James J. Braddock, The Cinderella Man
by B. R. Bearden
They called him The Cinderella Man, but that was after the Ball. Prior to winning the championship from Max Baer he was a washed up fighter who was always on the low side of the odds when he stepped into the ring, a boxer who'd lost one third of his fights. There were those who called him a "bum", the lowest thing you could call a fighter in his era.And therein lay the smoldering fire that would take him to the top.
James J. Braddock had started out in boxing impressively enough. A tough Irish kid from the streets, in both 1925 and 1926 Braddock won the light heavyweight amateur crown of New Jersey. At 21 he turned pro, underthe tutelage of shrewd Joe Gould. His first fight was a No-Decision, then hewon 11 in a row by knockout, 8 in the first round. It was a very promising start, enough to convince him to give up his job loading ships at the docks. He didn't lose until his 36th fight, a 10 round decision to Joe Monte, but not everyone shared his opinion that he could be a successful fighter.
"When he gets in with a good fighter, he won't last," the detractors said.
In October, 1928 he went in as the underdog against Pete Latzo, a solid fighter, and broke Latzo's jaw to win the fight in 10 heats. It was a good win and should have done something to remove the doubts. It didn't.
"He got lucky," they said.
So a month later, November 30th, Braddock fought a really good fighter, Tuffy Griffith, again as the underdog. Griffith was 36-0 with 22 KO's (Newspapers of the time claimed 56-0), yet Jimmy beat him via TKO in 2 rounds. They noticed, but they weren't ready to accept Jimmy as the real thing, even though Braddock was on the cover of the February, 1929 issue of Ring magazine with the caption, "Jimmy Braddock, One of the World's Greatest Light Heavyweights".
When he lost his next fight on points in 10 to Leo Lomski, his 3rd loss in seven fights, they winked and said, "Told you so." Braddock again took a step forward in March, 1929, when he fought former light heavyweight champion Jimmy Slattery, who had three times beaten future Hall of Famer Maxie Rosenbloom and was sitting at 42-6-0. Jimmy won another
upset when he TKO'd Slattery in 9 rounds.
But he took two steps back when he was matched with light heavy champion Tommy Loughran, future HOF inductee. Loughran made Braddock look like an amateur as he easily beat him over 15 rounds. Jimmy was tagged again as a nothing, despite the fact that Loughran had also easily outboxed Jack Dempsey three years earlier when hired to tune the Manassa Mauler up for his first fight with Gene Tunney. People expected the excellent Tommy Loughran to win; unfortunately, they were also starting to expect Jimmy Braddock to lose, which he did in four of his next five fights. In one of those, a rematch with Leo Lomski, the fight was declared a draw, despite the fact that Braddock dropped Lomski twice. To add insult to injury, eleven days later the Illinois State Athletic Commission reversed the decision in Lomski 's favor, the action becoming known as "The Eleven Day Decision". Jimmy couldn't get a break.
Now Braddock's fortunes hit the skids as he began losing on a regular basis. After losing to Loughran, Jimmy lost 6 of his next 10 fights. Then he lost 12 of the following 20 bouts. By 1934 nobody was interested in matching a fighter who was losing 60% of his fights. Jimmy Braddock stepped away from boxing to return to the docks. It was hard work and the pay was small, but he had a family to feed. Times were hard, the whole country was starving, and men were being laid off daily. When Jimmy's turn came, the proud ex-boxer had to swallow his pride and apply for relief. He was ashamed to be on welfare, but his wife and children had to eat.
And there would have ended the boxing career of one James J. Braddock, another forgotten fighter who didn't quite have what it took. But Jimmy had a fairy godmother, or the depression-era equivalent, looking out for him.
In June, 1934, Primo Carnera was to defend his title against Max Baer. Joe Gould went begging them to take Jimmy Braddock on the undercard; he was broke and desperate, and hadn't fought at all in nine months. It was hard for a man of pride to watch his children go without meals, to beg for work at any wage only to have the door shut in his face; it was harder than the punches one encountered in the boxing ring. The opponent was one John "Corn" Griffin and in three rounds it was over; Braddock had won impressively before the large crowd that came to see the heavyweight championship change hands. Baer beat Carnera terribly, knocking him down 11 times in 11 rounds, but there were those who said, "Did you see Braddock? Maybe he's got something left."
In November of 1934 Jimmy was matched against John Henry Lewis (HOF), the great light heavyweight who was working towards a title shot. Lewis had beaten Braddock two years earlier and there didn't appear to be any reason he couldn't turn the trick once more. Braddock was again the underdog with the odds-makers but he surprised everyone by decisively beating Lewis over 10 rounds.
He was next matched with Art Lasky, who had only lost once in his last 15 outings, as opposed to Jimmy's five losses in the same stretch, yet Braddock won the 15 rounder; "easily" declared the New York times account of the fight. It was another victory to confound the odds-setters and Jimmy was firmly in the rankings, sitting at #2. The man at #1 was Max Schmelling of Germany, former heavyweight champion who had lost the title in 1932 to Jack Sharkey, who had promptly lost it to Carnera. Schmelling was offered a bout with Braddock, with the winner to get a fight with Baer for the title, but Schmelling refused. As the number one ranked fighter, and former champion, he didn't want to fight down the ladder. He wanted Baer or nothing; he got nothing.
