Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History

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9780739321720: Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History

Includes a one-hour interview from 1970 with boxing legend James Braddock!

Lost in the annals of boxing is the sport's true Cinderella story. James J. Braddock, dubbed "Cinderella Man" by Damon Runyon, was a once promising light heavyweight for whom a string of losses in the ring and a broken right hand happened to correspond with the Great Crash. With one good hand, Braddock was forced to labor on the docks of Hoboken. Only his manager, Joe Gould, still believed in him, finding fights for Braddock to help feed his wife and children. The diminutive, loquacious Jew and the burly, quiet Irishman made one of boxing's oddest couples, but together they staged the greatest comeback in boxing history. In less than twelve months Braddock went from the relief rolls to face heavyweight champion Max Baer, the Livermore Butcher Boy, renowned for having allegedly killed two men in the ring. A charismatic, natural talent and in every way Braddock’s foil, Baer was a towering opponent, a Jew from the West Coast who was famously brash and made great copy both in and out of the ring. A ten-to-one underdog, Braddock carried the hopes and dreams of the working class on his shoulders. And when boxing was the biggest sport in the world, when the heavyweight champion was the biggest star in the world, his unlikely upset made him the most popular champion boxing had ever seen.

Against the gritty backdrop of the Depression, Cinderella Man brings this dramatic all-American story to life, evoking a time when the sport of boxing resonated with a country trying desperately to get back on its feet. Rich in anecdote and color, steeped in history, and full of human interest, Cinderella Man is a classic David and Goliath tale that transcends the sport.

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About the Author:

An ESPN anchor and national correspondent, Jeremy Schaap is a host of ESPN's Outside the Lines as well as its acclaimed SportsCentury series. An Emmy Award®-winning reporter, he has been published in Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, Time, Parade, and the New York Times. Schaap is a native of New York City and the son of award-winning journalist Dick Schaap.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1 CORN AND HASH

