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Chapter 13 The Hopes of the Crowd

Madison Square Garden Bowl, Long Island City,

New York June 13, 1935

As Jim Braddock stepped out into the bright lights, the crowd became silent. The ring seemed so far away. Between him and it were thousands of people—Jim’s people. He knew the looks on their faces—people who saw no chance of a future. Some had spent their last dollar to be here, but tonight they all held their heads high. Their eyes followed him with the wild hope that the story of the Cinderella Man would have a happy ending.

It was the strangest walk to the ring Jim had ever made. As he passed, people got to their feet. They smiled and nodded and waved at their hero, but they were still silent. Finally, someone called his name and the shout broke the silence for everybody. The whole crowd—thirty-five thousand people—began to shout, and the noise went up to the star-filled sky.

Mae’s sister Alice was looking for Jay, Howard, and Rosy, to call them to supper. There was no sign of the children. Were they hiding? She was going to look outside, when she heard a sound from the closet under the stairs.

All three children were sitting around a radio. They looked up at their aunt, and Alice knew that she couldn’t stop them. Without saying a word, she sat down next to the children and listened to the announcer on the radio.

I don’t know if you can hear me,” the announcer was shouting. “I can’t hear myself! The crowd is on its feet and the noise is deafening.”

Back in the Madison Square Garden Bowl, the crowd was silent again when they realized that Max Baer was walking to the ring.

The champion felt the crowd’s fear. He enjoyed it. When he had climbed into the ring, Baer ran around and accepted the crowd’s boos with a confident smile on his face.

The referee called the boxers and their corner men to him.

“I want a clean fight,” he said. “When I say break, step back immediately. And remember”—he looked at Jim—”protect yourself at all times.”

As the fighters touched gloves, Baer’s corner man held a gold watch in front of Braddock’s face. “One minute to midnight, Cinderella!” he laughed.

The fighters returned to their corners. Baer’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, whispered final words of advice to the champion, but Baer wasn’t interested. Jim closed his eyes. Finally, the sound of the bell broke the silence and the fight began.

Round 1 Braddock came out fast and hard, hoping to surprise the champion. Showing no fear, he hit Baer with a right hand, and then followed it with a left to the body. The champion tried to punch back, but Braddock danced away.

On Braddock’s next attack, Baer was ready. His left fist hit Braddock’s ribs hard. Braddock’s answer was a combination of punches—a long right to the face, another right, a left, and a final right to the chin. The champion knew now that Braddock had a good punch, but he refused to show any pain.

“Calm down, old man,” Baer laughed as the fighters held on to each other. “I’ll let the fight go a few rounds.”

As the bell rang, Baer knew that he had lost the round on points, but he didn’t care. He was confident that he could end this fight at any time with one punch.

In the corner, Gould met Braddock with a big smile. “Did you see the look on Baer’s face when you hit him?”

Jim took out his mouthguard. “Yes, he was laughing.”

“So use your left hand to knock that smile off his face!”

In the opposite corner Ancil Hoffman was shouting, but Baer waved him away. “I’ll kill him when I’m ready.”

“Your left, Jimmy,” Joe said again. “Remember your left.”

Round 2 Braddock came out with his fists moving at the start of the second round, too.

“Nobody expected this fight to go one round,” the radio announcer was saying. “But it’s only reached round two because Baer is playing with Braddock. He’s thrown almost no punches and he’s laughing at the challenger.”

But soon Baer started throwing more punches, aiming at Braddock’s weak ribs. The strength of Baer’s punches knocked the breath out of him.

“The champion has really hurt the challenger,” said the announcer. The crowd began to boo.

“That’s the right place, isn’t it, old man?” said Baer.

The referee separated the fighters at the sound of the bell. One of Braddock’s corner men worked on the fighter’s cuts, while the other gave the boxer water. Jim coughed it back up. He needed air, not water.

Joe examined Jim’s ribs. “They’re not broken,” he said. “Not yet.”

Across the ring, Baer was playing and acting for the cameras.

As he watched this, Jim realized that he himself didn’t care about pleasing the crowd now. He wasn’t even fighting Baer. He was fighting to beat the thing that had beaten him. He was fighting for his family’s future.

