In "The Sweet Science," A.J. Liebling writes harshly that the period between the retirement of Gene Tunney in 1928 and the rise of Joe Louis in the mid-1930s featured "champions of little worth." If he were around these days, when one finds it difficult to name a heavyweight champion, Liebling might have revised his group trashing of Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Primo Carnera, Max Baer and James J. Braddock. Of course Joe Louis knocked them all out. He was great, they weren't.
But they all had stories to go with those nicknames: "the Black Uhlan," "the Boston Gob," "the Ambling Alp," "the Livermore Larruper" and "the Cinderella Man." And the best story among the bunch belongs to, arguably, the best-named, but it's doubtful if "Cinderella Man" would have made it to theaters or bookstores if filmmakers and publishers weren't dedicated to cashing in on the current popularity of bygone sports dramas: Seabiscuit et al.
There certainly have been more familiar names with bigger stories in boxing than Braddock's. A lot of people never heard of Braddock before the last few weeks, but they knew about Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey and Louis. Johnson, who dared to demonstrate black pride in the era of lynchings, and Muhammad Ali are America's most historically significant boxers. But boxing has a lode of stories, and Braddock's is a good one. It's a wonder Liebling didn't pick up on it in conversations at the "Neutral Corner" bar on Eighth Avenue in New York, especially since one of his educators there was none other than Whitey Bimstein, one of Braddock's trainers.
Braddock as the hard-working underdog who gets a break and makes the most of it is hardly unique, so the impact is in the telling. The film and Jeremy Schaap's book (the two projects are not related) offer plenty of inspiration. But they also remind us that boxing is a heartless enterprise, and that the sport's promise of new life usually ends up condemning the hopeful to worse straits. Few hit the lottery -- a title -- and almost no one walks away unbeaten.
Braddock was among the fortunate even if, after upsetting Baer in 1935, he lost his next bout, and the title, to Louis. This sport is about suffering, which makes it uncomfortably true to life.
A postscript to Braddock's comeback is another American staple: the business deal. Boxing has always had its deals, and Braddock's manager, Joe Gould, made an amazing one with Mike Jacobs, Louis's manager. Schaap takes it up as part of an epilogue: "In exchange for giving Louis a shot at the title, Gould and Braddock wanted 10 percent of Jacobs's earnings from heavyweight championship promotions for a decade." From that agreement, Braddock made a good chunk of money, which he eventually lost because, Schaap writes, he was "never a good businessman." It was not because of profligate spending.
Mike Tyson retains his championship in that department. Earlier this month, Schaap managed to connect the two distant heavyweight eras. Having just written about Braddock, Schaap found himself assigned by ESPN to cover Tyson's latest fandango. No two boxers' stories could be more dissimilar, at least after the familiar beginnings of two men fighting their way out of poverty. With that, their paths diverged to an extreme. In boxing, never has one done more with less than Braddock, nor has anyone done less with more than Tyson.
As conscientious as any sports reporter on television (and, mercifully, cliche-free), Schaap keeps the two fighters straight, giving interviews off camera about the one and interviewing the other on the air.
The writer Budd Schulberg suggested recently that when it comes to Tyson, it is possible for a reporter to be both objective and concerned about the man, and Schaap's work last week conveyed Schulberg's generous thinking.
But, really, the only way these days to take pleasure in the heavyweights, given the current lot and the absence of prospects, is with a look back. The times weren't necessarily terrific, but the big guys often were. Schaap said that his agent proposed a Braddock biography, and quickly sold the idea to a publisher.
The book may get a boost from the publicity generated by the film, but it will have to battle three other biographies that also have appeared almost simultaneously 70 years after Braddock's greatest fight. "Obviously, I wish my book was the only book out there," Schaap said. About 70,000 copies have been printed, he added, with a gulp. Braddock died in 1974 at the age of 69. His wife Mae died in 1986.
Moviegoers have wondered: Was he as nice a guy as he seemed?
"Actually, he was," said Howard Braddock, 73, the only one of Braddock's three children still living. "He was a decent human being, and a great father. He was a gentle, easy-going man. Even though he was a fighter, you would never know it." All these years later, family members recalled him fondly at reunions in Hollywood and New York for the movie premieres.
After boxing, Braddock kept on living a quiet family life in North Bergen, N.J. Schaap describes him "operating heavy machinery" in his sixties -- uncomplainingly.
"I'm outdoors," he said at the time, "in that great Jersey air."