Baer vs. Louis: “Fate Takes a Hand”

By Norman Marcus on February 14, 2012
Baer vs. Louis: “Fate Takes a Hand”
Jack Dempsey burst into the room and loudly proclaimed, “I’ll always be for Max Baer.”

“Dynamite puncher,” recalled Jimmy Braddock about Max Baer. “If he hit you right, he’d knock you out in the third row…”

After Baer lost the title to Jimmy Braddock the heavyweight division was in shambles. Jimmy didn’t want to give Baer a rematch, at least not right away. Braddock had gotten to the top through dogged determination and a lot of luck. He wanted some time to enjoy being champ and cash in.

Max Schmeling asked Braddock for a shot, the papers were even signed, but Braddock claimed hand problems and the fight never happened. Schmeling was still ducking Baer and since Maxie was no longer champ, the Nazi leadership was not as interested in a rematch for their German Champion. If Baer wanted another shot at Braddock he would first have to beat Joe Louis, the up-and-coming young contender from Detroit.

So it was a match—Baer vs. Louis, set for Yankee Stadium on Sept. 24, 1935. Max set up his training camp in Speculator, New York. Baer was hesitant about the fight. He had seen Joe fight and knew his style. Louis’ way of doing things did not fit well with Baer. He was faster, threw more punches and was a better boxer than Max. But Baer was a harder puncher and could take a punch better than Louis. Max had never been knocked down. He was primarily a knockout artist. Sure he had won fights by decision, but they were few and far between.

There was also a bigger problem. Baer’s hands were still in bad shape from the Braddock fight. His left wrist had a bone chip moving around and his right hand was broken. His manager Ancil Hoffman pleaded with Max to postpone the fight and get a specialist to examine his hands. Secretly the two of them flew down to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Maryland. An orthopedic surgeon named William Healy examined Max and told him that his right hand should be operated on before he fought again. The metacarpal bones that ran from his right wrist up to his fingers were a mess. Max had broken all four knuckles in that hand. The bones had to be reset and rested for nine months. The left wrist would heal over time, but Max didn’t have time. Madison Square Garden still had him under contract and had given him a three-month window to meet and beat Louis. Baer decided to roll the dice and skip the operation. He might never get another shot at the title. It was “Madcap” Maxie Baer at his best. Just weeks before he was to meet Joe, Max wrote his wife, “I hope to God my hand heals before the fight.”

No one, not even the Livermore Larruper, could beat Louis with a broken right hand and a sore left. Max knew that his only chance was to catch Louis early with a solid right to his chin. Then a rematch with Jimmy would be his. He needed another chance. Baer was a proud man and he felt he had something to prove to himself and the world. He had given the title away and he wanted it back. He wanted to win for his family and for his new bride Mary Sullivan, whom he had married two weeks after the Braddock fight. Mary had turned Max from a playboy into a family man in short order. They eventually had three children, Max Jr., another son James, and a daughter named Maude. The marriage lasted until the day Baer died in 1959.

Just as with Schmeling in 1933, Max took training seriously for this bout. He went back to the gym, ran five miles every morning, jumped rope, pounded the speed and heavy bags, and was in bed by 10:00 pm.

Max was worried by what he saw of Louis but moved ahead to face it. There was nothing else to do.

The night of his fight with the Brown Bomber, Max sat alone in his dressing room in Yankee Stadium. He had been brooding for weeks about his hands. He could again hear the crowd above him, the muffled roar, as they waited for the main event. What a difference two years made. It seemed like yesterday that Max waited in this same room to face Schmeling, but it was 1935 and Louis was on a roll. Max’s thoughts were interrupted by Jack Dempsey. Jack was in his corner the night Max beat Schmeling and he could see that something was wrong. He asked Baer what was on his mind. Max told Dempsey that his hand was still killing him. He said he couldn’t beat Louis with a bum right hand and asked Dempsey to call off the fight. This Jack could not do, it was too late. Too much money and too many people involved. Dempsey told Baer that 95,000 people were waiting to see him fight Louis. Baer took a deep breath and his breathing became more regular. Jack told Max to fight Louis upstairs, or he’d have to fight him—Jack Dempsey—right there in the dressing room.

Moments later Ancil Hoffman and Izzy Klein came in with Max Stern. Doc Stern worked for the New Jersey Boxing Commission and could keep his mouth shut. If the New York Boxing Commission got wind of Baer’s condition, the fight would have been canceled and Max’s rematch with Braddock would have disappeared. The doctor had volunteered to help out Baer. Stern opened his black bag and took out a large syringe and a small vile of clear liquid. He gave Max several shots of Novocain in key areas of his hand.  It had only been three months since the Braddock fight. If he was to win that night, Max had to be able to hit Louis as hard as he could without pain. The painkiller kicked in and the hand felt better. Max smiled. He now had his chance to knock Louis out early, before the Novocain wore off.

