FRANKFURT, Germany – German heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling (search), whose bouts against American Joe Louis (search) set off a propaganda war between the Nazi regime and the United States on the eve of World War II, has died at age 99.
The former world champion, one of Germany's biggest sports idols, died Wednesday at his home in Hollenstedt, according to his foundation in Hamburg. No cause of death was given.
Schmeling's extraordinary career will be remembered for his two fights with Louis, which produced a lasting bond between the two boxers despite the politically charged atmosphere surrounding the bouts.
Born Sept. 28, 1905, of humble origins in a small town in the state of Brandenburg, Schmeling first got interested in boxing after seeing a film about the sport.
He became the first German — and European — heavyweight world champion when he beat Jack Sharkey (search) in New York on June 12, 1930, after the American was disqualified for a fourth-round low blow.
Schmeling lost his title to Sharkey two years later on a disputed decision, but came back to knock out the previously unbeaten Louis in the 12th round on June 19, 1936, which the Nazi regime trumpeted as a sign of "Aryan supremacy."
Schmeling came into the fight as a 10-1 underdog, and his victory is considered one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
But, in a rematch at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, Louis knocked Schmeling out in the first round to retain the world title.
Schmeling, originally popular in the United States, was viewed as a symbol of the Nazis and the growing antipathy between the countries when the rematch took place.
The fight was portrayed as the battle of evil against good, with the Nazis looking to project Schmeling as an Aryan Superman.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House to exhort the black boxer to beat Schmeling.
Louis, then the champion, sent the German challenger to the canvas four times and knocked him out in 2 minutes, 4 seconds.
"Looking back, I'm almost happy I lost that fight," Schmeling said in 1975. "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."
After the loss, the Nazis distanced themselves from Schmeling. In 1940, he was drafted into the military as a parachutist. A year later, he was severely injured and hospitalized for months.
Despite the portrayal of him in the United States as a tool of the Nazis, Schmeling had run-ins with the regime even before the first fight with Louis.
Although he had lunched with Hitler and had long discussions with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Schmeling angered the Nazi bosses in 1935 by refusing to join the Nazi party, fire his Jewish-American manager, Joe Jacobs (search), and divorce his Czech-born wife, Anny Ondra (search), a film star.
During the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Schmeling extracted a promise from Hitler that all U.S. athletes would be protected.
He hid two Jewish boys in his Berlin apartment during Kristallnacht (search) in 1938, when the Nazis burned books in a central square and rampaged through the city, setting synagogues on fire.
Reportedly, Schmeling also used his influence to save Jewish friends from concentration camps.
After the war, Schmeling was nearly destitute and fought five more times for the money. He retired after a 10-round loss to Walter Neusel (search) in 1948 at age 43 with a record of 56-10-4 with 39 knockouts.
Schmeling used the money from the bouts to buy the license to the Coca-Cola franchise in Germany and grew wealthy in the postwar era. He also marketed his name, retaining his huge popularity with his countrymen despite his problems with the Nazis.
Schmeling remained married to Anny Ondra for 54 years until she died in 1987. The two, who met on the set of a film Schmeling appeared in, married in 1932.
"I had a happy marriage and a nice wife. I accomplished everything you can. What more can you want?" Schmeling said in 1985.
Over the years, Schmeling treasured his friendship with Louis and quietly gave the down-and-out American gifts of money. He also paid for Louis' funeral in 1981.
In his final years, Schmeling spent three or four hours a day watching television in his home. He attributed his long life to his happy marriage. The couple had no children.