A Brief History of the Life and Times That Led to a Lasting Legend

The Jazz Age of the 1920s was a golden time for America, as the nation celebrated
peace and booming prosperity on the heels of World War I. It was also a Golden Era for
boxing, the brutal yet beautifully balletic sport that had captured the public imagination with
its raw, primal struggles for transcendence in the ring. In the melting pot society of the early
20th century, disparate immigrant groups drew pride from their “native” sons who boxed;
communities with strong Old World roots found a focus, an expression of their heritage, each
time a fighter wearing their national colors or symbol climbed into the ring.

It was during this era that James J. Braddock, a New Jersey-based amateur known for
his fierce right hand, turned pro. Like many working-class kids, Braddock saw boxing as his
ticket to a decent life. It was the only thing he was ever good at—and for a while he was very,
very good.
His career shone with promise in the early years, when he was dubbed “the Bulldog of
Bergen” for an unflinching tenacity that seemed to carry him through fights with far larger
opponents. But, after sustaining irreparable damage to his badly broken right hand, his career
began to slide downhill. In 1929, he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of light
heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran, who beat him in a heartrending 15-round decision that
touched off a seemingly endless string of bad luck and ugly losses. Braddock was never the
same again.

Nor was the nation. That same year, the stock market crashed, wiping out 40 percent of
the paper values of common stock. As the shockwave spread, American families from all
walks of life and every economic class lost their savings, their businesses, their homes and
their farms. By 1932, nearly one in four Americans was unemployed.

The nation was reeling in shock, as throngs of once working families began showing up
at Salvation Army shelters. Food lines, work lines and Public Relief lines—something many
Americans never thought they would see in their own country—became a commonplace sight.
The poorest of the poor were forced to live in “Hoovervilles,” grim cardboard-shack
shantytowns that sprang up on the edges of most major cities (named with bitter irony for U.S.
President Herbert Hoover, who, prior to losing the 1932 election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
had failed to put into place any federal aid programs for struggling families). Thousands upon
thousands of others roamed the country, searching for any job no matter how hard, demeaning
or dangerous. For the first time since the nation’s pilgrim beginnings, many Americans faced
the very real and haunting prospect of hunger and malnutrition. Suicide rates among men who
had lost their jobs soared.

Like so many bankers, butchers, farmers and factory workers, Jim Braddock watched
as his life, too, began to fall apart. When the local boxing commission forced him to retire by
revoking his license, Braddock searched valiantly for any available jobs, but there weren’t
many. He took hard-labor jobs in the shipyards, hauling sacks, or anything else he could get.
Yet he was making so little that at one point, Braddock was trying to feed a family of five on
just $24 a month. It seemed like a losing battle. When the family could no longer afford the
basics—milk, gas, electricity—Braddock applied for Relief. It was a terrible blow to his pride,
a secret shame that many who had always worked for their families were experiencing across
the country.

But then in 1934, just as Roosevelt’s New Deal began to kick into high gear,
Braddock’s luck began to shift as well. Unexpectedly, he was given the chance to fight John
“Corn” Griffin in a bout Braddock was, by all accounts, pretty much guaranteed to lose.
Instead, he managed to dance and jab his way to a win no one could quite believe—thanks in
part to a newly strengthened left hand as a result of his stints working on the docks. Shortly
after that, as if to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he won a 10-round decision against Hall of Fame
light heavyweight John Henry Lewis. Then, he took on Art Lasky, who had won all but one of
his last 15 fights—yet Braddock dispatched him too in a thrilling 15-rounder.

With these remarkable wins, Braddock’s spirit became renewed. Remarkably, one of
the first things he did with his earnings was to pay back his Public Relief debt to the
government. This selfless act of honor earned Braddock a new moniker among his growing ranks of American fans: “Gentleman Jim.” Suddenly, with his fame beyond the boxing world
increasing every day, he found himself in the unlikely position of being able to make a title
shot against heavyweight champion Max Baer.

It might seem like a chance any boxer would jump at—but Braddock had plenty of
reasons not to take the fight. In fact, many in the sports world warned that it was a potentially
deadly match-up. Braddock was much smaller than Baer, far less experienced and had to rely
mainly on his newfound left hook, favoring his formerly injured right. Baer, on the other hand,
had recently been brought up on manslaughter charges when one of his opponents was
instantly killed by his powerhouse knockout punch. Though he was later cleared of the
charges, there was little doubt that Baer, when riled up, was one of the most dangerous fighters
in the sport. (Baer had also subjected opponent Ernie Schaaf to a knockout punch in the tenth
round of their 1932 fight, leaving him unconscious; Schaaf later died following a bout with
Primo Carnera and his death was attributed in part to the brutal beating at the hands of Baer.)
In 1933, Baer fought one of the greatest matches of all time, knocking out Max Schmeling in a
ten-round fight that would go down in history. In 1934, the same night that Jim Braddock
fought Corn Griffin, he defeated Primo Carnera, knocking him down 11 times in 11 rounds.

Despite critics’ cries that Braddock-Baer would be an unfair bout and his wife Mae’s
concerns that she could lose her husband to a boxing match, Braddock persevered and jumped
into some of the most challenging training a boxer had ever undertaken. The build-up to the
match only increased the tension, with Max Baer publicly predicting an easy knockout and
reportedly taunting Braddock by calling him a “bum”—an insult Braddock definitely could not
let pass without an answer.
At last, the Braddock-Baer fight took place on June 13, 1935, in front of a packed
crowd of 35,000 fans in Madison Square Garden. Millions more huddled around their radios
to hear the blow-by-blow commentary. Baer came on strong in the first few rounds, but
Braddock was undeterred—fueled as he was, fighting for his family’s survival. Each time one
fighter dominated the round, the crowds anticipated an early end to the fight—yet the opponent
invariably rallied back. This nearly impossible to call, give-and-take battle continued for an
unbelievable 15 rounds. Braddock, possessed by an unfailing spirit and pounding away with
remarkable endurance, lasted all 15…and finally won the fight in a unanimous decision.

Instantly, it was proclaimed the greatest upset in boxing history…if not all of sports. In
bars and living rooms around the country, ordinary people celebrated Braddock’s
championship as if he were one of their own family. The fight seemed to remind a desperate
world that sometimes the down-and-out not only manage to stay alive but, in the process,
become the greatest on earth. It was incredibly fitting that sports writer Damon Runyon had
dubbed Braddock the “Cinderella Man” because his rags-to-riches story so resembled a classic
fairy tale.

Braddock continued to fight, losing the heavyweight title to Joe Louis in 1937 in an
eighth-round knockout (Louis was then 23 while Braddock was a comparatively ancient 32—
and Louis would later say that Braddock was one of the most courageous fighters he ever
fought). He went on to beat the odds one last time, defeating the talented Tommy Farr in
1938, putting him in position to fight for the title again. But instead, he retired, saying to
reporters that he was doing so not because he was done fighting but out of fairness to his wife
and family.

Over the years, Braddock continued to be a hero to all those who knew his story. He
was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1964 and International Boxing Hall of
Fame in 2001. He served honorably in World War II and went on to own and operate heavy
equipment on the same docks where he labored for a pittance during the Depression. In the
1950s, he helped to build Brooklyn’s famous Verrazano Bridge, which was at the time the
largest suspension bridge in the world. He died in 1974 at the age of 68.