Queens, New York: June 14, 1934

On the night of June 14, 1934, James J. Braddock walked into the Madison Square Garden Bowl, an enormous outdoor arena in Queens, New York. His pockets were empty. A week earlier he had turned twenty-nine. He was a father of three, a washed-up fighter, and a part-time longshoreman. As feared as his right hand had once been — he was among the most powerful punchers in the light heavyweight division in the late 1920s — he was equally adept at taking a punch. In eighty pro fights, only one opponent had ever knocked him out, and that was a technical knockout. He had never been counted out. Beyond the ring, his toughest opponent had clearly been the Depression — which nearly knocked him out. But here he was, getting back into the fight game after nine months of inactivity. By 1934, Braddock had outgrown the light heavyweight division’s 175-pound weight limit and was fighting as a heavyweight, at about 180 pounds. He was six feet, two inches tall, with a head of thick, curly black hair. Ruggedly handsome, he looked every bit as Irish as his name, and he wore a shamrock on his trunks and was sometimes known as Irish Jim Braddock. He didn’t talk much, but when he did the words were delivered from the side of his mouth in a thick, blue-collar Jersey accent. His smile was always described as crooked. His parents, Joseph and Elizabeth O’Toole Braddock, had been born in England and immigrated to the United States in 1889, but they were both much more Irish than English or American, though there is no evidence that either ever set foot on Irish soil. They were raised in impoverished Irish enclaves in and around Manchester, where the Braddocks and the O’Tooles clung to their Irishness — mostly because the English never let them forget where they came from.
Forty-five years after Joseph Braddock escaped from the poverty and prejudices of northern England and made his way to America, his son James was struggling to clothe and feed his burgeoning family. He owed money to his landlord, the milkman, the gas and electric company, and his manager, to name just a few of his creditors. In the bitter winter of 1933– 1934, he had trudged through the streets of North Bergen, New Jersey, in shoes that were falling apart. Most of the time he was hungry.
Braddock’s decline as a boxer exactly paralleled the nation’s descent into the Depression. After fighting for the light heavyweight championship in the summer of 1929, Braddock met defeat after defeat, first in big arenas, at the hands of top competitors, and then, gradually, at the hands of boxers only a couple of notches above club fighters — tomato cans and ham ’n’ eggers, the dregs of the heavyweight division. He had lost sixteen out of twenty-six fights since the day the market crashed in 1929. Finally, on September 25, 1933, he broke his right hand, his only real weapon, on the jaw of a twenty-year-old heavyweight named Abe Feldman. The hand had been broken twice before, and Braddock thought it was unlikely that it would ever heal properly. If he somehow managed to scrape up enough cash to find a doctor who knew how to set the fracture, it would still take months to mend. By that time, he knew, he would be older and even slower than he already was, which was quite slow. Braddock announced his retirement — but virtually no one noticed.
Braddock was often called plodding. “Slow of foot” doesn’t begin to describe the inadequacy of his speed and footwork. He could punch, he could take a punch, he could even box a little, but James J. Braddock couldn’t move. Nor could he inflict much damage with his left hand.
Incapable of fighting, he sought work on the docks of Hoboken and Weehawken. The man who just five years earlier had come within one punch of winning the world light heavyweight championship was reduced to hauling railroad ties off ships coming from the south and loading them onto flatbed railroad cars. Initially he wasn’t very good at it — not with a lame right hand. But Braddock was strong, and physical labor was something he never shied from. Not when he was training for a fight, and not when he was earning four dollars a day operating a baling hook.
Like tens of millions of Americans who had thrived in the 1920s, Braddock was wiped out by the economic collapse. Much of the money he had earned fighting at famous arenas like Boyle’s Thirty Acres and Madison Square Garden disappeared when the Bank of the United States, in which he had deposited thousands of dollars, failed. He was far from alone. The men standing beside him on the docks in the shapeups, hoping to get picked by the hiring foremen for work, were lawyers and bankers and stockbrokers as well aas laborers. The Depression took nearly everyone down a few pegs — or more. Unlike everyone else on the docks, however, Braddock was unknnnnnowingly building the strength he would need to get himself back in the ring.
Still, the work was irregular. There were days when he would walk the three miles from his apartment in Woodcliff down to the waterfront in Hoboken in vain. He would then turn north and walk another couple of miles to West New York, or farther, to Edgewater. Sometimes there would be work on the docks. Sometimes he would just turn around and head back home. It wasn’t uncommon for him to walk ten or twelve miles in a single day. When there was work to be had, he would keep working until the job was finished. A double shift meant double pay. Fatigue was for sissies.
People who knew Braddock well thought that the nickname that best described him was Plain Jim, coined by John Kieran of the New York Times. Unlike John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey, the most popular heavyweight champions of the early days of gloved boxing, Braddock was as far as it was possible to be from a showman. He liked to go to pubs and have a few beers with the friends he had made growing up in West New York. But it concerned him not at all whether his dinner companions found him amusing. Or whether the sportswriters enjoyed his quips. Or whether the fans got a glimpse of his personality. On those rare occasions when he did speak, his words made an impact.
Braddock was teetering on the verge of anonymity as winter turned into spring in 1934. The talents he had displayed in the late 1920s were fading rapidly from the collective memory of the boxing community. When aficionados discussed the men who might challenge Primo Carnera for the heavyweight championship, the name Jim Braddock never entered the conversation. But Braddock remembered. So did his manager, Joe Gould. Perhaps a few of the men he had punished with his big right hand did too. Everyone else, though, thought of James J. Braddock — when they thought of him at all — as a brokendown, washed-up, one-time contender who just didn’t quite have enough talent or power.
Even so, Gould continued to sell Braddock as a worthy opponent long after most promoters had decided he was through in the fight game. Gould spent hours pleading Braddock’s case, insisting that all the fights he had lost were merely the result of a bad right hand. He reminded everyone who would listen that Jim Braddock was still only twenty-eight years old and that he was, after all, the same young man who had broken the great Pete Latzo’s jaw in four places, knocked out the heralded Tuffy Griffiths, and made mincemeat of Jimmy Slattery. He didn’t mention that those events had taken place in the 1920s, half a decade earlier.
Meanwhile, Braddock’s right hand was slowly healing. As he sweated on the docks, stripped to the waist, his strength was returning. The inner voice that had told him he was finished after the Feldman fight went silent. Now another voice told him that maybe his luck was about to change (for years he had considered himself jinxed). But if someone had made odds on the likelihood that Braddock would eventually capture the heavyweight championship, those odds would have been a million to one, or higher. Dozens of heavyweights were fighting regularly in New York, and virtually all of them were rated higher than Braddock, who was neither a solid veteran nor a talented upand- comer. He was, like so many used-up fighters, damaged goods — literally. Unlike most, he had once had a shot at a title, but he had blown it and had never recovered from the disappointment. His time, it seemed, had passed.
Braddock, however, was not entirely worthless in the ring. His name still meant something to boxing enthusiasts. The boxing commission had twice refused to license him, fearing for his safety, but if it licensed him for this fight he could serve a purpose in the sport, as a human steppingstone for young fighters climbing the ranks — for a fighter like John “Corn” Griffin.

