A recent PBS documentary on the bitter Joe Louis-Max Schmeling rivalry brought to my mind another larger-than-life boxer named Max. He was a Polish-American from Chicago who earned a Notre Dame football scholarship in 1933, the same year he beat Joe Louis in the Golden Gloves finals in Boston. He thereafter billed himself as “The Man Who Beat Joe Louis.”
In the 1930s, Max Marek looked like a young Brando, deeply tanned and muscular, with curly dark-brown hair. One of his Notre Dame roomies was my cousin, Tom Cassidy ‘37, ’38M.A., a slight, bookish but spirited redhead from Long Island, New York. I was only 7 years old when Max Marek visited our family there in the summer of 1934. To this day, seven decades later, I can still vividly recall Max doing road work at Jones Beach on the Atlantic shore of Long Island. At one point Max swept up me and my 5-year-old brother, John David, on each of his broad shoulders and bounded along the vast boardwalk. He later demonstrated his incredible arm strength to us at a nearby archery range.
Back at Notre Dame, Max fought successfully in the school’s traditional amateur Bengal Bouts, which helped finance Catholic missions in Bangladesh. After leaving in 1935 to turn pro, Max took on the likes of veteran Bob Pastor, a respectable contender, and lost a close 1936 decision to John Henry Lewis, the light-heavyweight champ, in Comiskey Park. He rejected Jack Dempsey’s early advice to quit the ring “lest you get your brains scrambled.” At one point he was ranked as No. 10 heavyweight, compiling an overall record of 33 wins (10 by KO), 20 losses (only one by TKO), and 11 draws before his 1939 retirement.
I saw Max again after a football game at Notre Dame in autumn 1947. By then he had been the Coast Guard’s chief boxing instructor in World War II and staged fight cards for that service branch. We met in the campus quarters of my cousin Tom, who had returned from the Army in 1946 and was now a well-liked English instructor at Notre Dame. I had just come back to South Bend from the Army and was an English major senior.
No longer an Adonis, gregarious Max had put on about 50 pounds over the years; his nose was considerably flatter than I remembered. Now sporting a thick brown handlebar moustache, he wore a flashy suit and a floor-length blue woolen overcoat, topped by a rakish fedora. He looked like someone out of Guys and Dolls or, more appropriate to Chicago, The Sting.
Max regaled us with stories of his experiences as proprietor of two Chicago “joints.” Max Marek’s Café on West 63rd Street featured its wisecracking, raunchy owner as emcee. Female guests headed for the powder room were often raucously taunted by the house band singing and playing “We know where you’re going.”
A year later, late in 1948, I was back east in New York City working briefly for an insurance broker whose informal placement office for Notre Dame alumni was listed in the phone book. Coincidentally, a Life magazine researcher called seeking to track down a Notre Dame alumnus who may have beaten Joe Louis in a long-ago amateur bout. I eagerly told her what I knew about Max and put her on his trail. Life soon ran a profile on him.
Max Marek, who died in 1977 at age 63, has earned a profile in Chicago Boxing by J.J. Johnston and Sean Curtin, a book newly published by Arcadia. The authors describe Max as handsome, charismatic and “not only a good boxer but also one of the greatest characters in Chicago . . . a relentless ‘ribber.’”
Curtin, a noted referee and former Illinois boxing commissioner, recalls that as a teen he often saw moustachioed Marek standing outside an antiques shop he operated near Wrigley Field circa 1955-62. In the same period, he says, Max turned to pro wrestling as the “Polish Pride.”
Curtin later found that Max was a warm, breezy hunt-and-peck letter writer. Of his 1936 loss to John Henry Lewis, for example, Marek candidly wrote to a girlfriend: “He was too fast for me, yet I believe under better conditions of heat and training, I can lick the fellow. . . . I had all to gain and little to lose as the prospect of boxing Joe Louis was in sight, had I whipped Lewis.”
In a recent Internet search I learned that in his boxing days, Max corresponded with a young fan named Bill Rintoul, a California teenager who had sought an autographed photo. After a few exchanges Max told the youngster that they needed to discuss something more substantial than boxing. In an interview late in his career with journalist Bob Christie, Rintoul (by then the state’s foremost oil-industry columnist) said Max’s advice led him to drop Zane Grey pulp novels in favor of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the writings of muckraker Upton Sinclair (“who really opened my eyes”).
There were, after all, many sides beyond boxing to “The Notre Dame Man Who Beat Joe Louis.”