Max Schmeling’s death at the age of 99 conjures up a rainbow of feelings. Joe Louis’s famous knockout of Schmeling occurred in 1938, right around when my parents were born and exactly a generation before I popped into the world. Schmeling was born in 1905, the same year as my grandfather Martin Panzer (whom I seem to resemble in more ways than I could ever have thought).
As a child and teenager in the 1970s I was fascinated by the great heavyweight boxers of the day, the mythic figures Frazier, Foreman, Ali, even Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. The end of my adolescence coincided with the ascendancy of Larry Holmes, a great but boring fighter about whom there was nothing – except for his longevity – remotely mythic. Holmes seemed almost a corporate entity, blandly efficient, compared to the rascals and characters who preceded him. Not until Mike Tyson did character return to the heavyweight arena in a big way, and unfortunately that character was nearly 100% despicable.
I don’t know if heavyweight boxing will ever again be as exciting as it was in the 70s, or during the time of Louis and Schmeling, when the boxers sometimes represented far more than their sport. Maybe these things come in waves. Schmeling’s death doesn’t mark the end of an era – his era ended many decades ago, and how many of us even knew he was still alive? (I didn’t) – but it certainly does make you reflect on how important boxing was to the culture of the whole 20th century – and before – and probably after.