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Authors: Marc Cerasini

Cinderella Man

BOOK: Cinderella Man
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Cinderella Man
Written by
Marc Cerasini

Based on the
Motion Picture Screenplay by
Cliff Hollingsworth
and
Akiva Goldsman

Motion Picture Story by
Cliff Hollingsworth

This book is dedicated to
Antonio A. Alfonsi
&
John F. Cerasini
and all of our Depression-era
parents and grandparents, who never
stopped fighting, no matter the odds…

In my experience, I have found that the toughest game is the game of life, and when a man can do in that game what Jim has done, what does a fight mean, or a punch on the chin?

—Joe Gould,
manager of James J. Braddock

In no list that you will ever see will he be listed among the ten greatest, but…[because] others see themselves in him and read their own struggles into his, he may have belonged to more people than any other champion who ever lived.

—W. C. Heinz,
boxing writer and novelist

He is a great fellow, and he has a great story.

—Damon Runyon,
legendary journalist who first called
James J. Braddock “The Cinderella Man”

Contents

Round One

Boxing is a game of half steps and half inches,…

Round Two

When Mae finally saw her husband striding up the fieldstone…

Round Three

Jim Braddock stood at the same oak bureau where he'd…

Round Four

The locker room was a dump. Bins with broken doors,…

Round Five

“Oh, dear Lord. Baby…”

Round Six

Jim sat at the rickety kitchen table in his basement…

Round Seven

Paper streamers fluttered on warm gusts, brightening a Newark churchyard.

Round Eight

The Madison Square Garden Bowl was where the Garden promoters…

Round Nine

The car door opened, and Jim stepped onto the cracked…

Round Ten

On Braddock's first day back in training, Joe Jeannette met…

Round Eleven

“Ready to face the jackals, Jim?”

Round Twelve

Photographers circled the long draped table in the center of…

Round Thirteen

“Now, here's how you work a combination.” Still dressed in…

Round Fourteen

Jim Braddock closed the dressing-room door, moved through a long,…

Round Fifteen

Mae came through the front door, unpinned her hat. The…

Epilogue

And so it was, on June 13, 1935, James J.…

ROUND ONE

When the bell rings, you're in there to win.

—James J. Braddock,
as quoted by Peter Heller in
In This Corner

Madison Square Garden
November 30, 1928

Boxing is a game of half steps and half inches, of timing, nerve, pain, endurance, and sometimes chance. Around the center ring of the Garden arena, nineteen thousand fight fans rose in a spiraling incline—too far to notice inches, too removed to notice chance. Most spectators simply waited for one gladiator to murder the other, in tonight's case, for the wiry Jim Braddock to be flattened by Gerald “Tuffy” Griffiths, the “Terror from out West.”

With round one's clang, the bulked-up, corn-fed Griffiths roared out of his corner like an unstoppable cyclone. Under the broiling hot lights, Braddock stood firm and watched him come. Tuffy had blown into town claiming more than fifty consecutive wins, the
last with a stunning first-round knockout. Seven-to-one Braddock was just another Tuffy KO. A sacrificial lamb. Everyone knew it—the promoters, the oddsmakers, the sportswriters. Everyone knew it except Braddock himself and Joe Gould, his excitable little round-faced manager, punching the smoky air in Jim's corner.

Whenever a reporter asked Gould why he thought his fighter was worth a plug nickel, he'd grab the man's lapels and bark, “What do you know about Braddock? What? Were you on that Jersey Hillside when Jimmy was just a scrawny teenager, forcing his older, bigger, golden gloves-winning brother to eat punch after punch? Did you watch him rise through one hundred amateur bouts to win his own pair of golden gloves against Frank Zavita—a giant stovemaker who'd outweighed him by fifty-three pounds? Were you with me that day in Joe Jeannette's gym when I offered some kid, a total nobody, five dollars to get smacked around by my top-ranked welterweight, never expecting it would be the kid, Jimmy Braddock, who'd do the smacking?”

Tonight, like every night, Joe Gould stood in Braddock's corner, close enough to see the half steps and half inches. Close enough to know that when Tuffy Griffiths launched himself across the ring, Jim was never more ready.

Braddock's sharp, solid jab surprised the charging Griffiths, sending the confident hulk back on his heels. The boxers advanced and retreated, hooking, blocking, and counterpunching, as they slipped and pivoted across the springy canvas. When Griffiths saw an opening, he launched again. His shoulders rippled
through a flurry of combinations—jabs, hooks, body shots. These same fistic flurries had taken out Tony Marullo in Chicago, Jon Anderson in Detroit, Jim Mahoney in Sioux City, Jackie Williams in Davenport, even Mike McTigue, the former world's light heavyweight champion.

Blood flowed and sweat streamed, soaking Jim's brow, burning his eyes. Blows felt like thunderclaps and lightning together, exposing Jim's guard, splitting his head. But Braddock failed to hit the deck as Griffiths' other opponents had. Jim stayed on his feet, weathered the storm.

