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James J. Braddock – Cinderella Man

By Daniel Risk: As a huge boxing fan, I was always extremely skeptical when it came to cinema interpretations of this great sport. I have seen many; the Rocky films, Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter and all of them have some merits but I could never comprehend two fighters delivering twenty plus haymakers every round without so much as leaving a scratch.

That was until now. Whilst tending to my sick girlfriend on my day off from work, she suggested we watch ‘Cinderella Man’ She, like me, is a big boxing fan and being from Eastern Europe she is an admirer of the Klitschko brothers. Admittedly, I had never heard of this film but felt it would just be like all the rest; punch after punch after punch with a little romance thrown in.

On this occasion, I was pleasantly surprised. Russell Crowe puts in an exceptional performance as James J. Braddock, a New York boxer who overcomes all odds, both in and out of the ring, to win the World Heavyweight Title in 1935 against the dangerous Max Baer.

So who exactly was James J. Braddock? After turning pro at the age of 21 in May 1926, he built up a respectable record of 23 wins, 0 losses and 3 draws after only 11 months in the ring. He was soon earning a shot at the World Title but narrowly lost a 15-round decision to Tommy Loughran, a defeat that would bring about the first of many hand injuries that would plague Braddock’s career.

Following the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression in 1929, Braddock’s boxing career took a incredible nosedive. He continued to suffer hand injuries, had to give up the sport to work infrequently as a Longshoreman to pay the bills and become nothing more than a journeyman. Braddock was also accused off not trying on several occasions and eventually, after his second No Contest ruling, had his license revoked. By this point, his record has fallen to 46-25-7-2.

Despite breaking his right hand on numerous occasions, he continued to battle but his left hand was weak and lacked the snap and power of his right. With his injuries, he was forced to work one handed and naturally improved the power and strength in his left.

After nine months out of the ring, he made one ‘final’ appearance in the ring against the prospect Corn Griffin in June 1934. This was nothing more than a tune up bout for Griffin as he was being touted to face champion Max Baer in the future and the billing was that the powerful Griffin would face Braddock, who had never been stopped. Many expected a one round fight.

Griffin came out the blocks fast and delivered a deluge of heavy punches in Round one. Both fighters then traded knockdowns in the second round but by Round three, it was clear that Griffin’s heart was broken as Braddock took his best shots and kept on coming forward. Braddock recorded a 3rd round knockout and believed he had signed off his dramatic career with a win.

However, his manager and close friend Joe Gould kept believing in him and even sold his own goods to fund the final stages of Braddock’s career and managed to secure two more high profile bouts against John Henry Lewis and Art Lasky. Both fighters were defeated on points and Braddock now stood on the verge of a World Title fight with Baer, who had previously killed a fighter in the ring and built up a formidable reputation.

Braddock trained harder than ever before and it has seemed that his rival has underestimated him with a lack of repreation, believing the contest would end in the early round. However, Braddock said:

“I’m training for a fight. Not a boxing contest or a clowning contest or a dance. Whether it goes 1 round or 3 rounds or 10 rounds, it will be a fight and a fight all the way. When you’ve been through what I’ve had to face in the last two years, a Max Baer or a Bengal Tiger looks like a house pet. He might come at me with a cannon and a blackjack and he would still be a picnic compared to what I’ve had to face.”

His hard work paid dividends and, despite an onslaught from Baer, Braddock was able to pick up the decision and become the World Champion. He would go on to lose to Joe Louis several years later but he left a huge legacy, not just on the sport for his tremendous courage and granite chin but on the depressed masses, who he gave hope to in a time of great austerity. For this, he was named the ‘Cinderella Man’. Louis also remarked he was the bravest man he ever fought.

Officially now, I am converted to Boxing films and will look at any future productions with a more open mind. Moreover, I also learned a great deal about a fascinating period in boxing and history in general. At the age of 23 and a relatively new fan to the sport, my knowledge only stretches as far back to that of Lewis, Tyson and Holyfield. I could also make such references to Ali and that golden era. But I want to now pay homage to 1930’s, a time of many tremendously tough and brave fighters, no more so than James J. Braddock.

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