Jim Braddock is hot.
The least likely of all heavyweight champions, dubbed "the Cinderella Man" by no less a scribbler than Damon Runyon of the New York American, captured Depression America's imagination by coming off the relief rolls to win the title, and now 70 years later he seems to be doing it again.
Next Friday a big-time Hollywood movie opens, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger. Already in stores are two books about Braddock, "Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man," by Newark Star-Ledger sportswriter Jim Hague, unread by this column, and "Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History," by ESPN reporter and anchor Jeremy Schaap.
Runyon wrote that "Braddock's case is much stranger than fiction." It certainly reads like fiction, and Schaap does a terrific job of telling it. His "Cinderella Man" -- unconnected to the movie -- focuses on the fighter and his banty, fast-talking manager, Joe Gould (played in the film by Paul Giamatti). But while the movie's central trio is completed by Braddock's wife, Mae (Zellweger), Schaap uses Baer.
It's a great choice. Schaap's book, as the subtitle suggests, is as much about Baer as it is about Braddock. Baer was one of the more colorful heavyweight champs ever, which is saying something. An Adonis with a powerful right hand that had knocked out two champs and killed a man before he met Braddock, Baer had the talent for boxing but not the taste for it, other than the money, fame and women it brought him.
But he had flair. "That one's for Hitler!" he shouted when knocking out German ex-champ Max Schmeling in 1933, a win that led to a trans-Atlantic pissing match with Joseph Goebbels. Baer was a beauty.
When Braddock, a light heavyweight contender in the late '20s but by now a heavyweight journeyman, got a shot at him in 1935, the public didn't care. Their interest was piqued only when the story came out that Braddock had been on relief. Now, deep in the Depression, he was one of them. You have to remember that unlike now, the heavyweight championship was the biggest thing in the sports world then.
Braddock, strong from working the Hoboken and Weehawken, N.J., docks and with an always-injured right hand healed, fought the fight of his life and upset Baer, who had neglected his training. Braddock held the title for two years before risking it against the great Joe Louis, who knocked him out in eight rounds.
Schaap, 35, is the son of Dick Schaap, who wrote 33 books. He says he wrote his first all over the world as he worked his ESPN job. Covering the Tour de France, he says, "I literally had the computer plugged into the cigarette lighter of the Renault as we were chasing around Lance Armstrong."
I found him by phone in Bristol, Conn., as he prepared for his regular gig, hosting "Outside the Lines Nightly."
I'll start with a criticism, because I grew up in Los Angeles so I know these things: There is no part for Renée Zellweger in your book!
[Laughs.] You're right, you're right. I didn't give Mae enough play. I didn't give her as much as the movie, from what I understand. I guess I'm a typical guy. I focused on the sports stuff.
How'd you come to write this book?
I've been covering boxing for a lot of years, and I have a literary agent, although I hadn't written anything previously, a friend of mine I went to college with. We've been banging around ideas for a few years, including boxing ideas, and it was a little more than a year ago, he said, "What do you think about writing a book about Jim Braddock? Nobody's ever written a book about him."
Where did his idea for Braddock come from?
We both were aware of the fact that they were making a movie. But it was also one of the ideas I know he'd been thinking about for a while because of all the interest "Seabiscuit" generated in the era, and in those kinds of sports narratives. I know a lot of sportswriters who are like, "Where's another Seabiscuit story?" And this is clearly, I think, the most similar story out there.
My view of Braddock, without having read about him in this much detail, was that he was a journeyman talent who was in the right place at the right time to fight Baer, who was a skirt-chaser and a drinker and all that. Your thesis is that he was a pretty good fighter.
He was a pretty good fighter. I mean, no, was he Gene Tunney, was he Jack Dempsey, was he Joe Louis? Obviously he wasn't. Nor was he as gifted, and I think I made that clear, as Max Baer. Max Baer is a guy who if he had concentrated more on his career and taken it more seriously I think could have been a great champion.
But Jim Braddock had talent. Jim Braddock lost that fight to Tommy Loughran [for the light heavyweight championship in 1929] when he was 24 years old, and Tommy Loughran couldn't hurt him, not that he had a great punch or anything. But Braddock had this amazing ability, particularly against punchers; somehow he got in there and he always had success against punchers.
He's almost a unique talent in this sense, the way that he fought to the level of the competition most of the time. You could put him in the ring with almost anybody in his prime, let's say that night, when he was 30 years old and in great shape after fighting three fights the previous year, coming off the docks, being motivated, having his hand in good shape, all that stuff. I think he could have given anybody a hard time.
