LAS VEGAS -- It was one of the most famous sports calls in history, bigger even than "The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant!"
"Schmeling is down, Schmeling is down," intoned the great Clem McCarthy from ringside at Yankee Stadium during the 1939 rematch between heavyweight
champion Joe Louis and the former champion who had handed him his only
previous loss, Max Schmeling.
In what was the most socially significant sporting event in history -- more so than any Muhammad Ali fight or James Jeffries' pathetic attempt to give the world a Great White Hope to oust Jack Johnson -- the two antagonists were
made to represent Nazi Germany and Truth, Justice and the American Way.
It was never that simple, of course, and Muhammad Ali -- one of the many
mourners for Schmeling, who died at age 99 in Germany -- was quick to point it
"I'm sure he's up in heaven with Joe Louis and they're discussing their fights," Ali told his longtime friend and aide, Gene Kilroy, who had called The Greatest to let him know of Schmeling's passing.
"Max Schmeling was a man of great class," Ali said from his Dearborn, Mich., farm. "When German people weren't liking Jews, Max Schmeling was managed by a Jew. He respected Joe Louis. And Joe Louis respected him."
Schmeling never wanted to represent Adolf Hitler and so-called Aryan supremacy; when Louis knocked him down four times in two or so minutes, the
erstwhile hero of Hitler and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was treated like a pariah. Shortly after the start of World War II, the Nazis gave their former hero a parachute and told him to jump into Cyprus, where he was injured. He was so broke after the war that he had to take a few fights, but he got himself a Coca-Cola franchise and eventually became a very wealthy man.
When Louis was in dire financial straits at the end, Schmeling quietly helped out. He attended a 1979 Caesars Palace party for Louis -- emceed by none other than Frank Sinatra and attended by as many Hollywood stars as an Academy Awards dinner. Kilroy told MaxBoxing.com that Ali met Schmeling at a gathering of sports heroes at the Aladdin here.
"Ali went over and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek," said Kilroy. "Schmeling grinned from ear to ear."
Schmeling not only resisted the Nazis' efforts to get him to dump both his Jewish manager and Czech wife -- Hitler regarded Slavs with almost the same contempt he held for Jews -- but during Kristallnacht, when SS-inspired hoods went around Germany breaking Jewish store windows and burning synagogues, Schmeling also managed to hide two Jews in his rooms, risking a death sentence if caught.
For Schmeling, beating Louis in their first bout was simply a way of trying to get back the heavyweight title. He was a huge underdog to the undefeated knockout artist but said upon arriving in the States, "I think I see something." Sure enough, when Louis would throw his sharp jab, he would slowly, and lowly, bring his left hand back to a defensive position. Schmeling continually pounded Louis with overhand rights that night and it was remarkable that the future boxing great managed to last until the 12th round. He had corrected the flaw in time for the rematch, of course.
How socially significant was that fight? On one side, there was Hitler giving pre-fight instructions to Schmeling; in the other corner, Louis was invited to a fireside chat with president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In recent years, Schmeling had retired to a well-kept cottage in the woods. He was one of Germany's greatest heroes, one that grew in stature after the Nazi defeat. He was able to give the battered country a semblance of decency in its darkest hours.