After fraying American purse strings on an outlandish “comeback” tour against an assortment of bindlestiffs and saloonkeepers throughout the Great Plains and Badlands, Max Baer, former heavyweight champion of the world, sailed for England in 1937 in an attempt to jumpstart his stalled career and took on tough competition for the first time since his battering at the hands of Joe Louis in 1935.
Baer, whose brittle hands forced him into refereeing wrestling matches and conducting a music orchestra (“I already got,” he said, “one of them wands a leader uses.”) began his comeback away from the bright lights of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. If his performances against Jim Braddock and Louis earned Baer the kind of press normally reserved for rainmakers, his barnstorming tour, with its vaudeville connotations, brought him even greater condemnation. Baer fought an incredible twenty-two times over four months in 1936. He knocked out pugs in Pocatello, Coeur d’Alene, Provo, Casper, and Twin Falls. He fought a Cowboy, a Soldier, a Cyclone, a Bearcat. In San Antonio, Baer was practically booed out of the ring for his antics against Wilson Dunn, a full-blooded Native American who entered the ring 50 pounds lighter than Baer. In Oklahoma, he headlined a card that also featured a battle royal. To top it all off, in Platteville, Wisconsin, Baer lost a decision to hapless Willie Davis, 1-9 entering the ring, because he mistakenly thought the fight was a no-decision contest. Many of these bouts, as odd as they were, should have been labeled exhibitions; most of them, despite the fact that Baer scored sixteen knockouts, were harmless workouts, not legitimate fights. In addition to making a hard living easy, these bouts allowed Baer to practice his trade without some of its bleaker consequences.
Nat Fleischer, aghast at the dubious result of a bout against Harold “Dutch” Weimer in Toronto, one called a “fake, fiasco and disgrace” by Canadian Premier Mitchell F. Hepburn, fulminated in the pages of Ring Magazine: “Baer has been in the sport only for what he could get out of it financially, and his so-called comeback, likewise, has been a travesty on the game that brought his fame and fortune.”
His fame and fortune, however, came with a price. After killing Frankie Campbell in a San Francisco ring in 1930, Baer, a kind-hearted man whose mere presence in a bloodsport seems paradoxical, gave up training diligently and lost the precious edge important to all world-class boxers: ferocity. “Nothing that ever happened to me, nothing that can happen to me, affected me like the death of Frankie Campbell,” he said. When angered or inspired, as in his cruel destruction of a showboating King Levinsky (in an exhibition bout, no less) or his annihilation of Max Schmeling, Baer could still compete at the highest levels. But the man who once glumly admitted, “I clowned away the title” no longer had the unfailing spark needed to reach his full potential. “After Frankie Campbell the clowning started,” his brother, Buddy Baer, told Sports Illustrated. “It was something to do instead of fighting.” And clown he did during his comeback streak. With the press mounting its attack and the mudflats of America no longer receptive to his sideshow act, Baer was like a fugitive on the run.
Enter British promoter Sydney Hulls, who supplied a timely exit strategy by offering Baer $20,000 to face boxing booth alumnus Tommy Farr overseas. Baer arrived in London on March 10, 1937, to flashbulbs and hubbub. “I want to get down to work at once,” Baer claimed. “Everyone is wanting me to do film and cabaret work, but I have turned down all offers.” Even so, Baer was mobbed practically everywhere he went.
His unique mix of brawn and bunk drew a crowd of over 14,000 to Harringray Arena, where dour Farr slapped him around over twelve rounds and left the happy-go-lucky Baer unusually grim. “I’m all washed up,” he said. “I’m going back to my ranch in California and retire.” The press, no longer amused by his antics, agreed with him. Even his friend, idol, and sometime promoter, Jack Dempsey buried him. “Max is all washed up,” he wrote in his syndicated column, “and the best thing he can do is save his money…and turn to some other livelihood.” It took only a week or so–along with another hefty guarantee–for Baer to put off stirrups and halters indefinitely. Hulls signed Baer to meet Ben Foord on May 27, 1937. For Baer, it would be like looking into a dark mirror. In it he would see Frankie Campbell. And in it, perhaps, he would see himself.
