I haven’t actually seen “Cinderella Man” yet, the movie some are calling the best of the year. This is the saga of prizefighter James Braddock and his struggle to provide for his family during the Great Depression using his fists and a courage that refused to quit. Anyone who sits through the previews several times, as I have now done, pretty much knows the story. And interestingly, it’s all history. Almost all.
Braddock was born in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. He fought his way out of poverty and and eventually challenged for the light heavyweight championship of the world, a fight he lost. Apparently an average boxer–he lost 20 times–he finally took a job on the New Jersey docks to support his wife and three children. Then he got a lucky break.
One night, on a boxing card that featured heavyweight champion Primo Carnera fighting challenger Max Baer, Braddock went against someone named Corn Griffin and knocked him out. Just a year later, after upsetting two more contenders, Braddock was fighting Max Baer, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world.
Peter Finney, New Orleans’ own champion sports columnist for nearly half a century, writes, “Here he was, a hopeless underdog who had lost 20 times on the roller-coaster journey, fighting a guy whose fists had been responsible for the death of two opponents.” Then he adds: “No Hollywood hokum. It was all true.”
“And there they were,” he continues, “on June 13, 1935, Braddock and Baer fighting for the title, as some of Braddock’s faithful, listening to the broadcast, prayed for the Irishman’s safety inside a Jersey church.”
According to the movie, the two boxers went at it tooth and nail for 15 hard rounds. Directed by Ron Howard–how far he has come from Mayberry–the men pummeled each other with so many devastating blows and knockout punches, one wonders how anyone could endure such pain and live to tell it. That’s what columnist Finney wondered. And he wondered how sportswriters of the time had covered such a monumental bout.
So, Finney did something I admire mightily. He dug up the newspapers records of the original fight to see how ringside writers described this vicious pounding that surely must have left both men as invalids.
Ah, what he found out.
“It was a putrid fight,” said Jack Dempsey, former champ and writing for a newspaper association. “There were no thrills, no spectacular moments. It was a sad exhibition on Max’s part. He simply clowned the title away.”
Henry McLemore, writing for United Press International, described how “I saw Braddock fight a fight that was dull, uninspired and which would not have earned him the decision over a half dozen mediocre ringmen working in the business today. His jab was slow and sickly. His right hand struck Baer on the jaw 50 times without so much as making Max blink. As for Baer, he didn’t throw 10 genuine punches of any sort in 15 rounds. Braddock won the world championship with a fight that, had it been presented at a small club, both fighters would have been thrown out of the ring….”
Reality sure has a way of messing up a good story, doesn’t it. Unless you’re a movie maker and then you just tweak the history and make it come out any way you like. Ask Oliver Stone.
Or a novelist on the order of Dan Brown. You’ve heard of his fanciful tale, “The DaVinci Code.”
Two footnotes to the Braddock story from Peter Finney you may find fascinating.
First, as the new heavyweight champion of the world, Braddock lost his first and only defense of the title. He lost to a fellow you may have heard of named Joe Louis. Braddock would fight only one more time before walking away.
But he did something so shrewd that 70 years later, we are still stunned and sports business people are still shaking their heads in admiration. Before giving Joe Louis a shot at the heavyweight crown, Braddock asked for and received a contract in which Louis would pay him ten percent of the profits he made over the next ten years. And that made Braddock a rich man.
With the money from Joe Louis and from his own fights, Braddock built his family a large red-brick home overlooking the Hudson River, where, as Finney writes, “the Braddocks lived happily ever after.”
And that, Finney adds, “was no Hollywood hokum.”
By now, most of us know not to look to movies for our history. Not about the Crusades or Alexander the Great or any other figure or event of the past. Moviemakers have one overriding concern that dwarfs their commitment to accuracy: to tell a story that will sell.
It reminds me of a vintage Peanuts strip in which the teacher has asked the children to write an essay on what they did during the summer. Linus reads his report aloud: “Even though I was swimming and playing ball and enjoying the beach, I longed to hear the bell signaling the return to school. There is something about walking these hallowed halls of learning that nothing can compare with. The pleasantries of summer pale beside the joys of school.” He thanks the teacher for the A-plus, and as he returns to his seat, he remarks to the other children, “As the years come and go, one learns what sells.”
Two quick observations.
One. Aren’t we glad the novelists and playwrights did not get hold of the Holy Scriptures in their original editions. No Hollywood hokum here. This is the real stuff.
