By Tom Donelson
Mae West once said, “when sex is good, it is great and when it is bad, it is still good.” Boxing movies are like that. Even the worse boxing movie can still be moving. If there was a sport made for the celluloid, it is boxing. Mano a mano, boxing represents sport at its purest. You have the drama of having one man fight another and you can see the fighter’s faces as well as their expression of anger and fear. There is no hiding in the ring and Hollywood thrives on the human drama and so does boxing.
And true boxing stories often are better than fiction and the story of James J. Brad-dock is no exception. Once a top light heavyweight contender, hand injuries led to a series of defeat and the revocation of Braddock’s license. Forced to work on the dock and accept welfare as well as charity, Braddock was as low as any fighter could get during the Great Depression. Yet within two years, Braddock went from the welfare roll to the heavyweight champion. No Hollywood writer could come up with a better scrip.
Director Ron Howard deftly shows the suffering of the Great Depression through snap shots. From the opening scene as cameras fade from Brad-dock’s bedroom in a comfortable home with $8000 dollars on the table to a few coins on a empty table five years later begins Howard masterpiece. In the background of scenes, you see the effect of the Great Depression. A wife begs her husband to come back as he leaves; various shantytowns and people sputtering around in old clothes are part of the tapestry that Howard paints of America in the 30’s. These scenes are shot as everyday happening and the viewer feels the misery that existed in America in those days. Yet in the suffering, hope still preserves and Braddock became the symbol of that hope.
Braddock could no longer provide for his family as he was forced to beg boxing promoters and accept welfare just to keep his family together. Yet during this time, the seed of his comeback was set. Working the dock, he was forced to use his left hand and his left hand became more powerful. When Braddock came back, he became a more complete fighter, as he no longer just depended on his right hand.
Joey Gould, his manager, gathered Braddock one last chance to fight Corn Griffin, a young Heavyweight prospect. For both men, this represented their last opportunities to stay in the boxing game. Gould was as broke as Braddock, as he sold everything to operate Braddock camp. Griffin was the favorite as Braddock took this fight on short notice but Braddock had the hunger forged in poverty. He knew that a loss would end his comeback and if he wanted to continue boxing, he had to win. Failure was not an option.
Here Howard catches the essence of Braddock at the end of his career. Braddock won because he had to. He fought with a determination that maybe was missing early in his career. Opponents Art Lackey, John Henry Lewis and Corn Griffin knew that after a loss; there was still a tomorrow, there was another bout. For Braddock, there was no tomorrow.
The fight scenes are realistic and the occasional slow motion intersperse with scenes of his families shows Braddock motivation and guts. Character is revealed within the square ringed and Brad-dock had character and toughness.
Going into the Max Baer championship fight, Braddock had momentum of three straight victories against leading contenders. Max Baer was the heavy favorite and with good reason. He slaughtered the hapless Primo Carnera as he knocked Carnera down twelve times to gain the championship and before that fight, he stopped Max Scheming. Baer had one of boxing most feared right hand and defeating two former champions in a row, Baer appeared to be on his way to be the dominant fighter in the heavyweight division.
The weakness of the film is the portrayal of Baer. Howard is correct in showing Baer’s disdain for training but he was hardly the monster shown. For one, he only killed one man in the ring, not two.
Many fighters are affected when they kill a man in the ring. Sugar Ray Robinson commented that he was a different fighter after he killed a man in the ring. Baer often clowned in the ring and proved a prankster outside. He dated starlets and dismissed training, which cost him against Brad-dock. Was his disdain for training a result of his killing of Frankie Campell? But you can’t have a boxing movie without a villain and Baer became the villain.
Howard also showed the hold of boxing over America. Sports writers did not just report the news; they created legends and myths. Americans listened to sport events on radio and without actual watching the event; imagination took hold. With sport writers’ brilliant writing detailing his exploits, Braddock became larger than life. He was the Cinderella man and all of America fell in love with him. Today, boxing does not even get mention on most sports program. Showtime Nick Charles once quipped that ESPN doesn’t even do highlights of fights shown on Sports Center. In Braddock’s time, many Americans would sit around their radios and listen to the big fights. Boxing was as popular as baseball and more popular than professional football. Boxers were not just sports heros but they were larger than life figures.
After this fight, a new force would take hold of the heavyweight champion. From the end of the 20’s throughout much of the 30’s, the heavyweight division title shuffled between five different men before Joe Louis would begin his own domination. In a fight that showed Braddock courage, Louis gained the title as he punished the Bulldog of Bergen before knocking Braddock out. Louis would comment that Braddock was one of the most courageous fighters he fought. Braddock was a good fighter who had one great night. Before that fight, no one would ever place Braddock in the elites of heavyweight fighters. But for one night, he was the best and Howard puts its all on film.