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James J. Braddock wasn't a great Heavyweight Champ; he lost the title in his first defense bout after he'd won it. But his is, perhaps, the greatest comeback story of 20th century pugilism. The CINDERELLA MAN had heart.
Author Jeremy Schaap's book begins with the commencement of Braddock's comeback in June 1934 with his victory over "Corn" Griffin. Jim's last previous fight had been nine months earlier, at the end of which, with a right hand that had been repeatedly broken and numerous defeats under his belt, he was thought to be washed up. To the point of the Griffin match-up, he was barely able to feed his family with odd jobs on the New York and New Jersey docks and welfare help; it was the Depression, and Braddock's fortunes were at their rock bottom. Then, Schaap regresses in time to the period 1926-33 when Jim fought as a light heavyweight, almost winning that title in 1929. The author alternates the early Braddock saga with the same for the 1929-1934 career of Max Baer, who won the heavyweight title from Primo Canera, also in June 1934, thus setting up the confrontation that established Jim's fame and won him the heavyweight crown, the Braddock-Baer bout in June 1935.
Schaap's summaries of Braddock's eighty-three fights and Baer's forty-seven prior to their epic battle are, almost by necessity in a volume of only 276 pages, spotty in detail, yet are sufficient to establish the two fighters' characters. There is an adequate section of photographs, as well as the complete ring records of both Braddock and Baer and a complete listing of all the heavyweight division champs since John L. Sullivan. (Who is Hasim Rahman, champ in 2001, for Pete's sake?!)
For a boxing aficionado, CINDERELLA MAN is perhaps, despite its relative brevity, a must read. For those who otherwise couldn't care less about the sport, then viewing the excellent 2005 film CINDERELLA MAN, starring Russell Crowe in the title role, is the preferred, shorter option that provides all the basics. The visual version skips the preliminaries, starts with Braddock's last fight in 1933, his and his family's descent into near destitution, his enduring relationships with his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), his comeback contests versus Griffin, Lewis, and Lasky, and his win by decision over Baer in 15 gritty rounds.
Though it wasn't the author's intent, I gather, it was Baer's personality that came across as the more intriguing, at least for me. Max was a hard-punching, underachieving champ who fell more in love with the perks of his achievements - the fame, women, fine clothes, good food, showmanship - than with the commitment to his profession and hard work necessary to stay at the top. It's one of his quotes that stays with me:
"Listen, I don't want to be one of those champions who fights once a year. I need to fight. Dames are expensive." Truer words were never spoken.