- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

Considering he reigned as heavyweight champion of the world for just 740 days a half-century ago, James J. Braddock seems a most unlikely hero for our era.

Yet that is exactly what boxing’s “Cinderella Man” has become this summer with the release of a thusly named big-budget movie starring Russell Crowe and a biography by ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap.

Undoubtedly, the flick will attract more attention and make more money than the book ($24, Houghton Mifflin, 324 pages, illus.), which is a shame. The first-time author does a masterful job of telling both Braddock’s story and that of heavyweight boxing during the Depression. His late daddy, renowned writer and TV host Dick Schaap, would have been proud.

By now, many latter-day sports fans are aware of Jim Braddock’s unparalleled rise from being a washed-up pug and a dead-broke laborer on relief to the heavyweight championship — a rise that required just four fights. What fleshes out his dramatic story is Schaap’s attention to detail and accuracy. If you’re looking for the latter, the best example can be found in what we shall call the Baer facts.

Max Baer, the overwhelming favorite from whom Braddock won the title by decision on June13, 1935, is portrayed on film as a blustering, blathering baddie whose own mother might not have liked him.

In reality, though, Baer was a talented if contradictory boxer who hated the sport after his fists contributed to the deaths of two opponents — and a skirt-chaser who chose to waste much of his talent through clowning and poor training habits. (In connection with the latter, Schaap notes that Baer entertained, if that’s the word, a woman in his dressing room shortly before losing his title to Braddock. Now that’s impressive retro reporting.)

One obvious reason for Braddock’s astounding ascent was that the heavyweight division stunk after Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney departed the fistic scene. Such ‘30s champions as Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, hulking Primo Carnera, Baer and Braddock were simply keeping the belt warm until Joe Louis was ready to don it, which he did by rendering the game but outclassed Braddock senseless on June22, 1937.

Louis then defended the title 25 times over 12 years before age, avoirdupois and a journeyman named Ezzard Charles combined to divest him of it in 1949, but that’s another story (possibly for Schaap at some subsequent date?).

Like the colt Seabiscuit, so recently memorialized in print and on film, Braddock served as a symbol of hope for the downtrodden masses during the desperate Thirties. Schaap puts it this way: “Millions of Americans cheered for him [the night of the Baer fight] … because he personified their own struggles. … The decline in his personal fortunes mirrored the national collapse, perhaps more than that of any other American.”

And after he startled the boxing establishment by beating the post-coital Baer, Braddock’s metaphorical wife, Mae, exclaimed, “My husband wasn’t seeing Max at all. … What he saw was a fierce ogre trying to keep him from chasing the big, bad wolf from our door.”

Schaap portrays movingly the “odd couple” relationship between the stoic Braddock and his motormouth manager, Joe Gould, who never gave up on him even when the fighter lost 16 of 26 bouts before beginning his comeback with an unexpected third-round TKO of up-and-coming contender Corn Griffin in June 1934.

With Louis bludgeoning his boxer from pillar to ring post, following two years of mysterious ring idleness by the soon-to-be ex-champion, the little manager told Braddock between the sixth and seventh rounds he was going to tell the referee to stop the slaughter.

Spitting blood, Braddock growled, “If you do, Joe, I’ll never speak to you again.” So Gould, not wishing to end a beautiful friendship, let his man absorb punishment for another few minutes. After all, isn’t that what friends are for?

Jim Braddock was not a great fighter, nor does Schaap make him out to be. This is a tale of a man who triumphed over much more adversity outside the ring than in it and as such deserves to be hailed long after his fistic farewell six months after losing the title. In that sense, the “Cinderella Man” will always be a champion.

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