When the doctor left, the four men waited to be called for the main event. But then, tragically, it began to rain. Yankee Stadium had no roof and the rain delay lasted 45 minutes.  Fifteen more minutes and the fight would have been postponed till the next night. By the time Max was walking toward the ring the numbness from the Novocain was already beginning to wear off. By the opening bell the old throbbing in the hand was back. Max would now feel pain not only every time Louis hit him but worse, every time he hit Louis.

To make matters worse, Max’s bitter former trainer, Mike Cantwell, had sent a letter to John Roxborough, Louis’ co-manager, giving him inside information on the former champion. This information now in the hands of Joe’s trainer Jack Blackburn was like a stick of dynamite. Mike still bore a grudge against the Baer camp and the letter was more payback for his firing. The letter was explicit: “You can put this fight in the bag when he weighs in on the day of the fight if Blackburn will ride him. He cannot stand that at all. It renders him unable to sleep. I’ve been with him and I know. He loves to be friendly at that time…watch Baer in that first round. I know he will try to take the play away from Joe. That is usually his system when against a man he is afraid of. And he will start it with a hook to the body. I know he is afraid of Joe but his life depends on this fight, and I think he will be a bit more determined than he was with Braddock…Now John, send Joe out there using that left hand to the face for the first two rounds then attack the body with both hands and you will stop him before the seventh round sure. Warmest personal regards and I will be tuned in…Mike.”

It seemed that fate had a hand in what transpired that night. Indeed it had taken Max’s right hand, and that letter from his ex-trainer Mike Cantwell had sealed the deal. The fight was to go just four rounds.

Round one started out with Max throwing a jab that caught Louis on the jaw. Joe countered with a left-right combination to Max’s body. Joe hit Max with a right to the chin, followed by a left to the side of the head. Max managed to keep away from Louis for the rest of the round.

Round two saw Baer warming up a bit now, landing several body blows. The methodical Louis, however, kept to his fight plan, landing dozens of lefts and rights to Baer’s head. Just before the bell, Max saw an opening and threw that looping overhand right of his to Louis’ chin. The pain in Baer’s hand as that punch landed went all the way up his arm to his shoulder. He had never felt pain like that before. His “bread and butter” punch that had ended many a match for Baer had little effect on Louis. It looked good but it was counterfeit; yet only Max knew.

Louis took the punch, but he just backed up and walked to his corner as the bell rang to end the round. As Max sat on his stool between rounds, Dempsey leaned in and told Max he was doing great. He said that Louis hadn’t laid a glove on him. Baer looked at Dempsey and replied, “Then you better keep an eye on the referee, ‘cause he’s beating the hell out of me.”

Things got worse for Max in round three. He threw a lot of punches but kept missing while Joe was landing at will. Louis dropped Baer for the first time in his career. He got up and walked into another barrage and hit the canvas again. Baer was saved by the bell.

The final round was no different. Louis had the range now and was landing 10 blows for every one landed by Baer. Near the end of round four Baer went down again. He got up on one knee and took the 10-count. It was over; Baer’s dream of reclaiming the title was gone. Louis would get the shot at Braddock. Amid boos and catcalls, Max Baer left the ring. The fans called him a coward, a slacker. This was a new and bitter experience for Max. Never before had he been accused of having no heart. Later that night Louis told the New York Times, “The only time Baer hit me hard was at the end of the second round. He hit me with two rights high on the head, but they did not hurt. He can’t hit as hard as I thought he could.”

When asked to comment on his lack of punching power, Max said, “My hands were all right. I have no excuse.” He told reporters that he was going to retire and return to Livermore to raise cattle. Jack Dempsey burst into the room and proclaimed, “I’ll always be for Max Baer.” Ancil Hoffman later told the Times, “Let Max do what he wants. If he wants to fight I’ll manage him, and if he doesn’t, I won’t try to convince him.” The public never found out that Max was literally defenseless that night against Louis. His famous right hand should have been fixed long before he stepped into that ring with the Brown Bomber. Max just didn’t have the nine months he needed for the hand to heal.       

The only good thing that came out of this fight was that Max was now financially secure.  Baer spent money faster than he made it, and Jacob Baer (Max’s father) had been after Ancil for years to get his son to put some money away for the future. So without telling him Ancil had taken Baer’s money from the Louis fight, $200,000, and bought Max an annuity with a solid insurance company. The payment of $2500 a month was for him and his wife Mary. The payments were to start when he turned 50. The day after the Louis fight, Ancil gave Max just $100 cash and the annuity contract. Max didn’t argue. He knew that his father and his manager were looking out for him.

Baer later decided not to retire but to continue in the ring. The Livermore Larruper couldn’t yet walk away from the fast money and his celebrity status. Baer fought on for six more years, but never got another shot at the title. In 1940, the heavyweight champion Joe Louis ducked another meeting with Baer. One solid right from Max and Louis’ promoter, Mike Jacobs, might have lost his meal ticket. Jacobs didn’t want to take another chance with Baer.

Years later in an interview with Peter Heller, Jimmy Braddock had this to say about Baer.

