Heading into June of 1935, the hard-punching Max Baer of California was considered the caliber of fighter to reign as heavyweight champion for years – Perfectly proportioned for a fighter, with long arms, broad shoulders and an imposing “V” shape ascending from his trunks, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Baer looked like he was chiseled out of marble and he could hit with the force of a sledgehammer with his right particularly.
After his devastating defeat of defending champ Primo Carnera in June of 1934, knocking down the huge Italian a dozen times or so on the way to the title, Baer seemed poised to turn away all challengers for the foreseeable future.
Jack Dempsey, who was working with Baer during Baer’s ascent to the title, called the 24-year-old Californian “the biggest, strongest fighting man today” who “hits with terrible power.”
That’s about how everyone thought of Baer.
But, as history teaches, the fortunes of the ring are often fickle.
Baer loses title, Louis emerges
Baer stunningly lost his title to the “Cinderella Man,” James J. Braddock of New Jersey, on June 13 of ’35 via 15-round decision at the Madison Square Garden Bowl on Long Island. Much has been written about how Baer, known for his love of the nightlife and the ladies, did not take the title or the Braddock challenge seriously. Braddock, training diligently, survived some severe onslaughts from Baer to clearly out-box the champion.
Just a few weeks after Braddock stunned Baer, the heavyweight picture changed even more dramatically when Joe Louis, a young heavyweight sensation from Detroit already known as “The Brown Bomber,” came east and took out Carnera in six rounds in front of about 80,000 fans in Yankee Stadium, including a large segment of African-Americans from Harlem.
This was Louis’s first professional fight in New York but he was not an unknown commodity. He had established a name for himself already as the amateur Golden Gloves champion of 1934 and rapidly rose through the ranks after turning pro that same year. He was a sensation from the start as a pro, knocking out 18 of the first 22 foes he faced before boarding the train to come east to face Carnera at Yankee Stadium.
Louis, showing remarkable calm, controlled the bout with Carnera, using an attack to the body in the first three rounds to force Carnera’s hands down and then taking the next few rounds to set up the bigger foe for the sixth-round assault that deposited him to the canvas three times en-route to the stoppage.
Louis, fresh off the Carnera victory, was already being viewed as a legitimate challenger for Braddock.
The shrewd promoter Mike Jacobs, who had signed a three-year deal with Louis prior to the Carnera bout, immediately cast his sights on a bout with Baer, who represented the next logical hurdle in the path of a shot at Braddock’s recently-earned crown.
Things happened much faster in the sport of boxing back in those days than now. Jacobs recognized the value of a Louis v. Baer promotion as a Yankee Stadium attraction and jumped on it, getting the contracts signed for a major bout between the contenders for September, just three months after Baer’s stunning loss to Braddock and Louis’s crunching KO of Carnera.
Everything in the heavyweight division had been turned on its head in a very short time in the summer of 1935. Before June, no one would have predicted that Baer would be dethroned or that Louis, fresh off his demolition of Carnera, would be facing Baer in an elimination bout in September to see who would eventually take on the new champion Braddock.
The bout was made for Tuesday, September 24, at Yankee Stadium.
Louis maintains focus
Louis, who recently turned 21, was hailed as a hero when he returned home to Detroit following the Carnera bout and Mayor Frank Couzens, who was facing reelection in November, went out of his way to be photographed with the popular Louis. The fighter, who shunned the spotlight for the most part, made his way to Navin Field whenever he could to watch the Tigers play (Louis was a huge baseball fan) and he became friends with Tigers’ home run hitter Hank Greenberg. Louis and Greenberg, both sluggers in their own field of endeavor, got along quite well.
There were plenty of potential distractions now that Louis was the focus of the national spotlight and was coming off what was by far his biggest payday against Carnera. Louis’s veteran trainer Jack Blackburn, a former fighter from Chicago and another shrewd individual who served Louis well, was able to keep his fighter’s nose to the grindstone, though, recognizing that bigger fights and bigger paydays were on the horizon if Louis stayed on track.
