The Time Tunnel: Louis, Baer and The World of Boxing in The Summer of 1935

21.06.05 - By Mike Dunn: It was the summer of 1935 and the stage was set for boxing's next million-dollar gate. Joe Louis, the promising young knockout puncher from Detroit, had made a name for himself with 23 straight victories and 18 knockouts in just a year's campaigning in the ring since winning the Golden Gloves championship. Max Baer, the impressively proportioned heavyweight titleholder from California, had made his 18th win in a row his most convincing, an 11th-round demolition of Italian behemoth Primo Carnera in June of 1934 to lay claim to sport's richest crown.

The proposed bout between the fearsome-punching Louis as challenger and the seemingly indestructible Baer as champion was already drawing the interest of the boxing public. Louis vs. Baer was a natural. It was sure to bring 80,000-plus curious onlookers to Yankee Stadium in the fall of '35 and establish the biggest gate in boxing since the 1927 Dempsey vs. Tunney rematch in Chicago. All that was needed to make it happen was for Louis and Baer to take care of the business at hand..

Baer first had to dispatch of New Jersey's James J. Braddock, a sentimental favorite of the masses and former top lightheavyweight of the 1920s who surprised everyone with consecutive victories over top contenders Corn Griffin, John Henry Lewis and Art Lasky to become Baer's challenger. Braddock and Baer were to meet in the Long Island Bowl on June 13 with Baer a heavy favorite to retain the title. Many considered the Braddock bout just a warmup for Baer before the big war with Louis that would take place in September.

Louis, meanwhile, was scheduled to make his first appearance in New York just a few weeks after Baer did battle with Braddock. Louis was to meet former champion Carnera in Yankee Stadium. No one expected the muscular Italian to actually take Louis, but the bout would provide a point of comparison between Louis and Baer. It took Baer 11 rounds to finally get Carnera out of there. How long would it take Louis to perform the same feat?

As often happens in the prize ring, though, things didn't go as planned. The overconfident Baer, figuring that he could take Braddock out at any juncture with one well-placed right hand blow, clowned during the early rounds and gave Braddock two important advantages: a lead on the scorecards and a growing sense of confidence. By the time Baer got serious and went after the challenger in the middle rounds, it was too late. Braddock avoided Baer's knockout punch and used his own stiff jab and hard right to keep the charging champion off stride and to build points. At the end of 15 rounds, Braddock's hand was raised and no one complained about the verdict.

Braddock, the Cinderella Man, became the champion and Baer went from being revered as boxing's deadliest puncher to another in a line of ex-champions that included Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey and Carnera in a span of five years.

Now that Baer was unexpectedly deposed, what would Louis do? Would he be able to live up to the hype of being the heavy-fisted Brown Bomber against Carnera? How would Louis react to the distractions and the demands of his first New York appearance?

Like Baer, Louis was confident of victory. Unlike Baer, Louis took nothing for granted. Carnera was awkward and crude, but he had trained hard for the fight and he was big and very strong with lots of experience. He brought an 82-7 record into the Yankee Stadium ring that night. The 6-foot-6 Carnera weighed 260 pounds compared to a 196 for the 6-foot-2 Louis when the two were introduced to the crowd of 60,000 who came through the Yankee Stadium turnstile on June 25.

The fight offered none of the drama that Braddock and Baer did a few weeks earlier. Louis had a mission and stayed with it. He pursued Carnera and went after the body for the first three rounds. In rounds four and five, he switched the attack to the head and began to land effectively, shaking Carnera several times and bringing blood from his nose and mouth of the erstwhile champ. Carnera, to his credit, had come to fight. He won't be listed in the pantheon of great heavyweight champions, but there is no questioning the man's courage.

Carnera did about as well as he could have done against a younger, stronger, faster opponent with knockout power in each fist. Carnera jabbed and mauled and tried to land cleanly with his right. He tried to clinch when Louis got in close. The result was as inevitable as the sunrise, however. In the sixth, Louis floored Carnera three times. After the third knockdown, Carnera gamely rose and held on to the top strand of the ropes to steady himself. Referee Arthur Donovan wisely stopped the affair at 2:32 of the round, giving Louis the expected triumph and establishing the Brown Bomber as the hero of Harlem.

Baer had not done his part in June of 1935, but Louis had done his. Even so, there was public clamor to have Baer face Louis in the ring. The bout did take place in the fall, as planned, and it did draw a huge crowd to Yankee Stadium. Nearly 85,000 watched Louis dispatch Baer in four hard rounds. If some of the luster was removed from the fight because Baer was not defending the crown, the impressiveness of Louis' knockout more than made up for it. The growing legion of Louis fans in New York and across the country knew it was just a matter of time before their man would get his shot and the crown would be his.

Mike Dunn is a boxing historian and writer living in Lake City, Mich.

Article posted on 22.06.2005

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