Ben Foord, perhaps the most tragic figure in the history of South African Boxing, was born on January 21, 1913, in Vrede and grew up in Ladysmith. As a teenager, Foord was a gifted athlete, excelling in rugby, swimming, and track and field. He also had a pronounced daredevil streak and it was this, perhaps, that led him to dabble in boxing. After ditching a humdrum career in, of all pursuits, hair styling, Foord found adventure as a lifeguard in Durban. His next career choice–prizefighting–suggests just how much Foord enjoyed being on the dangerous edge of things. At nearly 6’ 3” and 208 pounds, Foord had the kind of physique even the Great Sandow might have admired, but South Africa offered little in terms of sparring and training for an aspiring boxer.
After an unexceptional amateur career, Foord turned pro in 1932 and soon moved to London in order to get bigger fights and bigger thrills. In addition to the hazards found between the ropes, Foord regularly accepted wagers on risky feats outside of the ring, like high diving from bridges. Once, Foord swam the Thames River from Windsor Bridge in under a minute. Two auto wrecks in three years–including one that left a passing cyclist dead–underscored his recklessness and his practical jokes (Foord, like Baer, was an incorrigible prankster) often included firearms as props.
For all his size and athleticism, Foord cared little for the austere rigors of training. He preferred golf to the speedbag and donning a smoking jacket to slipping on mitts. “As far as I am concerned,” his brother, Stephen Foord, told Chris Greyvenstein, “Ben regarded even boxing as just an easy way to make money and a good way to impress the fair sex.” Impress the fair sex he did; Foord was soon a-man-about-town and his gallivanting kept gossip columnists sleepless with overwork.
From 1932 to 1934 Foord was considered a raw but promising talent, one whose powerful right hand and sheer athleticism made some observers rhapsodize. “I regard Foord as the best prospective candidate for heavyweight honors this country has seen for years,” wrote former flyweight champion Jimmy Wilde. Foord was erratic, certainly, but his potential box office appeal could not be underestimated; powerful, dapper, and with matinee idol looks to boot, Foord resembled a marquee heavyweight. In fact, he resembled Max Baer, and crowds flocked to see the debonair South African.
Although Foord had earned a measure of fame on the society pages, his career was largely unremarkable. Still, he was undefeated during his campaign in the UK and after pounding out a decision over future British Heavyweight champion Jack London on November 6, 1933, he was signed to face dangerous Jack Petersen at Royal Albert Hall. On March 8, 1934, Foord fought courageously against the talented Welshman in a sadistic brawl before succumbing in the thirteenth round. Foord cut Petersen early in the fight and rocked him with several overhand rights. Petersen dropped Foord twice in the fourth round, but Foord, despite the beating he was taking, responded with spiteful blows of his own. Finally, after several more rounds of pitiless give and take, Foord was knocked out of the ring in the thirteenth round. Somehow he managed to beat the count, but the fight was stopped after Petersen began teeing off on his defenseless opponent. “No words of mine can tell of his enormous courage,” Petersen praised Foord after the match. “No man can ever put up a gamer fight. I felt sorry for Foord, and could scarcely force down the lump in my throat as I helped him back to his corner. If the day comes that I must take a beating so terrible, may I take it like he did.” Foord showed incredible resilience and courage during his breathtaking bout with Petersen. It was enough, in fact, to make him a star. His performance electrified the crowd and left Trevor Wignall, reporting for the Daily Express, sounding like a minor Edwardian poet: “Watching Foord I was thrilled as never before by a heavyweight bout and felt nothing could stop him but death.”
Over the next year his popularity grew even as the quality of his performances diminished. Foord captured the South African Heavyweight title in Cape Town in June 1934, but returned to London as casual as ever and lost dreary bouts to Gunnar Barlund, Maurice Strickland, and Roy Lazer. In 1936, however, Foord, spurred on by marriage to a beautiful socialite, momentarily discovered ambition and ran off a string of victories. Among the fighters he defeated were Larry Gaines, Roy Lazer in a rematch, and former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran. He capped off a dramatic year by annihilating Jack Petersen in only three rounds on August 17, 1936, to win the British Empire and British Heavyweight titles. This would prove to be the peak of his career, as Foord went on to lose decisions to Walter Neusel and Tommy Farr. By the time Foord signed to fight Max Baer he was hoping to reverse a losing streak.