Louis, who at this stage of his young career was not so tempted by the allures of growing fame, stayed a while in Detroit that summer before leaving for Chicago to train for a fight with King Levinsky in early August. Louis dispatched of Levinsky, who seemed scared as he entered the ring, within one round and then proceeded to Pompton Lakes, N.J., to train for the elimination bout with Baer.
On June 29, just a few weeks after losing the title to Braddock and a few days after Louis’s knockout of Carnera, Baer married Mary Sullivan and, by all appearances, gave up the party lifestyle he had become famous for. Baer and Mary Sullivan would eventually have three children, including Max Baer Jr. who would become famous in his own right portraying Jethro Bodine on the Beverly Hillbillies TV show in the 1960s.
Baer the newly wed, after spending some quality time with wife Mary, traveled to his camp at Speculator, N.Y. to train for his bout with Louis.
As the weeks quickly passed toward the September meeting between the heavyweight challengers, it became clear there was a great deal of public interest and this would be the biggest boxing promotion since Dempsey’s retirement nearly a decade before. Baer, for his part, was at times braggadocios about what he would do to the young Louis in the ring and, at other times, seemed ambivalent.
Max did train hard for this one, something he hadn’t been doing for a few years. He was running five miles every morning, sparring and hitting the bags daily, and was in bed by 10 p.m. each night.
Physical condition would not be an issue for Baer when facing Louis; something else would, though.
Baer’s hands, Louis’s wedding
No one knew it at the time but Baer had suffered a broken right hand during the loss to Braddock. Baer, partly because of his punching style, had recurring problems with his hands swelling after fights during his career. Baer also had bone chips in his left wrist and he was advised by a specialist, Dr. William Healy of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, that fateful summer of ’35 to have an operation on his right hand before fighting again. An operation would mean having to rest the hand for nine months, however, and Baer felt he couldn’t risk that. If he had beaten Braddock, it would have been different. But Baer had squandered the title through lack of training and badly wanted another chance at Braddock and redemption. The only sure pathway to the Braddock rematch was to fight and beat Louis in September. So Baer, against the advice of his manager Ancil Hoffman, decided not to postpone the Louis fight.
Baer did not entertain delusions about his chances with Louis. Baer believed he could knock out anyone but he recognized that Louis was faster than him and was also a very hard puncher. Baer was not known for his defense and was, in fact, pretty easy to hit, though he had never been knocked down before. Baer knew his best chance of winning was to catch Louis early with a thunderbolt to the chin.
How could he do that, though, with a broken hand?
Louis, like Baer, was involved in a pretty heavy romance that summer of ’35, though it was mostly below the radar. He and a 19-year-old stenographer from Chicago named Marva Trotter were seeing a lot of each other and had agreed to be married.
The original plan was for Louis and Marva to get married a few days after the Baer fight and then make their home in Chicago. What happened, though, was that Louis and Marva officially tied the knot just hours before the fight on September 24!
The couple was united in marriage by Marva’s brother, Rev. Walter Trotter, in a New York apartment at 8 p.m. in front of some family and friends. It was a small, quiet, intimate affair, which Louis preferred.
Louis would later say he was more nervous about getting married than he was about facing Baer that night at Yankee Stadium.
While Louis was getting hitched, Baer was going through a much different experience. The former champ was in his Yankee Stadium dressing room and, listening to the sounds of the growing crowd during the preliminaries, was brooding about facing Louis and about the condition of his hands. The more Baer brooded over his fate, the worse he felt, prompting Baer at one point to ask Dempsey, who would be in his corner as cut man that night, to call off the fight.
Baer said there was no way he could lick Louis with a bum right hand and Dempsey allegedly replied that Baer could either face Louis in the ring in a little while or face him in the dressing room right then.
Right around that time, Baer’s manager Hoffman and trainer Izzy Klein entered the dressing room with Dr. Max Stern, a physician who had worked for the New Jersey Boxing Commission. As a favor to Hoffman, Doc Stern came discreetly to the dressing room and injected Baer’s hands with a generous dosage of Novocain.
