Cinderella Man – Boxer James Braddock
Cinderella Man, the 2005 film from director Ron Howard, chronicles American boxer James Braddock’s (Russell Crowe) tumultuous journey to become the world heavyweight champion in 1935. The film opens in 1926 with Braddock in the ring against opponent Tuffy Griffith, whom Braddock defeats with a knockout punch. Braddock is only able to enjoy his victory and the glitz of New York City for a moment before manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) drives Jim back to his family in North Bergen, New Jersey. Braddock’s family, who serves as an inspiration for Jim throughout the film, consists of his three children and wife Mae (Renée Zellweger).
The movie fast-forwards to a difficult time in Braddock’s life and career. Jim, having lost everything in the stock-market crash, is forced to fight while injured to support his family, despite Gould’s warnings to do otherwise. Braddock eventually breaks his hand in losing a fifteen-round bout against Tommy Loughran. After the match, Braddock is stripped of his boxing license by commissioner Jimmy Johnston. With a cast on his hand now, Jim is forced to look for work outside the ring. Mae tries to convince Jim to rest and allow his hand to heal, but to no avail. The very next day, Braddock is among the of hundreds of men lined up in front of the dock gates hoping to land one of the ten or so jobs available. It’s at these docks where Jim meets Mike Wilson, who takes the risk of working with, and defending, the broken-handed Braddock. Jim suffers other blows to his pride when he’s forced to take government relief money and Mae has to send the children to live with her sister (after Jim promised to his son that no such thing would happen).
When Gould approaches Braddock with an opportunity to fight again, Jim seizes the opportunity. The fight is against the number two contender in the world, Corn Griffin, who’s scheduled opponent dropped out due to illness. From the perspective of Braddock and Gould, this match was a way for Jim to say goodbye to the sport and make a little money doing it. Against all odds however, Braddock defeats Griffin in the third round by knockout and revive his boxing career. After the Griffin match, Braddock has fights scheduled against John Henry Lewis (who Braddock had lost to years prior) and Art Lansky, both of whom he defeats. Somehow, Braddock’s time working at the docks with a broken right hand made him a better fighter, as it improved the strength of his left arm and added a new dimension to his fighting style. After these two fights, Braddock is awarded a match with heavyweight titleholder Max Baer (Craig Bierko).
By this point, Braddock has become a symbol for the common man, being deemed “The Cinderella Man” by the papers because of his underdog story. While Braddock no longer has to worry about income (even returning his relief money to the government), Mae and he still struggle with the hardship he’s putting his body through. Mae’s concerns are further heightened when the media hypes the fact that Baer has formerly killed two men in the ring, and Baer has no issues of flaunting that fact in front of her as well.
Before the match, Mae and Jim are able to resolve their feelings for each other, with Mae telling him that she’ll always be behind him. Gould also delivers several pre-fight words of encouragement then joins Braddock in his the corner of the ring for the title match. The fight with Baer goes all fifteen rounds, a slug-fest from beginning to end. Baer’s strategy to wear down Braddock before delivering a knockout blow seems to be working when he has Braddock up against the ropes, similar to the position that Frankie Campbell (the boxer Baer killed) was in before his death. Having studied he footage of that fight, Braddock knew what was coming and dodges Baer’s knockout punch, then quickly retaliated with one of his newly-developed left jabs. Braddock is able to maintain the shift in momentum throughout the rest of the fight going against Gould’s wishes that he hold back. When the fight was over, the judges give Braddock a unanimous decision win and the heaveyweight title. Braddock’s fans storm the ring to celebrate with him in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Real Life, Reel Differences
- The movies showed James Braddock using shoe polish to darken and hide his cast as he goes to the dock looking for work. There, he befriends Mike Wilson, who lost everything he had in the stock market crash of 1929. In reality, Braddock didn’t go back to work until the cast was off, and Mike Wilson was not a real person – he was probably a representation of the common man during the Great Depression.
- From all accounts, Mae was a bigger supporter of her husband’s boxing career than the film portrays. While she would rarely attend matches, Mae was witnessed listening to her husband’s fights over the radio regularly, despite her fears of Jim getting hurt in the ring.
- In the movie, the Braddocks miss their payments on their milk and electricity bill, so the milk delivery stops and the electricity is shut off. This did happen in real life, as did their kids being sent away.
- It’s true that Braddock only had two day’s notice for his fight against Corn Griffin. He didn’t have time to train for the fight, which makes the feat even more remarkable.
- In the movie, Braddock repays the Government Relief money after he beats Lasky. This happened in real life; Braddock made $4,100 from the fight and went to pay back $300 to his case worker. Like many others during that time, he was ashamed about receiving any aid money so he wanted to repay it. The media found out about this just before his fight with Max Baer and wrote about it, which endured Braddock to even more people as the “Cinderella Man”. Russell Crowe purchased the actual receipt that Braddock received from the Government showing repayment.
- The main inaccuracy of the film was in it’s portrayal of Max Baer, who was portrayed as a loud-mouth with little sympathy or care for his opponents or their families. In real life, Baer was considered a gentleman by those around him, and scenes such as the one with Mae throwing a drink in his face over some harsh remarks never took place. The only person Baer killed in the ring was Frankie Campbell, and Baer felt so bad about it that he regularly sent money to Frankie Campbell’s family after Frankie’s passing, enough to put Frankie’s kids through college. While the media at the time (and as portrayed in the film) reported that Baer was responsible for the death of Ernie Schaaf, he actually died in a match against Primo Carnera, five months after the Baer bout.
- The Braddock-Baer fight did go 15 rounds, but the highlights in the movie were not in the correct chronological order
Where Are They Now?
James Braddock defeated Max Baer to win the title in 1935; after that fight, the top two contenders were Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. Neither was appealing for different reasons. Schmeling was a German, and Braddock didn’t want to risk Schmeling winning the title and bringing it back to Nazi Germany. Louis was black, and the idea of a black heavyweight champion (at that time) made many boxing insiders weary. Schmeling had knocked out Louis in a fight in 1936 to earn recognition as the top contender, but Braddock, who was in his 30’s, chose to fight Louis, who was only 23 in 1937.
Louis’s team had offered a more lucrative fight purse, something that was very important to Braddock because he wanted to secure his family’s financial future. He received $300,000 for his fight with Louis and $150,000 between 1937 and 1939 in payments. Furthermore, Gould negotiated for Braddock to receive 10% of promoter Mike Jacobs’ future fights for the next ten years; regardless of which boxer Jacobs was handling, Braddock was entitled to 10% of concession earnings (food, shirts, etc), not the purse.
In June 1937, Braddock stepped into the ring with “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis. Despite being a 5-1 underdog, Braddock knocked Louis down in the first round but that was all Louis after that. Gould wanted to stop the fight after the 7th round, but Braddock refused, saying “I want to go out like a champion. I want to be carried out.” In the 8th round, Louis knocked Braddock out; it was the first time in Braddock’s career that he ever lost by knockout. In January 1938, Braddock fought Tommy Farr and retired after that win; overall, he had a record of 51-26-7 with 26 KOs.
When World War Two began, Braddock and Gould both enlisted in the Army and Braddock was able to reach the rank of 1st lieutenant. After the war, Braddock went on to own and operate equipment on the same dock he worked on years before, when he had that broken hand, and helped construct the Verrazano Bridge in the early 1960s. Jim and his wife Mae were able to buy a home with the winnings from the Baer fight, and lived together in that same house for the remainder of their lives. Jim Braddock passed away in 1974, at the age of 69. He was inducted into the international boxing Hall of Fame in 2001.
Aside from Cinderella Man, this documentary was also produced about James Braddock: