Maximillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling was born on September 28, 1905 in rural surroundings near Brandenburg in north-eastern Germany. His father was a ship's navigator, and although boxing was not a widespread sport in Germany at the time, Schmeling's father had seen the sport in his travels. When Schmeling therefore saw a film about the fight for the heavyweight championship, between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier, he was instantly hooked. Soon he left for western Germany to find other boxing-enthusiasts.
In 1924 Schmeling turned professional and in the same year he moved to Berlin, frustrated with his managers' interest in his career (or the lack thereof). Through the financing of the editor of the Boxsport magazine, Arthur Bülow, he got a professional trainer Max Machon, who would remain his trainer throughout his career. With the increased quality of his training, things started happening. In 1927 Schmeling became German champion, and soon after he also held the European Championship.
"I said to myself, 'You're a man from a humble background, what you didn't learn in school, you'll learn now. Catch up.'" – Max Schmeling
During the years of the Weimar Republic, boxing had become quite popular in Germany, and as the German and European champion, Schmeling was suddenly moving among all sorts of interesting people, including race car drivers, playwrights, actors, dancers, painters of sculptors, in the social elite of Berlin’s society. He befriended many of these people, and began reading a lot more, so as to be able to participate in the discussions of his new friends. When Gene Tunney retired undefeated, and left the World Championship vacant, Schmeling seized his chance, and immediately left Berlin for America and New York, to earn himself a place in the elimination tournament for the championship.
After having switched his former manager Arthur Bülow for someone more at home in the American boxing-scene, namely Joe Jacobs, a Jewish manager, Schmeling was invited to join the tournament for the championship. Having defeated Paolino Uzcudun, Schmeling faced Jack Sharkey for the title on June 12, 1930, in Yankee Stadium, New York. Schmeling was declared winner of the fight, on a controversial disqualification of Sharkey for a low blow, and could now call himself World Champion, although it took a defence of the title against Young Stribling in 1931, for Schmeling to be recognized as the true champion by the critics. The disqualification of Sharkey, for the low blow in the fourth round, was the first time for the championship to be decided on a foul. When Schmeling lost the title to Sharkey in their rematch in 1932, the referee played an even more controversial role, than that of their first bout, if possible. The referee was one of Sharkey’s close friends, and although Schmeling dominated the last five rounds of the match, the referee named Sharkey the winner by points, a decision that was quickly condemned by the former champion Gene Tunney, Jimmy Walker the mayor of New York and most of the American newspapers.
"When you go to the United States, you're going to obviously be interviewed by people who are thinking that very bad things are going on in Germany at this moment. And I hope you'll be able to tell them that the situation isn't as bleak as they think it is." – Adolf Hitler to Schmeling, June 1933
In Germany Hitler’s Nationalist Social Party was beginning to make life very uncomfortable for Schmeling’s former social circle. Many of the people, who in the past had belonged to social elite of Berlin, now had to flee Germany to avoid the harassment of Hitler and his followers, who were not too happy with their creative and alternative lifestyle. Hitler saw much potential in Schmeling’s victories overseas though, and therefore Schmeling received favoured treatment from the German authorities. In June 1933 Schmeling was summoned by Hitler, who instructed him to spread the news of a well-functioning Germany across the Atlantic. The boxer, seeing that there was not much to do about the condition of things, struck a devil’s bargain, and when he returned to New York, he held a press conference where he denied the persecution of Jews in his home country. To the journalists, who where eager to ask questions on the condition of things Germany, he said that everything was at peace and quite. At the same time, the Nazis had set their propaganda-machine to work, and in Germany Schmeling was portrayed as the perfect example of the type of man, they wanted to restore power to: A perfect Aryan. His 1932 wedding with the blonde movie star Anny Ondra only furthered this image, and soon they were the most celebrated couple in all of Germany.