Dr. Stern apparently injected the Novocain closer to Baer’s right wrist than his knuckles, however, and it made the whole forearm feel numb. That caused Baer to have a panic attack in the dressing room and Baer threatened again not to go through with the fight.
Then it started raining, causing what would become a 45-minute delay before the main event. As Baer waited in the dressing room with Hoffman, Klein and Dempsey to be called to the ring, the rain lingered longer and longer and Baer’s mood became darker and darker. Hoffman reportedly told a confidant later that Dempsey practically had to drag Baer from the dressing room when the call came to enter the ring.
By the time Baer finally did make his way to the ring that night to face Louis, the Novocain was already starting to wear off.
When Baer did land his best shot of the night, late in the second round with Louis near the ropes, it sent shock waves through Baer’s entire body. Baer never recovered and hardly used the right again for the remainder of the four-round fight.
Not that it would have mattered much that night in Yankee Stadium if Baer’s hands were in perfect condition. Louis was still a few years away from his prime as a prizefighter but he was already a force to be reckoned with. At 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, he hit with severe authority in either hand and his jab was like a battering ram.
Louis and Baer fought before 88,000 eager fans in the packed stadium and a live gate of nearly $1 million, a figure reached before only during the Dempsey years. The ring announcer Joe Humphreys made a point of saying “may the better man emerge victorious” regardless of race.
The fight film is pretty clear for being under the lights in the mid-1930s. The force of Louis’s punches is visible on Baer’s face and body nearly from the outset. As Louis warmed to the task, the ferocity of the combinations became more and more evident. Baer ended up taking quite a beating over four rounds and he was bleeding freely inside his mouth.
Baer’s best moment came at the end of the second round when he landed a looping right but it seemed to connect a bit high, on Louis’s cheekbone rather than his jaw. Baer followed up with a nice combination of blows as the bell sounded. Louis may have been shaken temporarily but he recovered quickly between the rounds.
Louis systematically took Baer apart in the third and fourth rounds, landing several vicious shots to Baer’s head and body. Baer, who was basically a one-armed fighter at that point, exhibited amazing stamina and toughness in the face of the attack. Baer finally went down for the first time in his career late in the third round from an overhand right. He got up, only to be sent to the canvas a short time later from three successive left hooks.
The bell saved Baer from being counted out at the end of the third round but the fourth was more of the same. Baer was taking a savage beating and finally went down for the count late in the round, nailed by another overhand right followed by a left hook near the ropes. He was on his right knee as referee Arthur Donovan tolled the final seconds.
Louis is lauded, Baer is labeled
Near the end of his career, Louis would tell the ubiquitous New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, with whom he became pretty good friends, that the Baer fight was his best. Louis said he felt like he could have gone 50 rounds that night. He only needed four, though, to take out Baer, who just a few months before was considered nearly unbeatable.
The win over Baer propelled Louis to the position of top challenger to Braddock but it would take nearly two more years before Louis and Braddock would meet in June of 1937 in Chicago and Louis would wrest the heavyweight title by 8-round KO. The loss to Schmeling occurred during the summer of 1936, of course, and that derailed Louis’s title aspirations temporarily.
Baer talked of retirement after the Louis fight, telling the press he was moving to his ranch in Livermore, California to raise cattle. He didn’t use the broken hand as an excuse for his defeat, though Dempsey told reporters that Baer did hurt his right hand early in the fight and it was rendered virtually useless.
“No alibis,” Dempsey said, “but when Baer hurt his right hand he couldn’t go out and gamble like I was begging him to do.” Dempsey said that Baer knew he was going to lose after the second round but told Dempsey he would go down fighting, even with one hand.
Baer was labeled by the fans and the writers, including Ernest Hemingway, who was at ringside, as a coward following the loss to Louis, which was very unjust. Baer stood up remarkably well to the blows that were rained upon him with such ferocity that June night.
Baer did admit that he could have gotten up after the third knockdown late in the fourth round. He famously said, “I could have struggled up once more, but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch it.”
Mike Dunn is a writer and boxing historian living in Lake City, Mich.