At ringside, reporters in straw boaters and fedoras sat chomping cigars, their fingers pounding the stiff keys of heavy typewriters. Every blow of the first round's action was recorded, and nobody thought the New Jersey boxer would last a second round.

But by round two, Braddock had timed his rival's rushes, and inside of a minute his power punch detonated—Jim's golden right cross. Griffiths went down. The crowd rose up. A deafening din.

On three, the Terror was up again. The count didn't stick.

By now Jim's adrenaline-rich world had turned hyper-real. Colors exploded, sounds spiked, awareness was dagger sharp. Time stretched for Jim, as it does for all good fighters, slowing in the face of violence. Inside the ropes, the slightest movement of his opponent's arm swept bigger than an Atlantic wave.

Jim blotted out everything then: the wild screams of the crowd, the contemptuous stares of the sports writers, the shooting pain in his injured and taped ankle, the hysterical yells from his corner. All Braddock knew
was this chance to put away the great Griffiths. He cocked his right again, timed it just right, and let fly. Tuffy reeled.

“One…Two…Three…Four…”

Glassy-eyed, Griffiths rose once more, shutting down the ref's ten count.

Braddock was ready. He vaulted close and hurled a nonstop bombardment to his opponent's face. Shoulder muscles, slick with sweat, were primed and loaded. Leather slammed forward at breakneck speed, then came the jab, jab, cross, and Braddock's famous right connected for the last time, smashing into Griffiths' chin like an Irish freight train.

The fighter's jaw distended at an impossible angle, his eyes rolled back. Listing like a torpedoed ship, Griffiths sank a third time to the canvas. On three, Tuffy tried to stand with rubber legs. He staggered, and without another glove on him hit the deck for the last time.

“And from the great State of New Jersey, by technical knockout, tonight's light heavyweight winner…Jim Braddock!”

The announcer's bellow brought the capacity crowd to its feet. The hometown boy had done it—and just a stone's throw from the Hell's Kitchen tenement where he'd been born. Sweat dripping from his shock of black hair, Braddock pumped his fist in the smoky air, his bulky leather glove threatening to KO the Garden's high, steel-trussed ceiling. With an explosion of insane screaming, thousands of fight-mad fans cheered the “Bulldog of Bergen.”

Jim took in the hooting, hollering faces—clerks and
tycoons alike sporting double-breasted suits and diamond tiepins; flappers and floozies with bobbed hair and fox furs. It was Friday night, the world was throwing a party, and Jersey Jim's victory was one more reason to celebrate.

Griffiths was Jim's eighteenth knockout since he'd turned pro in 1926. His twenty-seventh win. And that's how Braddock wanted to see himself—as a winner—not a Catholic-school dropout or punk kid scraper, not a Western Union messenger, printer's devil, or silk mill errand boy. Tonight those former lives had sloughed off Jim like dead skin.

Braddock knew that promoters had held high hopes for Griffiths' big Eastern debut. Tonight's upset in the Garden, the very mecca of this sport, would ink Braddock's name into headlines across the country and—if the right men said so—get him a shot at the heavyweight championship. Then Jim would be more than a winner. He'd be on his way to joining Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, to becoming what every boxer dreamed of, what every red-blooded man respected: the champ.

Inside the ring, hands grabbed Braddock's slick shoulders, then came the familiar jolt. Joe Gould had burst out of their corner with a big yahoo, leaping onto the boxer's back like one of Jim's kids. Drenched in sweat, the little guy looked like he could have fought this one for Jimmy all by himself.

Gould hopped down and hugged his boxer's neck. The Griffiths match hadn't lasted more than five minutes; just the same, it had been a long, hard fight for the both of them. With bright, quick eyes, the manager
took in the stomping, whistling, adoring horde, met his boxer's steady gaze, and gave a huge grin. In reply, quiet Jim's lips twisted up wryly.

To come against something you can see and beat back. That's what the ring was for Jim Braddock: the right to give as good as he got. Tonight, the underdog had showed them. “Plain Jim,” the nice guy, the humble man…the
winner
.

 

In the swarming street, a parade of cabs had already whisked most of the golden throng away—to Times Square with its music halls, burlesque shows, and talking pictures, or all the way up to Harlem's jazz joints, the Cotton Club and Paradise. A good hundred or so still lingered beneath a fire escape near the Garden's side entrance, where an illuminated billboard announced tonight's Jersey boy matchup against Tuffy the Terror from out West.

The door swung wide, banging against the clean brick wall and releasing a pearl-gray cloud of smoke. A single lightbulb flashed, throwing a split-second spotlight on the lean six-foot-three boxer and his paunchy, cigar-chomping manager as they emerged from the doorway and made their way through the electric knot of dapper fans.

The air was cold, the November whipping off the Hudson a few avenues away, but Braddock's muscles were still warm from his two-round workout. Jim nodded at the tailored overcoats and mink stoles waiting in the chill. He recognized some regulars from his Newark and Jersey City fights—loyal followers who'd come across the river.

“Just give a few, leave 'em wanting,” Gould croaked
to his fighter. The manager's voice was usually sharp and resonant, but after a fight, he was hoarse for days from all the yelling.

