Boxing and Pilates – from my point of view these were two completely different worlds which had nothing to do with each other. But when I started to take a closer look at the life of Joe Pilates I realized that boxing was his passion.
Boxing was a big part of Joe’s life. His father taught him. He was an enthusiastic gymnast (Turner) – for him boxing was an integral part of gymnastics (Turnen). This was by no means the general opinion of 19th century Prussians. Most people thought of boxing as rude and typically English which made it an unpatriotic act for a Prussian to indulge in it. Boxing in public was banned.
At the beginning of the First World War Joseph Pilates was living in England. Like all German men of military age a couple of months after the beginning of the war he was interned as an “enemy alien”. September 12th, 1915, he was transferred from a camp in Lancaster to the internment camp Knockaloe on the Ilse of Man. Among the internees – more than 20 000 men from Germany, Austria and Turkey – were many boxers. Experienced professionals like Toni Abele from Stuttgart in Southern Germany who had been boxing as a pro in England for years and young, promising talents like Hans Breitensträter who would later become a Heavyweight Champion in Germany. Training was about to start!
Joe Pilates quickly became an important part of the boxing community of Knockaloe. He is mentioned in the camp paper Knockaloe Lager Zeitung of January 25th, 1917, as a referee in a boxing match. And the German boxing magazine Box-Sport wrote about him in an article of December 15, 1920: „Josef Pilates, well known to all boxers and sports men who have been interned in England…“
The high quality of the training organized by Knockaloe boxers showed when they were allowed to return to Germany in 1919. The Twenties were the first Golden Age for boxing in Germany and the boxers from Knockaloe dominated the scene. German heavyweight champion Hans Breitensträter was the most glamorous and best known of the group. Joseph Pilates also was a part of the boom, even if he didn’t reach the highest level of professional boxing: He opened a boxing gym in Gelsenkirchen and he also climbed into the ring himself. In 1922 Box-Sport wrote about several professional fights of Joe Pilates. The following article about a fight between Joe Pilates and Fritz Dubois, former German Middleweight Champion, who had also been interned in Knockaloe in Zentral-Theater in Gelsenkirchen March 5, 1922, is so detailed it makes you feel you were part of it:
When Joseph Pilates moved to Hamburg in 1923, he closed his boxing gym and ended his active boxing career. But boxing was still an important part of his life. He was teaching self-defense to police men of “Ordnungspolizei” Hamburg. Self-defence meant: boxing and jiu jitsu. And he watched high class boxing matches organized in Hamburg by promoter Walter Rotenburg . This is how Joe Pilates met boxing journalist Nat Fleischer from New York, founder of the legendary Ring Magazine. US promoter Tex Rickard had asked Fleischer to keep his eyes open for a possible opponent for heavy weight champion Jack Dempsey. It was Joe Pilates who pointed out a young talented boxer to Nat Fleischer: Max Schmeling. Fleischer didn’t hesitate for too long. He encouraged Max Schmeling to come to the United States. And when Schmeling arrived in New York he helped him find his way into American boxing.
Joe Pilates was already in New York when Schmeling arrived. He had immigrated to the United States in the spring of 1926. Nat Fleischer helped him set up his studio and he became a witness when Joe Pilates applied for American citizenship. Thanks to Nat Fleischer boxers were among the first clients of the studio Joe Pilates set up on 8th Avenue in Manhattan. One of them was Charlie Massera, a young heavyweight from Pennsylvania, who came to Joe’s Studio in 1932. February 9th, 1934, the Daily Republican from Monongahela, Pennsylvania, reported about Massera’s training with “Prof. Joe Pilates”: “In three months, Massera hardened his muscles to such extent that he could take a solid wallop in the stomach from Jack Dempsey without flinching.”
Boxing and Pilates actually seem to fit very well!