THE 2005 blockbuster film Cinderella Man, which chronicled the life of world heavyweight champ James J. Braddock, was grossly unfair in its depiction of Braddock’s rival Max Baer, from whom he won the title. In the movie, Baer is portrayed as a vicious sadist who threatens to kill Braddock in the ring and sleep with his wife. This is nonsense. It never happened. The real Max Baer was nothing like this hideous Hollywood distortion.
“Madcap Maxie”, as he was known, was one of the most popular and entertaining fighters of the interwar era. Aside from his formidable punch (51 of his 66 wins came inside time), Baer was a happy-go-lucky joker whose contagious smile and clown-like ring antics lit up the fight game amid the gloom of the Great Depression.
Max had a Jewish father, but didn’t practice the faith himself. However, he proudly wore the Star of David on his fighting shorts and was a hero to Jewish people everywhere.
In 1937, two years after he lost the world crown to Braddock, Max and his brother, fellow heavyweight Buddy Baer, each had two fights in Britain. Buddy won his two, but Max lost to Tommy Farr in his British debut at Harringay Arena, on April 15. He made up for this, however, with an emphatic win over Ben Foord at the same venue on May 27, thumping the South African to defeat in nine. But more memorable perhaps than the fight itself was the reception Max and Buddy received when they visited east London days later.
On May 31, Morry Bloom, the owner of a well-known delicatessen in Brick Lane, Whitechapel, threw a victory party for Max above his store. When news spread that Baer was attending, the locals, many of them Jewish, turned out in their thousands to greet the ex-world champion. Max and Buddy were due to arrive at Bloom’s at 7pm, but crowds started to gather hours beforehand, and as the Baers’ arrival drew near the road was almost impassable, with police struggling to part the throng to make room for traffic. Every car that entered Brick Lane was hailed with shouts of, “Here comes Maxie!” and enveloped by wildly cheering well-wishers.
At 8pm, the Baers’ car drew into view. “The journey from the top of Osborn Street to Bloom’s shop – only 200 yards – took nearly a quarter of an hour,” reported East End newspaper The Weekly Sporting Review. “The scenes of excitement which marked their short journey were indescribable; the local populace went hysterical in its frenzied endeavour to get a glimpse of the ex-world champion and his brother, Buddy.”
After wading through the throng, the brothers found their way to the dining room above the store, where a superb spread had been laid on. But this didn’t deter the crowds outside – in fact they grew larger, and there were persistent cries of “We want Maxie!”
Never one to let down an audience, the ex-world titlist appeared at the window with his brother, waving and grinning to the cheering crowd. Through a microphone, Max thanked the East Enders for their great welcome, and Buddy sang a couple of songs, with the outside audience joining in the choruses.
Sid Nathan, the well-known referee – then a 14-year-old autograph hunter – was part of the massive crowd and remembered Max and Buddy being regarded “like royalty”.
Twenty-two years later, when Max died of a heart attack in a Hollywood hotel at the age of 50, the boxing world was devastated at the loss of one of its most loveable characters. Max believed that the world would be a better place with more laughter, and made this his personal mantra.
When asked on his deathbed by hotel staff if he needed the house doctor, he is reported to have quipped: “No. Get me a people doctor!”
Forget the unfair 2005 Hollywood depiction. This was the real Max Baer.