the undefeated 22-year old Joe Louis as a title bout. Perhaps all may be forgiven for their gaffes in writing about the old champion, if simply because boxing today is almost an afterthought for most mainstream newspapers. For diehard followers of boxing, an immortal ring entity such as Max Schmeling was for years thought of as a treasure and a living portal to some of the most controversial and exciting times in the sport. As far as most contemporary newspaper writers and casual observers of the ring wars are concerned, when one mentioned Schmeling to them the usual response was along the lines of, “HE’S still alive?”
I guess I can be in a forgiving mood about this as after all none of us – especially this writer – is perfect. Besides, as I write this I am looking over at a framed, matted front page from the Denver, Colorado Rocky Mountain News, dated May 29, 1941. The oversized agate fairly screams, “Max Schmeling Killed In Crete”, and goes on to describe how a “truculent” and “threatening” Schmeling, captured by British troops during a battle on the island, had grabbed a rifle from a guard and attempted to escape, being shot and killed as a result.
From what I have heard and read, Schmeling, who was an eminently pleasant man in and out of captivity, was taken to a rear area by his British captors and even posed for photos and signed autographs for his guards. What is unusual in the related Rocky Mountain News stories is the almost worshipful praise heaped upon the thought-to-be-deceased ex-champ, with a devastated Jack Dempsey declaring, “Jeeze, that’s too bad. He was a great fighter and a great fellow. And he wasn’t really in favor of the Nazis at all.” Writer Jack Cuddy also weighed in with praise of Schmeling, asserting that in all of the time he spent with the fighter, “ . . . not one word of anti-Semitism ever crossed his lips.”
Mounted just underneath the front page – serving as a testament to the seeming absurdity of the headline – is a post-war, autographed photo of a hale and hearty Schmeling shaking hands with Jack Dempsey.
An icon of the ring is gone, and a living, breathing connection to a fabled era in boxing history now turns into another vestigial phantom, surviving only in faded newsprint and amongst the celluloid frames of old fight films.
Rest in peace, champ.