Stribling vs. Schmeling: Fight of the Year

By Norman Marcus on January 30, 2013
Stribling vs. Schmeling: Fight of the Year
It was July 3, 1931. The first pro bout in the new Cleveland Stadium was about to begin.

Young Stribling was a legitimate superstar of his era. Gentleman Jim Corbett called him “the best heavyweight fighter for his pounds that ever lived…”

William Lawrence Stribling was an all-American boy, known as the King of the Canebrakes. He was born in Bainbridge, Georgia in 1904 to God-fearing parents. His Ma was his sparring partner and trainer (no joke) and his Pa was his manager and promoter. The family had traveled all over the world with a vaudeville act that included juggling, low wire acrobatics and even exhibition boxing between William and his little brother Herbert. The boys were four and two years old at the time! Ma and Pa were loving folks and neither boy was ever hurt in the act. In fact the whole family would pray and read the bible together before each performance. Young Stribling carried on that tradition before each fight he fought in years to come. He never smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. He taught Sunday School in Macon, Georgia and flew his own plane to many of his fights. He was a pilot in the Army Air Corps Reserves. “Strib” became best friends with Jack Dempsey.

At twenty-one he married Clara Kinney whose father was the wealthiest businessman in Macon, Georgia. They had three children. The 6’1”, brown haired, blue-eyed Stribling was handsome and received many offers to become a male fashion model. He was so fast and smart in the ring, that his beautiful face remained unmarked throughout his career. He had a habit of holding his left hand very low for a contender of this era. He was more of a boxer-puncher than a brawler but was very tough and durable. At twenty-three years of age it was said that he had boxed more rounds and knocked out more opponents than any fighter (at that time) in the history of the ring. While he was ranked as a light heavyweight, he often moved up to meet heavyweight competition, as in this fight with Max Schmeling for the heavyweight title.

Max Schmeling is the more familiar fighter to most fans. He was Heavyweight Champion of the World, which holds a special place for him in people’s memories. The Black Uhlan of the Rhine as he was called was a complicated character. A few years after this fight with Strib, he would strike up a friendship with Adolph Hitler. Yet Max never joined the Nazi Party and helped many Jewish friends escape from Germany. He is also remembered for his two fights with Joe Louis in the late ‘30s. He became a successful businessman after the war. He was loved by the German people.

It is amazing how Schmeling outlived all of his opponents from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. The sport of boxing is hard on the body and mind. Most boxers of that era died well before their time. Herr Max, however, lived to be ninety-nine years old and had a clear mind up until his dying day in 2005.

The Stribling-Schmeling fight took place on July 3, 1931 at the Municipal Stadium, Cleveland, Ohio. The referee was the George Blake, the well known trainer at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and a man of impeccable character. It was to be a terrific contest.

The National Boxing Association had picked Stribling as Schmeling’s opponent. Schmeling had won the NBA and NYSAC Heavyweight Title the year before in a controversial elimination bout with Jack Sharkey at Yankee Stadium on December 6, 1930. Schmeling won the title when fouled by Sharkey in the fourth round. Sharkey was disqualified. At the time of the win, the new champion was sitting on the canvas, writhing in pain from the low blow.

For security reasons, Max’s training camp for his first title defense was set up in Conneaut Lake Park, a suburb of Cleveland. The champion would go on daily runs, spar outdoors, chop wood and work the speed and heavy bags. Max’s best punch was his straight right hand. One thing the Germans never noticed during training camp was the small single engine plane overhead every afternoon. It would often fly low over the area. The pilot was Strib, out on a reconnaissance mission. His army flight training paid off. He now had a pretty good idea what Max would be up to in this fight.

This was the first professional bout in the new Cleveland Stadium. It was a night event and two hundred fifty arc lights lit up the arena. Thirty-two separate overhead lights poured down on the square ring. The odds were on Stribling at 7 to 5.

In the first round Stribling came out as the aggressor and as ordered by his cornerman, his father, he repeatedly thumbed Schmeling in the eyes.

In his autobiography years later Max recalled what he said to his trainer Max Machon between rounds: “I can’t see anymore, I said as I came back to my corner after the second round. Stribling keeps sticking his thumb in my eye. Machon blew up, Why don’t you do the same? This isn’t a kindergarten! …
The next time Stribling thumbed me, I gave it right back at him. He looked at me with surprise and didn’t try it again.”

