In 1926 Schmeling won the German light-heavyweight title and the following year he became European champion at the same weight. In 1928 he moved up into the heavyweight division, winning the German title. On 12 June 1930 Schmeling defeated the American title-holder, Jack Sharkey, on a foul in the fourth round, in about for the world heavyweight championship which was held in New York.
In the return fight two years later (on 21 June 1932) held in Long Island City, Schmeling was decidedly unlucky to lose the decision in fifteen rounds and with it the world heavyweight title. The following year he married the film actress, Anny Ondra. The liberal-minded Schmeling who had a Jewish manager, Max Jacobs, found himself unwittingly turned into a symbol of Nordic-Germanic race superiority following his sensational victory on 19 June 1936 over the black American heavyweight fighter, Joe Louis, considered by many the greatest boxer at his weight in ring history. Before a huge crowd in the New York Yankee Stadium, Schmeling caused one of the biggest upsets in boxing history by knocking out the overconfident ‘Brown Bomber’ in the twelfth round.
In Nazi Germany, this triumph - to Schmeling’s dismay - was presented in racial terms as a victory that proved Negro inferiority. The return bout at the Yankee Stadium, held before a crowd of over 70,0(X) spectators on 22 June 1938 which grossed more than a million dollars, was billed as a grudge fight and was more politically and racially charged than any previous encounter in heavyweight boxing history. Joe Louis, who had won the world title in 1937, was determined to vindicate not only himself but also the pride of America and the black people. Within two minutes and four seconds of the first round Schmeling had been knocked out after facing an onslaught of unrelenting savagery from the black American champion.
Following this shattering defeat, Schmeling was never again the same fighter, though he did win the European heavyweight boxing championship in 1939.
During World W’ar II Schmeling served in the Wehrmacht as a parachutist and was involved in the spectacular German assault on Crete. After 1945 Schmeling, although over forty, attempted a boxing comeback. He won a few fights but in May 1948 was beaten by another veteran, Walter Neusel, over ten rounds at Hamburg. His boxing career over - Schmeling won fifty-six and drew four of his seventy fights - the former German and world champion remained a popular and much respected figure not only in Germany but also in America. Awarded the Golden Ribbon of the German Sports Press Society and made an honorary member of the Austrian Association of Professional Boxers, Schmeling became an honorary citizen of Los Angeles and in 1967 received the American Sports Oscar.
In the same year he published his autobiography, Ich boxte mich durchs Leben. Since 1957 the ex-champion has owned the franchise on a Coca-Cola factory in Hamburg-Wandsbek. Several boxing experts rank him in the top ten of all time among the heavyweight fighters in modern ring history.