Monday, February 13, 2006

Cinderella men

Intrigued by Steve Goddard's review at History Wire, I took a book about boxing out of the library and started it over the weekend.

Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink by James Wolcott's Vanity Fair colleague, David Margolick.

So far, it's good.

Very good.

And I've already learned some things about the world of professional boxing in the 1920s and 1930s that I never knew. To start with, boxing in the United States in those days was a Jewish sport.

I always knew that once upon a time boxing was the most popular spectator sport, more popular than baseball. And I knew that there were many good fighters, so many that even fights between apparent nobodies were important because if you didn't know either guy's name now, there was a good chance that one of them, both of them, maybe, could be a contender, soon, something that's never been true in my lifetime, when at any given time there's been no more than a handful of boxers who mattered. What I didn't know is that many of those fighters were Jewish.

Every weight category, except heavyweight, was dominated by Jewish fighters. Jewish fighters held many of the titles. This made boxing very popular among Jewish sports fans. Since most Jews lived in cities, cities were where the big gate money was to be made, particularly one city on the East Coast that had a large Jewish population and was already the center of the professional boxing world, New York.

Trouble was, heavyweight fights were the really big draws. It was the heavyweight championship that mattered to most fight fans, and heavyweight championship fights that brought in the million dollar gates. Wouldn't it be great, thought the fans and the money men, if we could find a great Jewish Hope?

Along comes Max Baer.

Baer, for a long time known if known at all as the father of the Beverly Hills' Jethro Bodine, Max Baer Jr., until the release of Cinderella Man last fall, was perfectly happy to be the Jewish Hope. He might even have been Jewish. At any rate, his father might have been Jewish. Or half-Jewish. Whichever, he wasn't orthodox about it, neglecting to raise Max as Jewish and supporting the family by running a pig farm. For the good of the sport and his people, and his wallet, Baer embraced his heritage. He fought with a Star of David on his trunks.

For a time, Bear was the heavyweight champion of the world. He beat the best, including Max Schmeling. Imagine how that sat with Adolph Hitler who had become Schmeling's greatest fan, a Jew beating a hero of the Master Race.

I haven't seen Cinderella Man. Max Baer Jr complained about the way the movie turned his father into a villain, portraying him as a murderous thug, intent on killing the movie's hero Jimmy Braddock in the ring the way he'd killed two other men.

The truth was, says Max Baer Jr, his father was one of the nicest guys alive. The truth was, writes David Margolick, Baer was something of a lighthearted goof. He didn't take his fights as seriously as he should have. He lost focus. Sometimes, in the middle of a fight, he'd look out into the crowd and find friends to wave to and pretty girls to flirt with.

Baer did kill a guy. Frankie Campbell. The other fighter the movie credits him with killing died in his next fight. It might have been that Baer had damaged him so badly that it didn't take much to finally finish him off. But that's just guessing. Frankie Campbell did die from the beating he took from Bear. But that didn't make Baer a killer. Margolick and Max Baer Jr. say that what he did to Campbell weighed on his conscience all his life. He paid Campbell's kids' way through college, Baer Jr says. Margolick says that people who knew him at the time, as well as sportswriters and other insiders, thought what he'd done to Campbell took the heart out of Baer. He became afraid of his own strength.

The fight between Bear and Braddock that's at the center of Cinderella Man is portrayed as a slugfest, with Braddock standing up to a terrific onslaught and wearing Baer down in the end. It looked to some that after a certain point Baer gave up. It may have been that after Braddock got up and came back at him after another horrific punch, Baer became afraid that the only way to finish the fight was to give Braddock everything he had and Baer couldn't bring himself to do it because it would have meant risking another man's life.

Brutal as the fight might have felt to Braddock or looked to his adoring wife, or to Baer too, maybe, most fans watching thought it was a yawner, the worst championship fight in history. Joe Louis watched it from ringside and afterwards said he thought he could lick both fighters easily, at the same time. Louis wasn't known for idle boasting.

Like I said, I haven't seen the movie. If you have, you can tell me. Does it say anything about why that fight was important, not just to boxing, but to the whole world?

Because by taking the title away from Baer, Braddock moved Louis up in the rankings. It rearranged the match-ups.

Max Schmeling had been looking forward to another shot at Baer.

Baer had won their last title fight.

Schmeling wanted to get his own back.

Nazi Germany had adopted Schmeling as a cultural and racial hero. The Nazis hadn't been happy when Schmeling lost to the "Jewish" Baer. They were looking forward to Schmeling redeeming the Aryan race in a re-match.

They weren't going to get it.

They way things were now set, Schmeling would have to face Louis.

A black man.

Imagine what the Nazis made of it when Schmeling beat Louis.

Imagine what they felt, what Americans felt, particularly black Americans, when Schmeling met Louis again and Louis knocked out Schmeling.

Two minutes into the first round.

That was something, wasn't it? Almost easy to take for granted now, but impossible to believe then.

Impossible to believe too that America was represented in the eyes of the world by two athletes, that the symbols of hope and defiance against the growing Nazi War Machine were two athletes, a runner and a fighter.

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis.

Cinderella men.

Black men.


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