Unlike Jim Braddock, Corn Griffin spent the early years of the Depression gainfully employed, as an enlisted man in the United States Army. A big, bruising Georgian, he fought in the service and eventually caught the eye of a veteran manager named Charles Harvey. By 1934, Griffin was a civilian and Harvey was trying to position him in the heavyweight division. “Griffin,” someone once wrote, “had the face of a loser, with a dented nose and scar tissue around his eyes.” But he could punch.
In the spring of 1934, Griffin arrived in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, to join the training camp of Primo Carnera as a sparring partner. Carnera, at six foot seven the tallest heavyweight champion ever, and at 270 pounds the heaviest ever — at least until George Foreman regained the title in 1994 — was an atrocious boxer and a relatively weak puncher. But in an era when many of the top heavyweights weighed no more than 190 pounds, Carnera’s sheer size made him an attraction.
Born on October 26, 1906, in Sequals, Italy, near Venice, Carnera had won the championship in 1933 from Jack Sharkey under a cloud of justifiable suspicion. It was widely assumed that Carnera, who was controlled by the mobster Owney Madden, was the beneficiary of a fix. In later years, after the mob cruelly abandoned him, he became a pro wrestler, something he was much better at than fighting. Carnera was also the sad inspiration for the mob-controlled heavyweight in Budd Schulberg’s classic boxing tale, The Harder They Fall.
When he is remembered at all, Carnera is remembered simply for his physique, which Paul Gallico described in Farewell to Sport: Carnera was the only giant I have ever seen who was well proportioned throughout his body for his height. His legs were massive and he was truly thewed like an oak. His waist was comparatively small and clean, but from it rose a torso like a Spanish hogshead from which sprouted two tremendous arms, the biceps of which stood out like grapefruit. His hands were like Virginia hams, and his fingers were 10 red sausages. His head was large, and he had a good nose and fine, kind eyes. His skin was brown and glistening and he invariably smelled of garlic.
History does not record what Gallico smelled like.
As far as Carnera’s appetite was concerned, his publicity man wrote, “For breakfast, Primo has a quart of orange juice, two quarts of milk, nineteen pieces of toast, fourteen eggs, a loaf of bread, and half a pound of Virginia ham.” Publicity men of the time were prone to hyperbole, but Carnera’s flack might just have been telling the truth.
Carnera’s handlers agreed to have him defend his title for the third time in seven months on June 14 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl. In preparation for the bout, Carnera trained at Pompton Lakes and sparred frequently with Corn Griffin. Because Griffin could actually fight a little, he often made Carnera look foolish — so foolish, in fact, that the writers who camped out at Pompton Lakes began singing Griffin’s fistic praises, as those writers would have put it.
On June 3, Carnera sparred two rounds against Chester Matan, two rounds against Yuster Sirutis, and one round against Corn Griffin. “Carnera encountered his stiffest opposition in the round with Griffin,” Joseph C. Nichols reported in the New York Times. “The latter, a former United States Army boxer, weighed little more than 185 pounds, but tore into the champion as if he were his own size.” “As a sparring partner, he is no mere catcher,” Frank Graham wrote in the New York Sun. “He is a pitcher — and he pitches with both hands. He drives straight into Primo and his fists thud against the champion’s jaw and into his stomach. Carnera fights back hard, but he cannot keep Corn away. The soldier piles him up in a corner, belts him savagely with both hands, and then drives him out.” Jimmy Johnston, the matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, which was promoting the Carnera-Baer fight, was paying close attention to the beatings Griffin was dishing out. He signed Griffin to fight on the undercard, in one of the preliminary bouts that both build up a crowd’s bloodlust and provide value in the event that the main attraction is uninspiring.
“Two years from now,” said Charles Harvey, Griffin’s walrusmustached manager, “Griffin will be the heavyweight champion. When I sent him up here to work with Carnera, I told him to be careful and not get hurt. Now all I am afraid of is that he will hurt Carnera.” Harvey wanted to get Griffin “started in New York with a flourish,” Joe Williams of the World-Telegram said. “The best way to accomplish this was to get some washed-up name fighter and kick his brains out.” But as fight night approached, Johnston was having trouble securing an opponent for Griffin. The reports of his dominance in Pompton Lakes, whether or not they were exaggerated, scared off several would-be opponents and their managers. No one wanted to be the lamb offered up to Griffin for slaughter.
Except Jim Braddock.