The fight with Braddock was set, though Jimmy had few illusions about his chances against the powerful Max Baer. It was the opinion of all experts that nobody could survive an encounter with Max's right hand; in point of fact, two of his opponents had died. Then something happened to change the course of heavyweight championship history. Someone, maybe Baer or his handlers, maybe a reporter showing disinterest in what was viewed as a one sided fight, stated that Braddock was a "bum". Max was quoted as predicting an easy knockout. Braddock, though he'd lost 22 fights, had never been knocked out, and he made up his mind he wasn't going to be knocked out by Max Baer, either.
"I may not be a great fighter, but I ain't a bum," he retorted. The man who would rather take beatings in the ring than accept charity to feed his family, who would later pay back every penny he'd been given while on relief, had his pride. They could label him broken, beaten, an underdog, but he wasn't going to be labeled a bum.
On June 13th, 1935, Baer and Braddock met and it was no surprising revelation the odds were 10-1 in Baer's favor. So lightly did Max take the challenger that he'd barely trained. The fight, like life itself, was a big joke to the Clown Prince of Boxing. What could be easier than slapping around a 30 year old fighter who looked older than his years, who'd lost one
third of the fights he'd had?
But from the beginning, it was obvious one of the men in the ring took it seriously, the over-matched underdog. As the famous line in "Rocky" said, "He don't know it's a show. He thinks it's a damned fight."
When he tried, Baer easily pummeled Braddock around the ring, stepping away to clown for the audience, but Jimmy kept coming ahead, absorbing the punishment and piling up points as he took the fight to the champion. Max mocked him, grinned and punched and moved away, but the kid from the docks wasn't in on the joke. Jimmy turned it into a fight by sheer will power and as round after round slipped by, Bear's corner began to worry. He was giving away too many rounds. Not to worry, Max assured them, I can drop this bum whenever I want. Then do it now, they urged.
The fight was past the half-way mark and surprisingly, Braddock was winning. Always a better boxer than he'd been given credit for, he was obviously the more polished technician of the two. Now Baer took things seriously and his blows had bad intentions. He hit Jimmy some hard shots but Braddock's fierce determination cancelled out the effects. Even more, Max's joking gestures were unconvincing; like a comedian who's best joke falls flat on the punch line. How could he be losing to this loser? Why didn't Braddock go down? Madcap Maxie hadn't anticipated that the underdog would want to win more than he'd wanted to beat him. The champion had miscalculated the desperation that drove James Braddock; that and the resolve not to be remembered as a "bum".
When the 15th round ended the judges rendered their decision. By unanimous agreement, the new heavyweight champion of the world was the 10-1 underdog James J. Braddock. It was considered the biggest upset in boxing history and the reporters immediately dubbed Braddock "The Cinderella Man". The scruffy kid from the docks was coming home from the Ball with the crown on his head.
He was champion of the world but they still considered him an underdog. The top contenders for the crown were Max Schmelling and Joe Louis, and all the boxing scribes and experts considered either one odds-on favorite to take Braddock's crown. In June of 1936, Schmelling shocked everyone by beating the Brown Bomber, knocking him out in 12 rounds. A fight with Schmelling seemed assured and Max wanted to fight Braddock now that beating him would have meaning.
But Jimmy knew his limits; his fairy godmother had only so many charges in her wand. One more big fight, as champion, and he'd have enough money to take care of his family, which was his only goal any way. Remembering the way Schmelling had snubbed him prior to the Baer fight, and not willing to see the crown leave America, he decided to fight the dangerous Joe Louis instead.
The fight was set for the 23 year old Louis to fight the 32 year old Braddock. Again Jimmy was the underdog, even as champion, with the odds at 5-1 for Louis. But at least one man saw Braddock for what he was, a man of undaunted courage. Louis' trainer, Jack Blackburn warned Joe, "This is one cat you ain't gonna scare, Chappie. Jim Braddock ain't gonna quit, either. You're gonna have to knock him out."
On June 22nd, 1937, they met. Braddock fought masterfully, outboxing the challenger early on. In the very first round, he stunned the crowd when he dropped Louis with a solid right hand. For a moment it looked as if Louis wasn't going to beat the count, but at nine he was up. Time had run out for The Cinderella Man. He was too old, Louis too young, and the clock was chiming midnight. At the end of the seventh round Braddock was a beaten fighter and Gould wanted to stop the fight, but Jimmy shook his head.
"I want to go out like a champion. I want to be carried out," Braddock said proudly, defiantly.
In the 8th Louis did what 84 other opponents had failed to do, he knocked Jimmy out. For all intents and purposes Jimmy's boxing career was finished. He would come back once more, to fight Tommy Farr. Both men had something in common, they'd both lost to Joe Louis in their last fight. But it was Farr's only loss in his last 21 bouts, while it was Jimmy's 10th in the same number of fights. The odds favored a victory for Farr, but Braddock decisioned him over 15 rounds, perhaps snubbing his nose at the odds-makers one final time.
It was a fitting finish. He had always fought against the odds, and maybe the royal carriage had been only a pumpkin after all, but the man they called The Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock, was never a bum.