"Stayed up all night. At 3 a.m. the fight begins. In round 12 Schmeling knocks out the Negro. Wonderful... The white man defeats the black man, and the white man was a German!" – Joseph Goebbels
In America, Schmeling had been a fading star for some time, and his stoppage loss to Max Baer in 1933 had not strengthened the belief among American boxing-fans that he was capable of a comeback. But after a series of wins, his manager had gotten him a fight against the up-and-coming black boxer Joe Louis. Louis was undefeated at the time, and the odds were 10:1 in his favour. Schmeling of course was aware of this, and therefore studied movies of Louis’ fights while back in Germany, hoping to find a weakness in Louis’ style. When he arrived in the United States, he told the journalists, that he had discovered something, but refused to reveal what. The night on June 19, 1936when the boxers met, was probably the biggest in Schmeling’s career. He had indeed found a weakness in Louis’ style, Louis was knocked down in the forth round, and out in round 12, after having received a severe beating. Schmeling had discovered that when Louis jabbed with his left hand, he let it hang for a split-second afterwards, thereby letting down his guard. The German boxer took advantage of this, and quickly flew in with his best weapon: A perfect right hand, blowing the young American away, and leaving him helpless and bewildered. "Louis's one weakness matched perfectly my greatest strength, the one with which I had made my career," the German would later write. "Louis and I were, so to say, 'made for each other'". Schmeling was later denied the fight for the world championship, while The Black Bomber had his shot and took advantage of it.
Back in Germany, the German propaganda-machine had suddenly had a change of heart, and Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, who had ordered the media to bury the fight, now arranged for a movie to be made about it. Schmeling returned with the airship Hindenburg to a hero’s welcome in Germany, and a personal handshake from the Der Führer.
"I had nothing personally against Max, but in my mind, I wasn't champion until I beat him. The rest of it - black against white - was somebody's talk. I had nothing against the man, except I had to beat him for myself." – Joe Louis
While Schmeling was denied his shot at the title, Louis was not. In 1937 he won the championship from James Braddock, but was still devastated over his loss to Schmeling the year before. When the arrangements for a rematch had been made in 1938, it was evident to everyone that a war in Europe was imminent, and the American media were therefore not late to name it a match of America vs. Germany, or good vs. evil. At the night of the big fight, in June 1938, Louis knocked down Schmeling three times in the first round, and effectively put a stop to his career as a top-level boxer. While the Americans praised the victory of The Black Bomber, Schmeling whom they had branded as a Nazi could return in shame to a Germany in chaos. In Germany, the match (which had been broadcasted on every major radio-channel) had been abruptly broken off, in the middle of the transmission, by the order of Hitler himself.
Later in the same year, on the Kristallnacht, in Berlin, Schmeling proved his bravery by hiding two Jewish boys in his hotel room and claiming to be sick. The enormous risk was not lessened by the fact that the boxer also smuggled the two boys out of the country, as soon as the possibility presented itself. Henri Lewin, one of the boys, credits Schmeling’s bravery with his life.
When the war broke out, Schmeling was drafted, but unlike Louis, he saw frontline battle as a paratrooper on Crete, because he had always refused to join the Nazi party, and remained in service until 1943. He also visited American prisoners of war, and handed out signed photos, a practice he continued in a short time following the war, and his own release from internment.
Having been cleared by the British authorities from all complicity in the Nazi crimes, Schmeling and his wife struggled to get by after the war. Max tried to return to the ring, without much success, tried his luck as a farmer and subsequently as a boxing referee. Finally a former American boxing commissioner, who had now become a Coca-Cola executive, offered him a franchise in post-war Germany. This ended up making the former boxer a very successful businessman, and a very respected philanthropist. He met Joe Louis again in 1954 in connection with a trip to Milwaukee, on which he swung by Chicago to meet him, and by New York to visit the grave of Joe Jacobs. They stayed friends until the Louis’s death in 1981 and Schmeling was one of the pallbearers at the funeral, which he reputedly paid for, the way he had helped Louis with his medical bills for several years.
After having celebrated his 99th birthday in 2004, Max vowed to live on to celebrate the next. Unfortunately he came down with a cold that Christmas, and his health deteriorated quickly from that point on. On January 31, he slipped into a coma, and died 2 days later. He is buried in Hollenstedt, near Hamburg next to his wife through 54 years.
Maximillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling was inducted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in 1992. Throughout his career he compiled a record of 56 wins, 10 losses and 4 draws. 39 of these wins were by knockout. Max Schmeling has been the object of several books, including a biography and in 2001 STARZ! produced a movie about him and Joe Louis titled Joe and Max. He also achieved honorary citizenship of Las Vegas, Los Angeles and his home town Klein-Lukow.