THE COMEBACK KING; When Jim Braddock Won the World Heavyweight Title in1935, against All the Odds, It Gave Hope to a Nation in the Grip of the Great Depression. as Russell Crowe Stars in a New Film about the Boxer Dubbed the 'Cinderella Man', David O'Reilly Tells the Amazing Story of a Sporting Legend
Byline: DAVID O'REILLY
If the life story of the American boxer Jim Braddock demonstrates anything, it is the extent of human vulnerability to the random hand of fate, with all its cruelty and all its wonder. The heavyweight boxer was dubbed the 'Cinderella Man' because of his rags-to-riches - or, rather, his rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches - progress.
And, as Hollywood director Ron Howard's new film, Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe, will show, his victory over adversity was not only a personal triumph, it galvanised the faith of millions in Depression-ravaged Thirties America.
Truth to tell, Braddock's record in the ring was one of the more mediocre in the history of the heavyweight division. The drama of his career as a professional lay in how it followed three twisting, gripping phases. Howard's treatment of its backdrop - a man's struggle to keep his family alive in povertystricken New York - will move audiences when the film opens in Britain later this year.
Born in a tiny Manhattan flat on June 7, 1906, the fifth child of Irish immigrants, the young Braddock followed elder brother Joe into boxing after leaving school at 14. Braddock was a big kid, a whopping 17lb at birth but a raw-boned 6ft 3in by the time he was a teenager. He often backed up his brother in sorting out bullies in the playground of west New York's St Joseph of the Palisades school.
The inexperienced Braddock lost his first fight as a middleweight amateur in November 1923, but he remained hooked on the business. Over the next three years he had 100 amateur fights, including 38 straight victories, and became New Jersey champion in 1925 and 1926. With an Irish shamrock on his shorts, the revelation was Braddock's right hand. He really could hit. A looping right regularly floored opponents.
As an amateur, Braddock had to work as a longshoreman on the New Jersey docks. And it was on the wharves one day that Joe Gould, a smalltime New York businessman desperate to break into big-time boxing management, took one look at the lanky youngster with the endearing Irish grin and saw gold. The two formed a warm and trusting friendship - which was just as well, as the next decade would be a gruelling roller-coaster ride for boxer and mentor.
Braddock's early success as an amateur, and his record as a pro from March 1926 to the summer of 1929, represent the first phase in his eventful journey towards a place in sporting history. By 1929, he had won 32 fights and lost only three. Along the way, he had moved up to light-heavyweight. But his eyes were fixed on the heavyweight division, with its attendant adulation and big money.
Even though he had a weight disadvantage of about 20lb in his early light-heavyweight bouts, Braddock's lethal right hand frequently gave him first-round knockouts. One such battering prompted a well-regarded fighter called Stanley Simmons to tell reporters, 'I can't believe how hard that bum hit me.
I have never been hit like that by anything, man or machine.' On the timeline of boxing history, the era of Braddock in some ways sits closer to the bare-knuckle tradition of Sullivan and Corbett than to the modern age, typified by the likes of Ali, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. In the Twenties and Thirties, the fight game had fewer regulations than today. It was a calling for men with no education, no work and no prospects.
There was always the lure of big money at the top. By modern standards, though, training could be primitive. Crucially, they wore much lighter gloves than their modern counterparts, with less protection for their hands. They were often hurt, sometimes badly.
Braddock was getting hurt but, tough as teak, he paid it no mind. By 1929 he was earning up to $20,000 per fight. Importantly, with Gould helping him, Braddock had carefully invested his growing wealth.
In particular, he poured money into a booming stock market that quadrupled in value in the Twenties. …