Braddock vs Baer
Was It On The Level?
By Bobby Franklin
(This article originally appeared in the Boston Post Gazette in 2019)
On June 6, 1934 Max Baer won the Heavyweight Championship of the World by defeating Primo Carnera in the 11th round. He had floored the courageous champion 11 times on his way to winning the crown. Baer, who had preciously scored a brutal kayo over Max Schmeling, looked like a man who would be champion for quite some time. He was a brutal puncher in the ring while possessing the charm of a Hollywood leading man outside of it. in fact, he had made himself a bit of a reputation acting in movies. He was a man sitting on top of the world.
Just a few days over a year later that would all change when Max put the title on the line on against the lightly regarded James J. Braddock. Braddock had been a leading light heavyweight contender a few years earlier, but injuries and a number of loses had derailed his career. He had managed to string together a number of wins over heavyweights and position himself for a shot at Baer. Nobody gave him a chance, and many thought he was risking his life to step in the ring with the murderous punching Max.
In fact, earlier in his career Baer had killed Frankie Campbell in the ring, and many also believed he was the one responsible for the death of Ernie Schaaf who collapsed and died in his fight with Primo Carnera after being hit with a left jab. In an earlier fight with Baer Schaaf had taken some terrible shots and was knocked unconscious as the final round ended. He was saved by the bell and lost a decision to Baer. It is believed the blows from Max had caused an injury to Ernie from which he never recovered, resulting in his death in the Carnera fight.
It seemed unbelievable Braddock would have any chance against Baer. While he was certainly a very capable boxer, he just would not have the strength to hold off the dynamite that was in Max’s two fists. He went into the fight a ten to one underdog. However, he did go on to win the title that night, and along with that win he became known as the Cinderella Man.
Most people are now familiar with the Braddock story from the 2005 movie directed by Ron Howard. In the movie Braddock’s fight with Baer is depicted as a life and death struggle with Jimmy hanging on to win a close and exciting fight. Actual footage of the fight tells a different story.
When I was a kid my father and I watched an 8mm film of the Braddock/Baer match on a home movie projector. It was the only time I had seen the fight until I viewed it again the other day. I do remember when watching it with my father how surprised he was at what he saw. He was a teenager when the bout took place but had never seen it. He was a great admirer of Braddock, particularly because after winning the title James had repaid the money he had collected while on relief (welfare) when things were bad for him and his family. I admired that about him as well.
What surprised my father while watching the film was how the two men were fighting. He had always believed Braddock had won in the manner depicted in the Ron Howard movie. After viewing the film for a short while my father exclaimed “Max threw the fight!” He was disappointed to see that, as it took the glow off of Braddock’s win. My father also liked Baer very much so that added to his disappointment. He justified it all by saying Max probably did it because he liked and felt sorry for Braddock and his family.
I decided to take another look at the fight to see what I would think after all of these years. After viewing highlights from each of the 15 rounds, I have no doubt at all that Baer threw the fight. I even think it is possible Braddock was in on it as well. For most of the fight it looks like two guys trying not to hurt each other. It is nothing like the all out battle seen in the Howard movie.
The fight, which took place on June 13, 1935 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl on Long Island, was one of the most boring in history. With the exception of one round, the 7th, Baer didn’t through any serious punches, and in that round he only opened up because the crowd was booing and he felt he had to look like he wasn’t dogging it. When he did land a decent right hand he hurt Braddock but immediately backed off.
At the opening bell you would think it was Jimmy who had the tremendous power in his hands as Baer began the fight by backpedaling. As the fight progressed Baer did some clowning that brought laughter from the crowd and which was more exciting than fight itself. He also was talking to Braddock quite a bit, and if you watch closely it appears the two men are speaking to each other in the clinches. It would be interesting to know what they said to one another.
They seemed to be afraid of hurting one another.
Going into the fifteenth round Braddock appeared ahead in the scoring. Max had to know this, yet he did nothing to try and save the title. In fact, the two men spent most of the round at close quarters exchanging light punches. They seemed to be afraid of hurting one another. The fact that Braddock was also not throwing hard punches gives me reason to believe he was aware of the fix.
In the end James J. Braddock was award the decision. The scoring on one judge’s card and the referee’s was pretty one sided. The other judge had it scored evenly by rounds at 7-7 with 1 even. However, he gave the fight to Braddock based on points which is the rule in New York when a judge’s card comes up even.
Neither fighter made a particularly good payday out of this fight as it didn’t draw big money. Ironically, both would make the biggest purses of their careers in their next fight against the same opponent. They both took on Joe Louis.
I have not gotten into the reasons Max Baer would have thrown this fight, but after watching it closely I have no doubt that my father was correct when he said “Max threw the fight!