Max Baer – Legend, Hero, Icon, Champion.

“I couldn’t let em win Jack” – Max Baer and his triumph over Fascism

The political world of the early 1930’s was one of rising extremisms; fascism and Nazism were ravaging western Europe as soviet communism tightened its iron grip on the east. Japanese imperialism was terrorising the Far East while the catastrophic economic effects of the Wall Street crash left millions of Americans destitute. These tumultuous times where the catalyst for the bloodiest conflict in human history and a time where, more than ever, symbolism became paramount.

Max Baer however was an unlikely proponent of political symbolism in his early years. The son of a German Jewish immigrant Jacob Baer and Dora Bales his childhood in Omaha Nebraska he was an outgoing, loud child. Baer’s father was a butcher, and Max often credited his carrying heavy carcasses of meat for developing his powerful shoulders. Gregarious, rebellious and quick witted the young man loved nothing more than a good fight, and with boxing booming in the 20’s he took up the sport.

In 1929, as the Wall Street crash ravaged the very fabric of western society, Baer turned professional winning 22 of his first 24 fights. He became known for his devastating knockout power inside the ring and charismatic personality outside the ring seeming to be rocketing towards the heavyweight title. He had to take a year out of the ring after he was charged with the manslaughter of Frankie Campbell who died after their 1930 bout. Although cleared of wrongdoing this destroyed his fighting spirit and he lost 4 of his next 6 until he came under the tutelage of his hero, former champion Jack Dempsey. Between September 1931 and September 1932 Baer fought 12 times winning them all, fighting with the Dempsey style, all action.

Then in March 1933, 4,500 miles from where Bear had just fought, the political landscape of the world was drastically altered forever. The Nazi party became the biggest party in the Reichstag and Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. When Hitler immediately allied himself with Mussolini’s facist Italy it became clear; the politics of hate and antisemitism had taken hold of Europe. In Hitler’s vision of Germany, sport was central part of the success of his “Thousand Year Reich”, it was a crucial part of Goebbles propaganda regime to demonstrate the “superiority of Aryan race”. You can imagine the delight of the Nazi Elite when former heavyweight champion of the world, a white German, Max Schmeling scheduled a world title eliminator. After his controversial split decision loss to Jack Sharkey in their second bout the German was looking to get back on track and regain his title and Baer was his route to that title.

As the bout was scheduled for July 1933 in the Yankee Stadium in New York, Baer, usually flippant and frivolous was suddenly steely and serious. His father was distraught about the anti semitism that was rampant in his birth nation, and the Jewish community at large in America was becoming increasingly worried about the global trend towards xenophobia and intolerance. This concern was not lost on Max, famous for joking around in training and coming in in poor shape, he trained like Spartan, conscious of how he had to represent his community against a man representing the German regime of hate.

Schmeling himself was no Nazi and ultimately would turn his back on the regime and help to smuggle his Jewish manager out of Germany, but at this point he was being used as a propaganda icon of the Nazi state and appears as such to all inside the USA. He was invited to meet the new Fürher and there were several radio broadcasts heralding the success that the ‘Aryan’ Schmeling would have against the Jewish Baer. There was even a lobby within the Nazi party who didn’t want the bout to go ahead at all believing an Aryan shouldn’t even have to share the ring with someone they dubbed genetically inferior.

56,300 people crammed inside Yankee stadium to see the clash of cultures. The Jewish community came out in force to support Baer. Despite his lack of an active Jewish faith, they organised buses from Jewish neighbourhoods to the stadium and rallied in synagogues to support their guy. Schmeling walked to the ring as a heavy favourite despite the boos of the crowd.

The world was in no doubt which side was which as Baer came to the ring sporting for the first time an emblem what would become synonymous with him and represent the two fight crusade that began that night. A white Star of David with a bold white ‘M’ in the centre, for Max. He was fighting for his People and himself at the same time, as if they were one. Schmeling was then introduced as “the fighting pride of the Fatherland”, Hitler’s pet name for Germany, this only served to solidify the political battle lines upon which this fight was about to be contested America v Germany, Individuality v conformity, Nazism v Judaism, Freedom v Tyranny.

The fight started as all Baer’s fights started, explosively. He stalked Schmeling, standing tall, confident and unloading powerful shots at every opportunity. Like a playground bully Baer used his size and strength advantage to throw Schmeling around the ring. Grabbing him behind the neck to throw him into the corner, pushing him out of clinches, thudding him with nasty uppercuts and hooks while holding his neck and pushing his head into the punches. Chin in the air Baer seemed to be asking “Who’s the superior race now?”

