In an era widely regarded as undistinguished as far as heavyweight champions were concerned, Max Baer stood out on two counts. Firstly, he was the Clown Prince of the ring, an ebullient showman who always had a smile on his face. Secondly, he was thought to possess the hardest right-hand punch the sport had ever seen.
Maximilian Adelbert Baer was born on 11 February 1909, in Omaha, Nebraska. His family moved to California when Max was a child, and it was here that he began making a name for himself as a boxer. The sheer power for which he was known came from the heavy work he did on his father’s ranch, including wielding the axe which dispatched pigs in the family-run abattoir.
Baer came to the attention of no less a figure than Jack Dempsey, who obviously saw shades of himself in his powerhouse if unrefined performance. Other boxing aficionados were unconvinced, but Dempsey predicted that Baer would win the heavyweight crown and, equally importantly with the top division in the doldrums, pull in the kind of crowds that Dempsey himself had attracted a decade earlier.
Haunted by ring death
Baer’s main weapon, that big right hand, had killed a boxer named Frankie Campbell in a fight in San Francisco in 1930. Some maintain that he always held something back after that tragic incident, and that it prevented him from scaling even greater heights in the boxing world. Others said that if he had spent as much time training and honing his skills as he did clowning around, he would have enjoyed a more dominant reign as heavyweight champion. Even so, he rose to become a top contender, particularly after his meeting with Max Schmeling in 1933. The ex-champion made his superior technique tell in the early rounds. By the eighth, Baer seemed to be tiring and the result appeared in little doubt. The Californian was then galvanised by his manager, who yelled that the result of the fight would determine whether he would sink into obscurity or be given a shot at the title. It did the trick. Baer tore into Schmeling in the ninth, raining down a barrage of blows on his man. In the next round he hit Schmeling with a mighty right to the chin. The German did beat the count – just – but the referee stopped the fight seconds later.
Playing to gallery
Even when the world title was at stake a year later, Baer’s casual and lighthearted approach remained the same. It was still more than enough for a demolition job on Primo Camera. In the 11 rounds that the fight lasted, Baer put Camera down 11 times. By the end, the Italian giant’s face and body had been battered to a pulp. Baer couldn’t resist playing to the gallery, which included thousands of smitten female fans. He added insult to injury by weighing in with plenty of verbal taunts. The crowd loved it; few had any sympathy for the badly beaten and soon-to-be ex-champion.
Talk of a rematch quickly subsided; Camera’s time at the top was up. He later turned to wrestling, and opened a store. He eventually returned to the Alpine village of his birth, where he died in relative obscurity on 29 June 1967.
Baer was the breath of fresh air that heavyweight boxing had long needed. He was charismatic, popular with women as well as men, and on his day a destructive boxer out of the Dempsey mould. Unfortunately, he preferred socialising and womanising to fighting. And once crowned champion he set about his hedonistic pursuits with abandon. When he could defer a title defence no longer, he signed to fight a man few people thought would pose him many problems. James J. Braddock had had an unspectacular boxing career, so much so that in 1934 – the year before he faced Baer -he had been forced to apply for unemployment relief. They met at Long Island on 13 June 1935. Braddock had put in a lot of solid training to prepare for a fight no one gave him a chance of winning. Baer did what he always did: caroused and enjoyed himself when he should have been getting into peak condition. The consequence was that the title he had held for a day short of a year went to the biggest underdog in heavyweight history.
Born: Omaha, Nebraska, USA. February 111909
Died: November 211959
World Heavyweight Champion: 1934-1935
Record: Won72(52KOs) Lost 11