Max Schmeling, 99, the former world heavyweight boxing champion from Germany whose two bouts with Joe Louis in the years leading up to World War II symbolized and ultimately debunked the Nazi's claim to racial superiority, died Feb. 2 at his home in Hollenstedt, Germany. No cause of death was given.
Mr. Schmeling, a tall, swarthy figure, became the first professional fighter to knock out Louis when the two first met in a non-title match at Yankee Stadium in June 1936. At the time, few people expected Louis, a young, undefeated African American boxer known as the "Brown Bomber," to lose to the German fighter, who held the world heavyweight title in the early 1930s.
Max Schmeling raises his hands in victory as referee Arthur Donovan counts out Joe Louis in a 12th-round knockout in Yankee Stadium in 1936. Louis would avenge the loss in 1938.
The upset was the high point in the career of Mr. Schmeling, who had become the first German to hold the world heavyweight title in 1930 when, in a controversial bout, Jack Sharkey -- ahead on judges' scorecards -- was disqualified for a low blow in the fourth round.
Mr. Schmeling, who once fought for the German equivalent of $5 a fight, was considered over the hill when he knocked out Louis in the 12th round of their first bout.
He then returned to Nazi Germany a national hero and became a symbol of Hitler's master race theory. Although not a member of the Nazi Party, Mr. Schmeling appeared to bask in the attention and gratitude of the Third Reich. He received a personal appointment from Hitler to serve as an adviser to youth athletic groups. It was a tumultuous time, however, as German troops invaded Austria and the scope of the persecution of Jews began to surface.
Mr. Schmeling, who denied he was an anti-Semite, later said that he was exploited by the propaganda machinery of the Nazi regime and explained how he once pleaded with Hitler to allow him to retain his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs.
In boxing, "We are not conscious of Protestants, Catholics, Jews or Negroes. . . . We are interested only in boxing. It was clear from Hitler's stony silence that he did not like this at all, but I insisted that I needed Herr Jacobs and that so much of what I had achieved in the United States was due to him," Mr. Schmeling said in a 2003 interview with the Sunday Times in South Africa.
In 1993, two researchers reported that in 1938, Mr. Schmeling hid two Jewish teenagers from Nazi violence during Kristallnacht, when Jews were targeted for killing. The teenagers' father, a friend of Mr. Schmeling's, asked the boxer to hide his sons until the violence subsided.
Still, Mr. Schmeling, known as "The Black Uhlan of the Rhine," was widely seen as a Nazi boxer. The buildup to the rematch between Mr. Schmeling and Louis in 1938 reached epic proportions as the two became the human faces of their respective countries' ideals. In one corner, there was Louis and democracy; in the other, Mr. Schmeling and fascism. Louis, now the world champion, was eager to avenge his only loss. Reviled in the U.S. media as a Nazi, Mr. Schmeling faced protesters at his New York hotel and jeers in the streets.
Before 80,000 people in Yankee Stadium, Louis made good on his promise to finish Mr. Schmeling quickly. Louis stalked Mr. Schmeling at the opening bell, then unleashed a fury of power punches to the body and head that buckled the former champion. A kidney punch from Louis broke Mr. Schmeling's vertebra. Once a skilled counter-puncher compared to the great Jack Dempsey, Mr. Schmeling was left bloodied and severely beaten when the fight was stopped a little more than two minutes into the first round.
It would be Mr. Schmeling's last major fight and would be remembered as one of the greatest sports events of the 20th century. Millions around the world listened to a blow-by-blow account on the radio.
Mr. Schmeling, who soon fell out of favor with Germany's leaders, eventually was drafted into the Army. He trained as a Nazi parachute infantryman and participated in the aerial invasion of the Greek island of Crete. At one point, he was reported to have been killed while trying to escape British soldiers. Then news came that he was actually in an Athens hospital, recovering from a tropical ailment, according to one news report. At the hospital, Mr. Schmeling was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Iron Cross of the second class.
In 1947, after he was cleared of any war crimes, Mr. Schmeling attempted a comeback with a lackluster performance in Kassel, Germany, that failed to impress observers about whether he could again seriously challenge for the title. He had hoped to fight in a series of exhibition bouts in the United States, but his travel visa request was denied after Rep. John R. McDowell of Pennsylvania protested that Mr. Schmeling should not be permitted in the country because of his Nazi service.
Nearly destitute, Mr. Schmeling used his ring earnings to buy a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Germany, which he turned into a profitable business. He also operated a farm, where he raised animals for their furs.
"We were the victims of bad propaganda," Mr. Schmeling said at a reunion with Louis in Chicago in 1954. "There never was any bad feeling on my part." The two remained friendly. In 1981, he helped pay for Louis's funeral.
Mr. Schmeling was born in Brandenburg, Germany, the son of a merchant marine officer. He enjoyed wrestling and soccer before taking up boxing as a teenager. He fought as an amateur, then turned professional, eventually winning the European championship.
His wife, the former German film actress Anny Ondra, died in 1987.