Schmeling too had successes though, by far the more technical fighter he scored some stinging left hooks on the ever more confident Baer. Again though in the clinch the Americans combination of strength and power seemed too much. At the end of round three Baer pointed at a now slightly disheartened looking Schmeling and shouted something, your guess is as good as mine as to what was said, but the psychological and political game was in full flow. Baer had also begun to work the crowd, jeering and smirking with every combination he landed, the New York crowd were eating it up, he toyed with his opponent and the crowd in a way only Muhammad Ali has since.

Baer, confident in his conditioning for one of only a handful of times in his career was able to maintain a punishing pace on Schmeling, punching him body and head all while pushing him around, bullying him, embarrassing him. Schmeling fought bravely, landing the occasional left hook or jab but the desire from Baer to represent his people, to defeat the face of Nazism was too much. In the 10th round as a tired Schmeling bounced back onto the ropes Baer shuffled forward and detonated an overhand for the ages, Schmeling was out on his feet but Baer carried on, hitting him so hard and often it appeared that the punches themselves were holding the German up. Then he regained his composure, pushed his man off and used the space to throw another lethal right hand. Schmeling rose at 9 but had no idea where he was, Baer landed a few more then the referee had seen enough. Hitler’s champion vanquished, Yankee stadium alight with joy and celebration. Baer blew kisses to the women at ring side and pulled faces for the cameras, charismatic as ever as the enjoyed the adulation of his people.

Despite this huge win and his enormous reclaim within the Jewish community his fascist conquering was not done yet. Jack Sharkey the heavyweight Champion had been defeated by the 6”6, 18 1/2 stone Primo Carnera. The Italian was the favourite boxer of Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Carnera met the dictator several times and was, like schmeling, used as propaganda tool enforce the notion of a superior race. Despite Baer’s clear claim for a shot at the Title Carnera would first defend his title in Italy. With the dictator at ringside Carnera wore a black shirt, the uniform of Mussolini’s fascist thugs and gave a Nazi salute to the crowd before winning again, and perpetuating the racist myths of fascist Europe.

Baer didn’t think much of the ‘Ambling Alp’ despite his physical attributes. As with his fight with Schmeling, Bear, with the exception of a few media appearances, trained hard. He got into phenomenal shape, ditching his usual parties and champagne for the gym. On fight night he was 6”2 and a half and weighed 206lbs, with muscles modern boxers with designer protein shakes and advanced sports science would be jealous of. Motivated by his hatred of those who thought him sub human Baer again went to the ring focused beyond belief, not only that, he also knew he was the superior boxer. He knew that he couldn’t let Carnera bully him the way he had Sharkey and Loughran. So he devised a plan to exact another beating of the fascist champion. Despite his newfound political symbolism Baer was uncomfortable with it and preferred to joke so when asked about the fight he quipped “my female intuition tells me I’m gonna win!” Rather than talk politics.

Baer’s strategy was clear from the get go, two pronged; the first element was psychological, to bully the bully, as he had done with schmeling, embarrass and humiliate the bigger man into taking unnecessary risks. The second element was to fight with the tactics his mentor Jack Dempsey had used to dethrone the only champion in history comparable in stature to Carnera, Jess Willard. Baer shot out of the blocks crouching low and punching up in a style more familiar to modern boxing fans as that used by Iron Mike Tyson decades later. Baer was his usual clownish self embarrassing Carenera when they were outside of punching range but the second Carnera moved him Max exploded northward to the head of the Italian hitting him with a lightning barrage of punches. Jacob Maizer wrote of the start of the fight “each Baer blow seemed to send a ripple through his body, snapping back his huge head, twitching his extremities, that was just the first round”

Max appeared to be using the act of punching carnera in the head as a form of catharsis. After the first round it was clear Carnera was no match for Baer but he didn’t knock him out, choosing instead to abuse the Italian for every time he’d been abused for being Jewish. Baer looked to be playing over every dirty word he’d ever been called and imagining they had all come from Carnera’s mouth.

Suddenly as the referee waved his arms Baer’s quest was fulfilled. Not only was he now the new heavyweight champion of the world, The fun loving Max Baer was restored, the political icon gave way once again to the Hollywood playboy. He had conquered Hitlers favourite fighter and Mussolini’s favourite fighter back to back, all with a smile on his face and a Star of David on his shorts, a monumental symbolic achievement. He had done the community of his father and forefathers immensely proud. The Jewish community in America had found an icon they could support and boxing has boomed as a result. But in the oxymoronic way only a pugilist could muster he instantly went back to hard partying and womanising, drinking and socialising forgetting that just for a moment he was most important geopolitical microcosm in the world.

Shakespeare’s Malvolio famously said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Max Baer for me, optimises the last category like few else in the history of boxing.

Article dedicated to the Memory of Maximillian Adelbert Baer as well as all of the victims of the holocaust.

Ewan Breeze – Rebel Boxing for SimBoxx🥊

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