Obviously by the time he fought Joe Louis he was over the hill, he hadn't fought in two years, Louis was this remarkable talent, and Louis chopped him to pieces. But he knocked the guy down in the first round. He had a great chin. I guess it's a long way of saying, no, he wasn't a great boxer. You could even argue that he shouldn't be in the Boxing Hall of Fame, which he is. But that's not what it's about.
Let me let you defend your title here, or your subtitle: "The Greatest Upset in Boxing History."
Yes. As you well know, not statistically the biggest upset, although it was at the time in terms of betting odds. [Braddock was roughly an 8-1 underdog.] I know Buster Douglas [who was a 42-1 shot when he knocked out Mike Tyson in 1990] well, and I thought about this. It wasn't a careless way of phrasing it.
You know, maybe this is semantics, but I think it is the "greatest" upset ever, because of his story. Buster's story simply doesn't compare. The big difference with Buster is that when he got into the ring that night in Tokyo, he'd been basically an underachiever his entire career. People who knew boxing were waiting for Buster Douglas to do something big.
Jim Braddock was a has-been. He'd been retired. He had to overachieve by leaps and bounds to win that fight. I mean the greatest upset in the sense that it's the greatest story, and the unlikeliest triumph.
It's funny that you talk about how his story's so different from Buster Douglas', because as I was reading I was struck by the similarities, the mixed, journeyman career and then just on that one night, he put it all together.
True, there are similarities. In the sense that they're the two biggest upsets ever in heavyweight championship fights. They're two guys who rose to the occasion. I give Buster credit. Buster fought a much more exciting fight than Braddock, and also what he did in the ring that night was more spectacular, getting knocked down himself, getting back up off the canvas and knocking out Mike Tyson two rounds later. I mean, I could watch that fight 100 times and it's still thrilling. You can't watch Braddock-Baer 100 times!
Another similarity to Douglas-Tyson is that Baer wasted his talent, just as Tyson did. If this book were going to be a novel, it might be about Baer, and it also might be about Joe Gould.
Yeah. They're characters. That's why I wanted to write the book about Baer, make it about Baer as much as Braddock. Braddock's story is fascinating, and what he did is interesting, but he's not a charismatic guy. He's more of a symbol in some ways than actually a living, breathing -- you know, I wouldn't say that. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Baer is more fun. He's more fun.
He just did things that make for better copy, and everybody recognized that at the time. Braddock's story is amazing, and there's so much life in it. But Baer himself every day, you could write a book about what he did on any given day, the people he ran into, the girls he was fooling around with. I mean, the stuff with Joseph Goebbels!
He's just a fascinating character. I really felt a lot of sympathy for him.
You write a lot in the book, especially in the acknowledgments, about the sportswriters of the era, and about how you almost felt like you got to know some of these old guys like Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice as you read their writing about Braddock. I wonder if having a sportswriter father gave you more of an interest in sports history than the casual fan might have.
Oh, totally, in terms of sports history and in terms of sportswriting history. I grew up, he talked about Red Smith. He idolized Red Smith. And he went to Columbia Journalism School on the Grantland Rice fellowship. So these were all names that were very familiar to me.
When I was in high school and I first decided I wanted to be a sportswriter, Jerry Holtzman sent me an autographed copy of "No Cheering in the Press Box," which totally romanticizes the lives of these guys and what they covered. So, you know, even Jimmy Breslin's book ["Damon Runyon: A Life"], in which he basically crucifies Runyon, it still is interesting, and it gives you a sense of how important these guys were.
For me it was a pleasure reading all the Frank Graham stuff [in the New York Sun]. I'd always heard so many good things about Frank Graham, the whole thing with him and Red Smith, they were 1 and 1A, the dual entry. He really was good. For me that was a pleasure.
I love sports history. Sometimes I genuinely worry that I don't have as much enthusiasm for today's sports as I should, that all of my enthusiasm was kind of used up on Ty Cobb and Josh Gibson.
You have another book in mind?
I don't know. I am fascinated with the era and there are things that interest me that I'm looking at. I want to keep doing it. I had a lot more fun than I thought I'd have.
Often with my father, he'd wait until four weeks before the book was due, and then he'd just kill himself. You know, shut himself into a room. It was like "Apocalypse Now." Captain Willard. But I actually had fun doing it and immersing myself in the history of it. I definitely want to do it again.
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