“You want to sign my name for me too?” Braddock quipped as he stopped in front of a woman in a long overcoat with rabbit cuffs and collar. She held out her program.

“Least then they could
read
it,” said Gould.

“Hand it to skill and experience over here.”

The woman appeared bewildered, unsure how to respond to the wisecracking men. Jim smiled warmly, took her program. “Better let me,” he told her in a mock whisper, “Not so sure he can spell.”

When fans saw Jim was stopping to give autographs, they closed in. Programs were thrust forward, sports pages, glossies of himself in a staged boxer's pose, gloves up, expression fierce—Marquis of Queensbury by way of Newark.

Jim signed and signed.

“Gave him a cold meat party, Jim,” a guy shouted from the back.

“Way to go, Braddock!”

Jim's brown eyes danced. He liked these people, the fact that they loved him so. A willowy brunette caught his attention—supple and slender, impossibly tall with a spoiled little heartbreaker smile. She opened her coat, lifted her hem. The flapper skirt rose like a Broadway curtain, revealing long legs in white stockings, blue garters at the knee. Then came that glimpse of naked promise—an invitation to a performance not to be missed.

Jim just smiled. Shook his head. Got back to business.

“Hey! Win some, lose some, huh Johnston?”

The hoarse bark of his manager's voice made Jim look up. Who was Gould baiting now? From the smoky side door, a big man had emerged, Jimmy Johnston, the Garden's fight promoter, twice the size and weight of Gould—in more ways than one.

You didn't get in the Garden without Johnston's say so. Men like him and Tex Rickard, mastermind of the first million-dollar gate, set up boxers like bowling pins. Griffiths' star had been rising, and he should have rolled right over Braddock like all the other setups. That's what the bookies had predicted, that's what Johnston had wanted.

Braddock hadn't even been considered for the Gerald Griffiths matchup until the month before. Pete Latzo, the former welterweight champ, had been the man originally chosen to fight Tuffy. Jim Braddock had been selected to serve as nothing more than Latzo's small-time “tune-up.” Then Braddock shattered Latzo's jaw in a Newark ring and doctors had to use eleven feet of wire to put the man's face back together. Suddenly Latzo was sipping his meals through a straw, and Griffiths' headlining fight card had a vacancy.

Sure, Braddock was supposed to have been the sacrificial meat, but it was Griffiths who got slaughtered. Now Jimmy Johnston was wearing an imported silk suit and the face of a man who'd lost.

Braddock had seen that look before, on the men he'd sent to the canvas. He'd seen it on other men, too. Men his father's age, working those errand-boy jobs Jim had held through his teens. It was a look that said you'd been beaten but weren't going to show it—even though it did show. It was the rigid mask of pride that couldn't
quite cover the shattering embarrassment of being thought a loser. Braddock had never seen that face in his own mirror, and he never intended to. But Jim wasn't a spiteful man, and he had no desire to be a sore winner.

He turned, touched his manager's sleeve. “Leave it be.”

Gould nodded, as if he agreed. Then he kept on talking.

“Although you gotta figure this one, you gotta figure maybe you get behind the
wrong
guys.” The little manager was now officially squaring off with the big suit. “What's Griffiths favored, six to one and, oh yeah, outweighs my boy by, what, five pounds more than that scale you fixed says, then jab, cross…”

“Actually, it was jab, jab, cross—” Braddock corrected. He wasn't keen on watching Gould spar, especially with a man as influential as Johnston, but he couldn't let his manager confront the promoter alone. For the past three years, Gould had been in Braddock's corner every step of the way, collaring sportswriters and singing Jim's praises. The least Jim could do was back his friend up.

“Jab, jab, cross!” the manager repeated, moving his short arms with the hits, punching the air like he always did when Braddock was inside the ropes. “And your boy's hearing highball whistles. Hell, I could hear 'em. You, Jimmy?”

“I heard something.”

“So maybe no one's a
bum
after all, huh Johnston…?”

Braddock hated that word. Had heard it before.
Some in the press said his early KOs were pushovers, no-accounts, bums. So what did that make Jim? After tonight…after
Griffiths
…what could Johnston say? What could anybody say?

Gould cocked his head to one side and fixed a withering glare on the promoter. Johnston held Gould's gaze. The moment hung for a long time, adrenaline soaked and dreamlike. Like the ring, thought Jim, where a second became a minute and a minute became an hour—and when you were taking punches, one three-minute round could last till the end of time.

Finally, Johnston turned. Breaking off, he strode to his waiting car.

“TKO,” Gould told Braddock with a smile.

Jim narrowed his eyes. No matter what the Griffiths fight was ruled he knew what he'd done. “I won on a
knockout
, Joe.”

The manager smiled. “Not you. Me.”

Braddock shook his head. The fans might call him the Bulldog of Bergen, but it was his manager who deserved the title. After years with Gould, Jim knew one thing for certain—his little, obstinate, constantly barking manager had almost no control over his own mouth.

BOOK: Cinderella Man
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