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.