A crowd of over 8,000 watched these two idiosyncratic boxers meet at Harrringray on May 27, 1937. Foord entered the ring with a record of 35-9-4, while Baer, coming off of his loss to Tommy Farr, was 61-11. The Sunday Times all but sniffed at the bout: “And because one has no confidence in the true fighting fitness of either, however much they may have “trained” in camp, it seems a waste of energy to attempt a reasoned estimate of their respective chances on this occasion and in the future.”
After the fight, however, the British press was a little more feverish. “If ever a man came near to meeting his death in the ring,” wrote Peter Wilson of The Daily Mirror, “Foord did at the hands of Max Baer, who seemed to turn, in a twinkling, from a strutting, grimacing playboy to a snarling wild beast.”
The opening bell rang and the fighters met at centre ring. Barely a minute into the first round, Foord landed his fearsome right hand on target, but Baer, with a chin as sturdy as a dolmen, shrugged it off and ploughed forward with short hooks in the clinches and looping punches from outside. In the second round, Baer dropped Foord twice with crushing rights and hammered Foord against the ropes. Somehow the woozy South African managed to survive until the bell.
For the next few rounds Foord utilized his jab while Baer alternated between punching and capering. The crowd chuckled as “Madcap Maxie” barked, hitched up his trunks, and tossed the kind of haymakers typically seen in slapstick comedies. In between routines, however, Baer went to work and whacked Foord around the ring like a shuttlecock. Nearly every blow he landed shook Foord to his boots, and, to the delight of the crowd, even referee Jack Hart took a clout from an inaccurate Baer.
By the eighth round, Foord, undertrained to perfection, was through. Disoriented, exhausted, and bloodied, he staggered to the wrong corner after the bell and plopped onto his stool. Baer, sensing blood, stormed out at the start of the ninth. Two quick rights and Foord was down. When he rose, another bombardment dropped him again like an anchor thrown from the side of a deck. He listened to the count flat on his back before using the ropes as a ladder and hauling himself, nearly knock-kneed, to his feet. Baer, determined to show the world that he was still a contender, moved in for the finish. A vicious combination sent a wobbly Foord sprawling for the last time with blood dripping from his ear. As soon as the fight was stopped, Baer rushed across the ring and knelt by his stricken opponent. He cradled Foord in his arms like a baby. “I have rarely seen a man more genuinely moved in the ring,” noted Peter Wilson at ringside. Perhaps Baer saw Frankie Campbell in the ring that night; or, perhaps, with the incredible similarities Baer shared with Foord, he saw himself.
Ben Foord continued his disappointing career with little success but lots of bruises following his loss to Baer, finally retiring in 1938 after being knocked clear out of the ring by George James in White City. Foord then shocked the British public by confessing that he had suffered from amnesia after his last few bouts. “Looking back,” Foord wrote in a syndicated article, “I know it was Max Baer who started the trouble. He was by far the hardest hitter I ever met. Dimly I remember him pillowing my head on his lap after he had knocked me down for the last time. He hit me on the chin with punches I felt for days, but I stuck it.”
Less than a year later, despite concerns about his health, Foord returned to the ring in South Africa before quitting to join the army. Home on furlough in 1942, Foord played a prank on his wife, Phyllis, that ended tragically. After sneaking up on her with a pistol and pretending to be a desperado, Foord twirled the gun Old West style and accidentally shot himself in the face. He was 29 years old when he died.
As for Baer, he returned to America, but never fought for the title again. Lou Nova, who defeated Baer twice in those last years, noted that Baer let him off the hook in the fourth round of their 1941 rematch. A right hand shook Nova to his toes, but, for some reason, Baer did not press his stricken opponent.
(This article originally appeared, in a different version, in Boxing Digest and in The Boxing Bulletin.)