It always took Schmeling a long time to warm up in a fight. He had a straight up European style that made him hard for American fighters to figure out. In the sixth round Max caught Strib with a half dozen hard rights to the body which really slowed the challenger down. By the end of the round seven Stribling seemed ready to go down but didn’t fall. In the eighth round, however, the Georgia boy seemed to get a new burst of energy. He caught Max with several combinations of left hooks and straight rights to the head. Schmeling countered by boring in with his own straight right hand. Again Strib tottered but wouldn’t go down. In the 15th and final round Schmeling caught Stribling with a tremendous left hook to the chin. The boy fell like a sack of potatoes. He managed to beat the count and was up by nine, but the American was out on his feet and grabbed onto the ropes. With fifteen seconds left in the round, Strib’s father threw in the towel. It was a TKO 15 for Max Schmeling. The one and only time that Young Stribling was ever knocked out.

Referee George Blake came over and raised Schmeling’s hand in victory. “Winner by TKO and the old and new Heavyweight Champion of the World: Max Schmeling!”

The German was finally recognized as the legitimate titleholder. The Jack Sharkey fight at Yankee Stadium on June 12, 1930 was forgotten. The New York State Boxing Commission finally had his name engraved on the famous Muldoon Trophy. (William Muldoon was the trainer of many champion boxers. He also served as the first New York State Boxing Commissioner.)

As for Young Stribling, he was a legitimate superstar of his era. Gentleman Jim Corbett called him “the best heavyweight fighter for his pounds that ever lived.”

Two years later, on October 1, 1933, he was involved in a motorcycle accident. The pride of Dixie was only twenty-eight years old when his time ran out. Streb was on his way to the hospital on his Harley-Davidson. He was going to see his wife and newborn baby girl. The bike was blindsided by a car driven by his friend Roy Barrow. At the accident scene, Stribling’s right foot was just about severed, hanging by a single tendon. He also had a broken pelvis. The crushed leg was spurting dark red blood. He mumbled to Barrow, who was cradling his head at the crash scene, “Well Roy, looks like no more roadwork.”

He was rushed to the same hospital as his wife and baby girl. He stubbornly clung to life for two more days. His last words were “How’s the baby?” He died in the evening on October 3, 1933. He was mourned throughout the South.

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  1. Brian Love 07:09am, 07/06/2017

    Two little correction: First, Pa Stribling didn’t throw in the towel. George Blake, the referee, stopped the fight.
    Second, Strib didn’t ride a Harley Davidson. He rode an Indian.

  2. Arnold Mackey 10:57am, 02/03/2013

    I join in praising Stribling as being a worthy challenger for the World Heavyweight Crown. Additionally it must be pointed out that Max Schmeling was an expert fighter in his own right and proved that with this hard-fought Victory in that Title Fight!

  3. The Fight Film Collector 12:39pm, 02/01/2013

    Great piece, Norman.  I believe Young Stribling’s story would make a great movie.  He was one of the “great contenders” who just couldn’t make it past the very top level, but his challenges help us to measure the greatness of the champions he lost to.  Stribling was also so much more than just boxing, as your story illustrates so well.  This quality not only made him an icon, but also popularized many other colorful fighters in the heyday of the sport.  Most of today’s boxers are only about boxing.

  4. Mike Casey 05:04am, 01/31/2013

    Strib was a wonderfully talented boxer, and Mike is quite right about his best days being in the light heavy division. There’s a lot of padding on his record, but also some top quality wins over the best men of the era. Jim Corbett couldn’t praise him enough, but did make the point that Strib lacked the killer instinct in some of his bigger fights. Schmeling too was far better than he is given credit for these days. Good article, Norm!

  5. Clarence George 04:40am, 01/31/2013

    “...looks like no more roadwork.”  What a standout example of what Hemingway called grace under pressure.

  6. Mike Silver 08:55pm, 01/30/2013

    Strib was a genuine superstar of his times. Handsome, charismatic and a clever boxer but really a blown up light heavy. Most of the KO’s over 3rd raters but he could box with the best. The quality of Schmeling comes through in this film. Shows him at his best.

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