By Jim Galiano.
Some called him a “Killer.” But for Max Baer, fighting was just a job that paid the bills. He once said, “Some guys string electrical wire for a living. I punch people with my fists.” That’s how he looked at it. It was nothing personal. Baer possessed one of the hardest right hands in the history of the heavyweight division. Physically, he boasted the proportions of a perfect fighting machine. He stood just over 6’ 3” and weighed about 220 pounds. Two of Baer’s opponents died after facing him in the ring and the amount of physical damage and punishment he inflicted throughout his career may never be completely known.
Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel, among others, believed that had he trained and took the sport seriously… Baer could have become the greatest Heavyweight Champion of all-time. The truth is, though, Baer was far from being a master boxer. He wasn’t very difficult to hit, either. What he possessed was the ability to soak up hard punches without being rocked and a very durable chin which kept him on his feet until the final years of his career.
Max Baer had the punching power and personality to be a multi-millionaire many times over had he been fighting today. Max was managed by a multi-millionaire businessman from California named Ancil Hoffman. Hoffman’s shrewdness was responsible for making Baer one of the best managed Heavyweight Champions in history.
Max was born on February 11, 1906 in Nebraska. He was the second born among three siblings, plus an adopted child. Max’s parents moved to California when he was twelve. It was there that he became a target of bullies. Instead of fighting, he ran. “I spent most of my time in those days running or trying to talk my way out of fights,” said Baer. “Time after time, Frances (his sister) picked my face out of the mud and then whaled the daylights out of some kid who had whaled the daylights out of me.”
Not long afterward, the Baer family moved and settled in Livermore, California. As a teenager, Max worked 16 hours a day digging fence holes, fixing wagons and slaughtering beef – among other things.
“By the time I was 19, I weighed a couple of hundred pounds and was well over six feet tall. I didn’t run away from fist fights anymore.”
Jack Dempsey became Max’s idol and Baer tried patterning himself after him.
In 1933, Baer spared with his idol in preparation for his fight with Max Schmeling. Dempsey was 40 at the time, Baer was just 23.
“I was training to fight Max Schmeling and a publicity guy got the idea that Dempsey and I should go a couple of rounds at my training camp in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We got into the ring and the moving picture cameras started to grind, I figure we will just clown around for the girls. But Dempsey comes out of the corner like a maniac. He closes in on me and says, ‘Hiya pal,’ then, wham! He slugs me with a right on the chin. I thought he took my head off! I shook the daffodils out of my head and let him have a right in the belly. Jack holler, ‘Whoof!’ and throws his arms around my neck. ‘That was a helluva shot, kid,’ he said. We were pals ever since.”
Baer’s first fight took place at the old Oak Park Arena in Stockton, California. The year was 1929. His opponent, Chief Cariboo, a colorful name for an Indian Heavyweight.
“I didn’t hit him with a good shot until the third round. It was a right to his head and it knocked the Chief out cold. I can’t remember getting a bigger thrill.”
Baer was a crowd pleaser right from the beginning. He was a big hit in rings throughout California. Regardless of the opponent, people turned out in crowd. According to Baer, he made approximately $50,000 in the twelve months that followed his knockout over the Chief… and he spent about $60,000.
Knocks came easily for Baer. It wasn’t long until he considered himself to be invincible. His manager Ancil Hoffman, however, had to know for sure how good Baer was. He chose rising Heavyweight contender Frankie Campbell as Max’s first big test. Campbell was an intelligent fighter with speed and a hard right hand. He could hurt you.
Baer dealt Campbell and severe beating, knocking him out in the fifth round. Several hours later, Campbell died. The autopsy showed that the brain had been separated from the supportive tissues. Max was arrested for manslaughter but was later cleared of all charges when it was determined that Campbell’s death was accidental.
Baer considered retiring briefly after Campbell’s death. He reconsidered, however and made his way to the east coast for his New York debut against Ernie Schaaf. Schaaf outboxed Max on his way to an easy decision victory.
“I couldn’t catch him so I couldn’t hit him. I wanted to grab him so that he would stay still for just a second. I want to fight him again. Next time I’ll catch him.”
A little over 2 years later, he did. With just under ten seconds left in the fight, Max caught Ernie with a punch some say was the hardest he ever threw. Schaaf went down and out. Some say that punch was responsible for the damage that resulted in Schaaf’s death in his next fight against Primo Carnera.
The victory over Schaaf left one man remaining between Baer and a shot for the title. Max Schmeling. Jack Sharkey had relieved Schmeling of the title in a fight most thought Max Schmeling had won. Both fighters were deserving of a title shot in the eyes of the fans. And so, the fight was made. Baer and Schmeling met at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 1933. Baer pounded the former champion into submission at 1:51 of the 10th.
A few weeks after defeating Schmeling, Primo Carnera upset Jack Sharkey for title. Team Carnera, however, weren’t exactly in a hurry to step into the ring against a destroyer like Max Baer. Instead, they took the path of least resistance and logged two title defense victories against Paulino Uzcudan and Light Heavyweight great – Tommy Loughran. Both fights went the 15 round distance.
Finally, on June 14, 1934, Baer stepped into the ring against Primo Carnera. Baer floored Carnera 11 times before the fight finally ended in the 11th round. Baer himself visited the canvas along with Carnera on two of those occasions – carried by the huge momentum of the punch. Instead of jumping back to his feet, Baer crawled around on the canvas next to Carnera pretending to be a tiger stalking its prey. The crowd loved it. Max Baer was truly one of a kind.
It was Baer’s clowning, however, that make his title reign a short one. After defeating Carnera, boxing analysts predicted Max’s title reign would be a long and prosperous one. Baer himself predicted he’d retire as Gene Tunney did – a champion with his title well intact.
His title reign was over within a year. Baer was outpointed by James Braddock over 15 rounds. Baer had taken the underdog Jim Braddock lightly and clowned his way through a title losing effort. The title was gone. Later in the year, Baer ran into the young dynamo Joe Louis and was stopped in four rounds.
Baer regrouped after these back to back defeats. His popularity, however, never didn’t wane with the public. Baer continued to fight and although he never again fought the title, he had a great run.
In June of 1939, at the age of 30, Max ran into fellow Californian – Lou Nova. Lou’s style gave Baer all sorts of problems. You might say, Baer’s style was made to order for Nova. Baer’s face found its way to the end of Nova’s jab just about every time he threw it. The referee stopped the fight in the 11th round when Max’s face was so swollen and bloodied, he was deemed unfit to continue.
Four more career wins were sandwiched like bookends between a final defeat (TKO by 8) against Nova in 1941. Nova just had Max’s number.
Max Baer died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 1959. He joked with the doctor who was trying to save him from a sudden heart attack. Upon hearing of his death, veteran trainer Ray Arcel said he cried like a baby.
“Every time I was around Max Baer, I felt like a kid again.”
– Ray Arcel
Max did about a 100 years worth of living in his 50 short years. And I really believe that, if he were given the chance to do it all over again in 2009, he wouldn’t change a thing.