As though addressing the very charge that parts of the scripture were made of whole cloth by wishful thinkers, one of the apostles wrote, “We weren’t, you know, just wishing on a star when we laid the facts out before you regarding…Jesus Christ. We were there…. We saw it with our own eyes: Jesus resplendent with light from God the Father….We couldn’t be more sure of what we saw and heard–God’s glory, God’s voice.” (II Peter 1 from “The Message”)
Two. Who among us would not like to go into our own past and tamper with the record, erasing that rudeness and correcting this foolishness, healing that hurt. Sort of cosmetic surgery in reverse. But alas, that option is available only in make believe. But there is something of a far better nature.
There is One who can do something moviemakers can only dream about: a) reach into our past and forgive us of our wrongs, b) use those mistakes to make us smarter and better and stronger and more useful, and c) make us into wise teachers and leaders to help others learn from our lives.
There is One who can do this. But only One, actually: the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who inhabits eternity and yet dwelt on earth in time. As the writer of Hebrews put it, He is “the same yesterday, today and forever.” (13:8) Something we cannot say of anyone else.
He alone is able to help us in the ways we need it most.
So, there’s no point in making up lies about your past to turn yourself into a winner. Neither is there any point in grieving over your past failures. Just tell the truth about yourself to the One who is The Truth, and let Him take it from there.
Great story! And as always, an insightful application to life! Now, I know who taught that other guy how to write the “rest of the story!” Thank you for the inspiration each week! I anticipate each article like I do the opening of presents on Christmas Day! — Mike K.
hey, Joe, this is lee gallion again. There is another part of the story that is untold in the “Cinderella
man”. That is, Max Baer’s son, Max Baer, Jr. who we all know played Jethro in the “Beverly
Hillbilly’s”, wants told. Max Baer, Jr. said the unkind impression left in the Ron Howard’s film
is not the right picture of his Dad. Yes, his hands directly resulted in the death of 2 individuals,
but it doesn’t say anything about his Dad going to the bedside of one of the fighters to tell him
how sorry he was for doing this to him. Max Baer thinks of his father’s life in an enitrely different
way than the movie depicts it. But, I guess that wouldn’t have made the “Cinderella Man” a
nominee for the best picture this year. The only true story about our own lives is written by one
true God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And what a wonderful experience to know that the
sins of the past are wiped away by a Loving Heavenly Father, when we humble ourselves before
HIM and admit we have sinned and fallen short of HIS Glory. Max Baer, Jr. won’t be able to
retract what’s already been depicted in “The Cinderella Man”, but hopefully he has the
knowledge that the True Story, has yet to be seen and God has already written Max Baer, Sr’s
name in the “Book of Life”.
A few quick comments on this fine article.
‘Cinderella Man’ is a really good movie in that Ron Howard does such wonderful directing job and the championship fight literally holds you on the edge of your seat while you seem to actually ‘feel’ the blows. My son Rick, was amazed to discover that he (Baer) is the
real father of Jethro from the ‘Beverly Hillbillys.’ The beauty of the story is the dedication of a man to his wife and children.
The DaVinci code was an interesting book, the overwhelming flaw in it’s premise is the idea that anyone of DaVinci’s time would have ANY reliable information about the first century since the Bible had only recently been in any circulation and he, being nearer the Vatican and it’s power,probably never opened one for fear of being burned at the stake.
I have had an interest in Alexander for 20 years and the recent movie was pathetic.
Movies on the Crusades; the latest, Kingdom of Heaven, had a memorable line when Saladin (real history shows him to be a very compassionate
man) with 200,000 Muslim soldiers surrounding Jerusalem, is having a ‘terms’ palaver with the defender of the city who threatens to destroy
everything in the city that is holy to anyone. Saladin starts to walk away, stops and turns to say, ‘that might not be a bad idea…’
Hope that you are back to normal and tasting food again.
Joe, terrific boxing story. My Dad and I used to be big fans. When Don Dunphy broadcast the big bouts on radio. The sport is nothing, anymore. Too bad. People found better things to entertain them. All the hype won’t get me to this movie. I don’t enjoy seeing people pound each other. Even when it’s real history and a nice ending for Braddock. As for truth, I wish it were as easy to ‘tell the truth about yourself’. I have had employees who lie on the job and are supposedly good people….some church going Christians and won’t be honest with themselves first and then me. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s denial. If you deny something then maybe they think they aren’t lying. It’s really a societal thing. Everyone has their own definition of the truth. Alcoholics, diabetics who eat candy bars and shouldn’t, Michael Jackson who sleeps with little boys, etc, etc. HAT