Uwe Boll is apparently the worst film director of all time, so needless to say I didn’t flock to his recent biography of Max Schmeling. When a bad director is getting actual boxers to act in a film, the overriding impression is that one might as well spend one’s time attending Douglas Bader’s Dancersize workouts, such is the pointlessness of the exercise. The idea seems just too horrible for words.
But it did, however, illustrate a point. Germany is boxing country. Every Kneipe on my street was packed last week for Vitali Klitschko’s brutal demolition of Shannon Briggs, and the punters were screaming for blood like they were there. The Ukrainian Klitschko, and his brother Wladimir, are big news over here, and treated as adopted sons. Their fights are a big deal. Almost as big a deal as “King” Arthur Abraham, the Armenian born, but Kreuzberg-living, middleweight. He even owns a hairdressing salon here. As local heroes go “King” Arthur is at the top of the pile and his fight against Carl Froch in November will have the city boozers buzzing.
But Schmeling is still the biggest name of all. I’m often tempted to ask the dope smokers in Mauerpark if they know about the guy whose name adorns the arena next to them. The Germans probably would, but everyone else? As they gather for the godforsaken, shit-infused, open air karaoke there, do they know what a tough crowd is really like? Seventy thousand people at Yankee Stadium baying for your blood as you face down one of the quickest, strongest and most dangerous men in the world – now that’s a tough crowd. By way of an example, in their 1938 rematch Joe Louis landed “one of the most devastating punches ever seen in a ring… the force of which fractured two bones, driving Schmeling’s third lumber vertebra into his kidney”.
That Schmeling had won the first fight between them, one of the biggest upsets of all time, was pretty good, but it was the way he acted. He was a good guy who told the Führer to his face that he couldn’t countenance sacking his Jewish Manager, Joe Jacobs, and petitioned him (and Goebbels) to save the life of his good friend Josef Thorak’s wife. It is easier to do this when you have been the champion of the world, but it is remarkable how he thumbed his nose at the regime. He was also a contemporary of George Grosz and the like in Berlin, which is ironic. The men hunched round the TVs watching the fight resembled nothing so much as one of Grosz’s pictures of bloated, screaming grotesqueness. Though Schmeling seemed to love the adulation and was flattered by the attention, he wasn’t a party man. He was just a fighter.
A lot of this is easy to project back on to him. In a country as mad about boxing as Germany is, to have the face of your greatest ever victory to share the face of your greatest shame doesn’t work. The country needs Schmeling to have been a nice guy, so there is undeniably a little bit of photoshopping around the edges of the picture, but he remained friends with Joe Louis until his death and even paid for his military funeral out of his own pocket.
I was talking about him with a doddery old septuagenarian a couple of weeks ago watching the Ruhr derby in a pub. He used to be a boxer too, not that he needed to tell me that – if one was to be generous you could say that his nose was splattered, Picasso-esque, across his face – and was bemoaning the overpaid footballers on view. He had a point too. Though the purses are big in top level boxing, that doesn’t represent the whole, and out of that everything has to be paid for by the boxer. His trainers, doctors and all the preparation time that goes in to a fight. This is before you consider the fact that he is killing himself when in there. I couldn’t tell if it was the shots of korn or the blows to the head that were making him slur his words. As far as I could tell his name was Brrrzzzzsch.
It’s this barbarity which contradicts the effect of class through heavyweight writing about it. Like with Hemingway and bulls, just reading the shit makes you seem a little butcher. A little bit manlier. Grrrr. So can it be justified, can all the talk about getting kids off the street and teaching them respect and discipline be realised by then getting them to smack the shit out of each other around the head? Maybe, I just don’t want to see them acting in a movie years down the line.