BERLIN — Even before the little-known semipro boxer Jürgen Blin faced Muhammad Ali in a ring in Switzerland in 1971, he knew as well as anyone that he was fated to lose the fight.
But scrappy both in the ring and in life, he nevertheless saw an opportunity to make his name.
“If I win, the whole world is open to me; if I lose by a small margin or look reasonably good, everything is still possible,” he told a reporter before the fight, adding: “And if I fail, it’s really all over.”
He did, as expected, lose, knocked out in the seventh round before 8,000 or so spectators on Dec. 26 at the Hallenstadion in Zurich. But, as he had hoped, there was a silver lining. The fight, which gave him the distinction of being one of only two Germans ever to fight Ali (Karl Miedenberger lost to him in 1966), made Blin an instant celebrity in Germany.
“I remember us being invited to all kinds of events and organized autograph signing sessions,” said his son Jörg Blin.
Blin was 79 when he died of kidney failure on May 7 in a hospital in Hamburg, Germany, his son said.
As a professional boxer, Blin fought mostly in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, earning the title of the continent’s top fighter in 1972. Out of the ring, he worked as a master butcher, often training right after his shift finished.
And after he retired from the ring, he opened a pub in the seedy basement of Hamburg’s main train station and turned it into something of a shrine to his career and his fight against Ali.
Jürgen Blin was born on April 24, 1943, in Burg, on the island Ferman, just off Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, the eldest of three children of Richard and Grete Blin. It was largely an unhappy childhood: His alcoholic father beat him, and schoolmates made fun of him for smelling like the stable where he helped milk cows.
At 14, Blin finally had enough. He went to Hamburg and found a ship that would take him on as a cabin boy. From there he sailed to North America by way of Rotterdam. But he did not stay away from Germany for long. At 16 he started an apprenticeship as a butcher at a slaughterhouse in Hamburg.
The boxing gym across the street soon grabbed his attention, and he started training after his work shifts.
“My father was enormously ambitious, and when he decided to do something, he’d give it 100 percent,” Jörg Blin said.
Blin, 28, had become a top heavyweight contender in Germany, with a 28-8-6 win-loss-draw record, when he squared off against Ali, who was less than a month away from his 30th birthday. Despite being 20 pounds lighter and two inches shorter than Ali, Blin went into the fight gamely, knowing that he was unlikely to win but hoping he could at least keep up. He had never been knocked out in a fight.
But everything else favored Ali, who had been defeated by Joe Frazier in March that year in a celebrated bout in Madison Square Garden; he needed an easy victory while getting back into shape. In Zurich, Ali was treated like the global star he was, greeted by the world press when his entourage of 50 arrived.
Blin showed up to train for the fight on foot.
“Blin, the whole thing makes no sense for you,” Ali taunted his opponent in German. The New York Times called the fight “the Great Mismatch.”
Entering the Zurich arena, Ali raised an index finger to the crowd, predicting a victory in the first round. But Blin quickly went on the offensive, attacking his opponent with jabs to the face in the first three rounds, much to the crowd’s surprise. Ali rallied, however, and in the seventh round, with a powerful overhand right, he sent Blin to the canvas, leaving him unable to get back up.
Blin later said his weight had tempered his rise in the boxing world: At under 200 pounds he was too light to be effective in the heavyweight division. In an interview with Stern magazine in 2008, he said: “That was my shortcoming. I was always much too light. My opponents sometimes weighed 40 pounds more.”
He retired after a brutal K.O. loss to Ron Lyle in Denver in the second round in October 1973 and soon opened his Hamburg pub, where a photograph from the Ali fight overlooked the scene. He ran the establishment until 2013.
In addition to his son Jörg, Blin, whose marriage ended in divorce, is survived by another son, Frank; three grandchildren; and his partner, Heidi Arinka. A third son, Knut, who was also a boxer, died by suicide in 2004 after suffering severe mental illness.
One of Blin’s grandchildren, Joscha Blin, started his own professional fighting career late last year.
At 77, Blin reached another high point in his life, only to see it tempered by loss: He won the equivalent of roughly $2 million in a state lottery, according to Jörg Blin. But the elder Blin seems to have told too many people about it: Months after the win, burglars broke into his house and absconded with hundreds of thousands of euros in cash.