Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets

9. James J. Braddock W 15 Max Baer: June 13, 1935, Madison Square Garden Bowl, New York

To understand just how big an upset this was, one must combine the depths of Braddock’s struggles with the high regard Baer’s talents were held. Braddock was a bright prospect at light heavyweight during the mid and late 1920s as he started his career 27-0-3 with 16 knockouts, all within four rounds. But chronic hand injuries combined with better competition chipped away at his success and after losing a 15-rounder to world light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran in July 1929 Braddock’s career – and life – went into a tailspin.

The effects of the Great Depression along with his frequent injuries forced Braddock to work as a longshoreman to make ends meet. With work assignments spurious at best, Braddock was forced to accept government relief. He took fights when available but with his attentions so divided he lost far more than he won. From Aug. 27, 1929 to Sept. 25, 1933 Braddock was a dismal 11-19-1 (4) with two no contests.

But on June 14, 1934 Braddock’s melodramatic rise from the ashes began when he scored an off-the-floor third-round knockout over the heavily favored Corn Griffin. Two more upsets over future light heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis (W 10) and Art Lasky (W 15) – and the enormous press coverage Braddock’s rags-to-riches story generated – catapulted the native New Yorker into a shot at the world heavyweight title against Max Baer.

Baer was a charismatic Californian who sported the physique of a movie star and a sledgehammer right that wielded lethal power – literally. Baer’s explosive punches proved too much for Frankie Campbell to handle and he died from his injuries the following day. Additionally, although Ernie Schaaf passed away after fighting Primo Carnera, it was thought that the lethal blow he took in the final seconds of his 10-round majority decision defeat to Baer five months earlier – a punch that left Schaaf unconscious for nearly five minutes – contributed to his demise.

On the same night – and in the same building – as Braddock sprung his surprise against Griffin, Baer experienced his greatest night in boxing as he stopped Carnera in 11 rounds to win the heavyweight championship. Baer scored 11 knockdowns in 11 rounds and while the fight occasionally descended into farce the definitive takeaway was of Baer’s incredible punching power. Entering the Braddock fight Baer was 40-7 (30) and because he had won his last 14 fights – eight by knockout – and had beaten Carnera so spectacularly he was an overwhelming 10-to-1 betting choice.

Hailed by the ring announcer as “the man who in the last year made the greatest comeback in ring history,” the 191¾-pound Braddock was an immense sentimental favorite. In fact, Braddock was introduced last – an honor normally reserved for the champion – but Baer’s introduction was met not with hostility but with polite applause. Still, geography and raw emotion were solidly on Braddock’s side.

Instead of mentally steeling himself to steamroll Braddock, Baer fought listlessly. He allowed Braddock to take the play away from him early by landing solid jabs and clusters of power shots. Whenever Braddock landed a solid volley Baer dropped his hands and sneered instead of trying to retaliate. All the while Braddock executed his fight plan with understated efficiency. He mixed in rights to the body, constantly changed ring position, landed spearing jabs, ignored Baer’s antics – and piled up plenty of points.

The crowd was left in a state of suspended disbelief. They suspected Braddock was building a huge lead on the scorecards but they also realized everything could be erased with a single Baer blow. They greeted every Braddock connect with a rousing cheer but at the same time they couldn’t fully invest themselves in the prospect of Braddock’s dreams coming true. Therefore, they enjoyed each moment for what it was.

Meanwhile, Baer was playing a dangerous game of chicken with himself; how long would it be before he let his big guns go and rid himself of this stubborn challenger? The longer he waited and the more he clowned, the reality of his situation became more clear: Baer was frittering away the greatest prize in sports.

Braddock landed a blistering volley early in round six and by round’s end the crowd booed Baer’s lackluster effort. Stung by the criticism, Baer finally woke up in the seventh by stunning Braddock with a trademark right. The iron-chinned challenger shook off the punch and continued to smartly pick his spots. Baer clowned away the eighth and ninth and the slow pace in the 10th brought another round of boos.

Wearing a more serious expression, Baer stepped on the gas in the 11th but his efforts bore relatively little fruit as Braddock continued to hang tough. Braddock summoned his own surge in the 12th and Baer’s hard rights to the ribs did little to stem it. The urgency level increased down the stretch but the equation remained the same – Braddock’s earnest overachieving was trumping Baer’s puzzling carelessness.

With both men tiring most of the final round was spent at close range tossing three-quarters speed shots that mostly targeted the body. When it was over Braddock’s manager Joe Gould leaped into the ring and hugged his man, surely knowing that he had guided his charge to the title. He was proven correct as judge Charley Lynch (11-4) and referee Johnny McAvoy (9-5) saw Braddock a solid winner while judge George Kelly scored it 7-7-1 but saw Braddock ahead on supplemental points.

Braddock’s emergence from obscurity moved writer Damon Runyon to dub him “The Cinderella Man,” a moniker that would define his journey for the rest of his days. 

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