“Dynamite puncher,” he recalled. “If he hit you right, he’d knock you out in the third row. In my opinion, the guy was a harder puncher than Louis. Louis was a faster puncher and he hit you with more punches, but Baer was a guy who could hurt you. You see, Max, he was a nice fellow but he never should have been a fighter. His ability was, if the guy could have got mad, you know, like guys get in a fight, he’d kill you with a punch…and I think that was on his mind. But I always said that Max should have been an actor instead of a fighter.”

Baer must have agreed with Jimmy. During the next three decades he made several Hollywood films with major stars. His last film, “The Harder They Fall” in 1959, put Max up on the big screen, sharing top billing with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger. Always the good guy, he even got small parts in the film for two former opponents, “Two Ton” Tony Galento and Pat Cominsky.

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  1. Norman Marcus 11:19am, 06/14/2016

    Monte: If Jimmy Braddock says Baer was a harder hitter than Louis I believe him. After all he fought both men. Additionally Baer was all right hand power. If you read my story the evidence is there that Max entered that ring against Louis with a broken right hand.
    Perhaps Louis would have beaten Baer anyway but Joe did lose to Scheming in 1936. The German knocked him out! In 1933 Baer stopped Schmeling by TKO! If Arthur Donovan hadn’t stopped Baer from throwing a few more power shots Schmeling might have been badly hurt. Scheming said so himself. 
    I’ll stick with Braddock’s opinion. Read the second to the last paragraph in the story. Jimmy tells it straight!

  2. gordonyx 03:50am, 07/06/2015

    Louis’ jab was incredible. And his movement… like a cat. His tempo and rhythm were so easy with those beautiful combinations… those short, economical, perfect punches.

  3. Monte Cox 01:57pm, 05/12/2014

    Baer never saw the day he would beat Louis. Louis was indeed a better boxer but was also a better two handed hitter. Louis jab was enough to control Baer and his combination punching far superior. As for who hit harder that is a matter of opinion. Louis knocked out several fighters teeth right through their mouth piece with his right hand. Louis was 60-1, 51 ko’s when he retired the first time. He would never have lost to some of the men to whom Baer lost. To say Baer would win in a rematch seems absurd. Louis was 10-0 in rematches doing better the 2nd time he met any opponent.

  4. daniel whitman 03:53pm, 02/22/2012

    very delightful read bravo more more

  5. arthurs 04:15pm, 02/17/2012

    this was a well researched article; hopefully we will hear more from this author

  6. Max K 10:06am, 02/16/2012

    This is a great piece. Tons of intrigue surrounding this fight. Norman did a great job of bringing color to this little piece of depression era Americana. Keep ‘em coming, I love stories like this.

  7. jofre 12:17pm, 02/15/2012

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Very nice historical piece.

  8. JimmyD 11:53am, 02/15/2012

    Mickey you seem pretty confident that Baer would’ve won in a rematch with Louis and I don’t disagree. Interestingly, his brother Buddy Baer almost beat Louis in a fight and nearly knocked him out of the ring before Louis came back to win the fight. I’ll tell you what, the Baer brothers were some tough Jews…

  9. Micky 10:30am, 02/15/2012

    @JimmyD: What would’ve happened ? Louis would have lost. That’s clear.

  10. Mickey 10:28am, 02/15/2012

    Wish he had had a bit more time to heal and wish it hadn’t rained that night.. but often fate does take a hand. Thanks, enjoyed the article.

  11. Ian F. 09:46am, 02/15/2012

    Great story. It’s so refreshing to be able to ‘see’ a boxing match with the eyes of an insider (at least from the Baer’s side). To be able to train with Baer in the days before the fight, hear the roar of the Yankee Stadium and 95,000 people in the stands, walk with him in the locker room as the doc injects the Novocain and feel it as it wears off, then feel the crunching pain in every punch is an experience to say the least. Thanks for painting the picture with this article!!

  12. the thresher 08:10am, 02/15/2012

    “His last film, “The Harder They Fall” in 1959, put Max up on the big screen, sharing top billing with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger”

    And he was great as Bunny. When he sauntered across the ring to shake hands with Gus Dundee before Gus’ fight with Moreno, that was pure ‘50s noir and was one of the most unforgetable moments in film boxing noir that I can remember.Max should have been an actor indeed.

  13. mikecasey 07:09am, 02/15/2012

    Excellent read, Norman - enjoyed this one!

  14. jayne kleinman 03:39am, 02/15/2012

    Norman thanks for the article. It is a knockout. jayne

  15. the thresher 06:34pm, 02/14/2012

    Thank you Norman

  16. the thresher 03:58pm, 02/14/2012

    Great interview by Loe Cstello. Max Baer was a cool custumer.

  17. Jimmy D 02:25pm, 02/14/2012

    This is a dynamite article. I’ve never heard the back story to a fight that was so compelling. I wonder what would’ve happened if Baer got his rematch with Louis. Might have changed history, what if!!!!

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