Round 3 For the third time, Braddock came out fast. He threw his punches at Baer’s head, but the champion’s punches were aimed at his opponent’s body. Baer continued to hit Braddock’s ribs hard with both hands. He hit Braddock with a low punch, and the referee warned the champion to keep his fists up.

Before the fight started again, Gould saw that Braddock’s gloves were down by his side, but there was no time to shout a warning.

Baer had seen it, too. He hit the side of Braddock’s head with a big left-hand punch. Jim’s legs bent. He was clearly in terrible pain— was he going to fall? Gould froze in fear. He thought about giving in, ending the fight.

“Give him a chance, Joe,” said the corner man.

A few seconds later, Jim stood straighter and reached for the ropes.

Baer couldn’t believe it. He attacked again, but this time Braddock hit back with a long right, then a left jab that made Baer’s head look like a punching bag.

“That’s it!” shouted Gould, jumping up and down.

Round 4 From the start of the next round, both men stood toe to toe, throwing jabs. Braddock’s feet were quicker and his punches more effective, so Baer started aiming for the body again. After a few good punches to the ribs, he was sure that every breath caused Braddock terrible pain.

The two men held each other again and the referee called for them to break. But Baer continued to hold Braddock.

“Dirty fighting!” shouted Gould angrily from the corner.

“I warned you,” the referee told Baer. “When I say ‘Break!’ you break!”

The crowd booed as Baer finally stepped back. He shook the sweat from his thick black hair and held up his hands to apologize.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Braddock wasn’t protecting himself.

Without warning, Baer turned and delivered an enormous punch to Braddock’s ribs. To everybody’s surprise—especially Baer’s —Braddock replied with a combination of left-right punches before stepping back.

Round 5 Baer’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, couldn’t understand it. The challenger’s ribs were in bad condition, but Braddock was still controlling the fight, jabbing Baer again and again and tiring him. The timing of the champion’s punches wasn’t right, and Hoffman knew that he was waiting for the chance to deliver his big knockout punch instead of tiring his opponent. But Baer wasn’t able to hit Braddock, who dodged and danced away skillfully.

The champion was getting angry now. He hit Braddock with an illegal backhand punch as the referee separated the two fighters. The referee warned Baer, but the two men continued fighting before holding on to each other again.

“Step back!” shouted the referee, but the two men didn’t let go.

Braddock hit the champion’s chin with his head. The champion shouted in anger. He lifted Braddock and threw him into the ropes, paying no attention to the boos of the crowd.

When the round was over, Hoffman shouted angrily at Baer, “What are you doing?”

“Relax,” the champion told him.

“I’ll relax,” replied Ancil, “when we walk out of here with the title.”

Round 6 Baer hit Braddock with three good punches in the first seconds of the round. Blood poured from the challenger’s nose and mouth.

But then, suddenly, it seemed to Baer that a train had hit him. It was Braddock’s right hand, and it hit the champion on the chin with enormous power. Baer stepped back, fighting for air. But Braddock gave him no space, throwing punch after punch with his left hand. One of them hit the champion just above the eye.

Baer fought back, but his aim wasn’t as good as the challenger’s.

His right eye began to close.

For the first time in this fight, Baer felt relief when the bell rang. He promised himself that he would end the fight in the next round, even if he had to kill the Cinderella Man to do it.

Round 7 As soon as the round began, it was clear that Baer had a new attitude. Joe Gould could see it. The crowd could also feel the change. Baer wanted to finish this fight now.

But Braddock wasn’t afraid. He met the champion in the middle of the ring and the two fighters continued the fight. Baer hit Braddock with several punches to the body. The last of these hit below the belt.

“Keep your punches up, Max,” said Braddock.

Baer smiled and delivered a combination of punches to his opponent’s body and head. “Is that up enough?”

Braddock forced himself to smile through the pain. “That’s fine, Max.”

As the bell rang, Baer continued throwing punches. Braddock hit back as hard as he could, but Max Baer just laughed.

“I can’t believe this!” said the radio announcer. “Everybody expected the champion to win easily. But now, after the seventh round, neither fighter is ahead. Either of them could win.”

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