The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler's Favorite Boxer
The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer

Mike Wood - March 1, 2018

Heavyweight fights have the power to stop the world. From last year’s epic, Fight of the Year showstopper between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko, through the epics of the Nineties as Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson locked horns, even further back to the days of the Greatest, Muhammad Ali and his tussles with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Ken Norton and into the annals of history, there are few sporting events that can bring the world together and define a sporting era like a big fight in boxing’s showpiece division.

One of the reasons why boxing, and particularly heavyweight boxing, can surpass almost any other sport in the public consciousness is that it is unique individual and symbolic value. Two men, locked one on one in the ring in a battle of both body and mind, has a potential to hold the weight of narrative in a way that is difficult to compare in sports or indeed, in wider culture.

Take the greatest sportsman of all time, Muhammad Ali. When Ali fought Ernie Terrell, a fighter who refused to call him by his new name and insisted on calling him Cassius Clay, he beat him to a pulp shouting “Stand Up White America!. When Ali refused to go to Vietnam – “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong…no Vietcong ever called me nigger” – he bore on his back the struggles of his entire community. When Ali conquered all and called himself the Greatest, he was doing it to point out to the establishment that his skills in the ring had made him victorious outside of it.

Bearing that in mind, it is not lightly that we say that the most symbolic, most politically charged boxing fight of all time did not feature the Louisville Lip. It predated his birth by 9 years, taking place at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 8, 1933. The combatants were the world heavyweight champion, the German Max Schmeling, and the contender, Jewish American Max Baer.

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer
Max Schmeling, the German heavyweight. BoxRec.

Max Schmeling was known to be Hitler’s favourite and was regularly used by the Nazi propaganda machine as a paragon of German supremacy, the proof that the Aryan race was able to conquer all. Schmeling himself was not a Nazi – his promoter was Jewish – but he was a godsend to Goebbels’ agenda. Schmeling was from the small northeastern town of Klein Lucknow and raised in Hamburg. He fought his way up through the ranks of fighters in Germany, turning pro in 1924 and becoming national champ in 1926. He began to fight in the States in 1928 and by 1930, had won a world title, albeit after a low blow had seen the previous champion, Jake Sharkey, disqualified. Now a champion, Schmeling was feted back in Germany and raised up as the best example of the master race.

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer
Max Baer, the Jewish challenger. Jewish Book Council.

In the other corner was Max Baer. Baer himself was not actually Jewish and he was raised in a non-observant household – his mother was of Scots-Irish ancestry – but his father had Jewish descent and he wore the Star of David on his shorts. He turned professional in 1930 and almost quit very soon afterwards, having accidentally killed an opponent in the ring. Baer was distraught and considered giving up, but decided to continue. He was charged with manslaughter for the incident and acquitted, but was suspended in his native California. He switched trainers, taking on the legendary former champ Jack Dempsey, and began to get fights on the East Coast.

 

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer
Action from the famous fight in New York. Science and Violence.

Once a bout between Schmeling and Baer had been announced, tickets began to fly off the shelves. Schmeling, despite being a favourite of Hitler’s, was denounced in Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper, for deigning to compete against a Jewish opponent. The turn in German politics that saw Hitler come to power had drastically shifted the public perception of Schmeling in the United States – where he had previously been quite popular – and the choice to fight Baer, who despite his troubles remained popular, made him into a pariah. Schmeling was not a Nazi and resented being associated with the anti-semitic policies of his home country’s government, but the chance to sell tickets on the back of his government’s love for him was too large. Boxing has always been a sport in which the mantra of “if the money’s there, it’ll happen” has always rung true, and this would be another example of that. It was a Nazi-backed, but not actually Nazi, German fighter taking on a Jewish American, but not actually Jewish, opponent. Despite the hardships of the Depression, 60,000 people bought tickets and filled out Yankee Stadium to watch the bout.