On June 12, Joe Gould was waiting in his customary spot outside Jimmy Johnston’s office. Nearly as broke as Braddock, Gould managed to keep up appearances, smoking, dining, and dressing well, although he could not afford to continue to indulge in his favorite pastime, golf. The secretaries at Madison Square Garden — which at the time was situated on Eighth Avenue between 49th Street and 50th Street, two miles north and west of its original location on Madison Square — liked Gould despite themselves. They took messages for him and signed for his packages. Like everyone else, though, they were growing weary of his favorite topic of conversation: James J. Braddock. Everyone knew that Braddock was washed up, but Gould persisted, badgering Johnston, relentlessly seeking fights that would put a little cash in Braddock’s pockets — and his own.
Surrounded by a cluster of publicists, writers, managers, and trainers, Johnston loudly lamented the lack of a suitable opponent for Griffin. He wanted someone good enough to pique the fans’ interest but not good enough to win — though that’s not exactly how he put it.
Gould had slid into the crowd in Johnston’s office. “Why not give Jimmy a chance?” he said, predictably.
“Don’t mention Braddock again,” Johnston said, as everyone laughed at the joke that had already grown old. “I’m sick of hearing his name.” “Just give him a shot,” Gould said. If he wasn’t begging, he wasn’t doing his job.
“Joe, Corn will kill him,” Johnston said. “Ask any one of these guys. They’ve seen Corn in there with Carnera. I don’t want Jimmy’s blood on my hands.” “Listen,” Gould said, his eyes zeroing in on Johnston, “no one’s ever hurt Jimmy, you know that. He’s cute that way. Nobody hits him solid. And he’s stronger now than he’s ever been.” “Okay,” Johnston said, relenting. “You’ve got me, you wore me down. But don’t blame me if Griffin kills that old Irishman. And the purse is two hundred and fifty bucks. Don’t even think about asking for more.” “It’s a deal,” Gould said. ...

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Jeremy Schaap
Editorial: Random House Audio (2005)
ISBN 10: 0739321722 ISBN 13: 9780739321720
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