 

Once the bell went, the crowd would not be disappointed. Baer strode forwards and swung for Schmeling, as was his characteristic style, while Schmeling, the consummate counter-puncher, did his best to avoid the larger man and throw back himself. Baer was too strong, however, and as the fight wore on, he began to dominate. In the tenth round, he connected with a huge right cross that stunned Schmeling, following it up with a succession of blows to which the German seemed to have no answer. Eventually, Baer lined up a clean shot and put Schmeling on his backside. When Schmeling arose, he attempted to fight on and landed an illegal punch to the back of Baer’s head, causing the referee to judge that he was unable to control himself due to the punishment that he had taken. The fight was over, Baer had won by technical knockout.

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer
Max Baer and Max Schmeling go at it at Yankee Stadium. BoxRec.

The reaction to the fight was overwhelming. It was named Fight of the Year for 1933 and Baer was feted around America. he gained himself an even larger reputation as a power fighter and was awarded a shot at the heavyweight title, which he would win, defeating Italian Primo Carnera a year later in Long Island. Schmeling would lose again in the States before returning to Germany and winning three fights in a row. He came back to Yankee Stadium and knocked out Joe Louis, one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, in 1936. Schmeling should have been awarded another shot at the title, then held by Jim Braddock, but the boxing authorities feared that, should the German win, he would take the belt to Germany and the Nazis would then refuse to allow Louis, a black fighter, a chance to win it. The two Louis fights, as well as that between Schmeling and Max Baer, with all the political implications that they held, were a major part of the historical inspirations for Rocky IV and the contest between Rocky Balboa and Soviet puglist Ivan Drago.

 

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer
Max Schmeling at a reception with Hitler. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Schmeling did get his shot in the end, after Louis had defeated Braddock, but was knocked out by Louis, again at Yankee Stadium. “Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight,” Schmeling would later say, “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.” Losing such a high profile fight to a black opponent left Schmeling high and dry with the Nazi propaganda machine and he was dropped as a symbol of the regime.

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer
Max Schmeling is given a hero’s welcome on returning to Nazi Germany after his first fight with Joe Louis. Scribol.com

 

Many in Germany have debated just how much Max Schmeling was linked to the Nazi government, and just how much he was himself exploited by the regime. Undoubtedly, when Schmeling was in his prime, he was one of the most famous men in Germany and, as such, found it impossible to avoid being feted by his own government. He fought in his homeland for the first time in 6 years in August 1934 in front of a European record crowd of 102,000 people in his hometown of Hamburg, knocking out Walter Neusel, the other great hope of German boxing, in 9 rounds. Schmeling was a personal friend of Hitler’s, but it proved fleeting: once he had been defeated by Joe Louis for a second time, they dropped him.

Schmeling was never considered politically reliable, as it was known that he was not an active Nazi nor necessarily a supporter of the regime. His promoter and friend Joe Jacobs was Jewish, and Schmeling refused to ditch him even when personally ordered by Hitler to do so. Later, he would shelter Jewish children in his house to save them from the Nazi purges. It is likely that he was simply an exceptional sportsman who held little interest in politics and had his actions exploited for political capital rather than anything that he himself had advocated. After the war, he became a businessman and died in Germany in 2005 at the ripe age of 99. Max Schmeling is one of the few major figures of the Nazi period who is still widely celebrated in Germany, a tribute to his prowess in the ring. He is still rated by influential boxing organ Boxrec as the greatest German boxer of all time and has several streets that bear his name, as well as being featured on German stamps and having the largest boxing arena in Berlin named after him.

The Amazing Story of the Jew who Defeated Hitler’s Favorite Boxer
Max Baer in later life, during his career as a Hollywood actor. Wikipedia.

Baer, who wore the Star of David on his shorts for the rest of his career, would only hold the world title for one defence, losing it to Jim Braddock. He later faced Louis too, losing by fourth round knockout. He fought on until 1941 and, after retirement, became a Hollywood actor, appearing in over 20 films. He died suddenly in 1959 at the age of just 50 years old.

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