My favorite boxing movie of all time is Ali (2001) because Muhammad Ali is my favorite fighter of all time. My appreciation of him comes from my dad. He grew up at a time when prize fighting was still a close second in the American imagination to baseball. It was also an era of change. The 1960s were a period when the civil rights movement moved into its militant phase, and Ali challenged the system with his mouth and his fists. If you know anything about me personally, and boxing generally, you might find this choice surprising. That is because there was a devoted Catholic and boxer named James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), and the movie about his life is Cinderella Man (2005). I knew nothing about him before this film, and it has not made me change my affiliations. Further, when it came out, I was just beginning to come back to my Faith. Watching it again after years of spiritual ups and downs gave me a different perspective, though Ali is still at the top of my list.
A movie with a name like Cinderella Man would suggest that it is a “rags to riches” story. This is more of a riches to rags and back to riches scenario. It is the late 1920s and Braddock has a boxing career as a light heavyweight. He is moving up the ranks, he has a manager named Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), wife Mae (Renée Zellweger), a modest but nice house, and a family. Things are going well except for two key developments: the onset of the Great Depression and the fact that he breaks his hand during a bout. With the Braddock’s fortunes declining already because of the economic calamity facing the nation, their main source of income is taken away due to the injury, making matters worse. To make ends meet, he turns to laboring as a longshoreman. This, too, turns out to be a problem owing to the state of his hand and the fact that he does not get picked every day to work. Rules about such things were different at that time. His family had already been forced to give up their house and move into a rickety basement apartment in a larger building with, at best, the most rudimentary of amenities, when they can afford them. Often, he and his wife go hungry in order for their children to eat. One of the more moving moments in this sequence is when Braddock goes to the boxing club where Joe and other managers congregate, appealing to them for charity so that his family can survive. Joe is particularly moved by this, and not long thereafter he comes to Braddock with a proposition. The number two heavyweight world contender John Charles “Corn” Griffin (Art Binkowski) has had his opponent unexpectedly withdraw. Joe then taps Braddock to take the contender’s place. Win, lose, or draw, it means more money than Braddock has seen in a while, and he readily agrees. This is not to Mae’s liking, though, until she sees how hard up for finances are Joe and his wife. She warily consents to Braddock returning to the ring. Unexpectedly, Braddock defeats Corn Griffin. In the victory, Braddock and Joe see a new development in his boxing that could mean a more sustained return. To do so, Braddock will have to get back to training, which means less time trying to find work on the docks. It also comes with Mae’s grudging approval. It pays off, as Braddock continues to win, and their fortunes are seemingly reversed. With a new source of income, there is another touching scene when he goes to the government aid office and repays the money the government had given him during the more difficult times. Doing so gets leaked to the press, and they give him the eponymous name. With everything apparently going well, the only remaining person to contend with is the current heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Before Braddock can agree to get in the ring, fight promoter James Johnston (Bruce McGill) has Braddock sit down and watch footage of Baer’s fights. Baer is a bear in the ring. The particular clip that Braddock watches is of a fight where Baer kills his opponent. Braddock does not flinch, but Mae’s concern is piqued. This is driven home when the fighters meet at a dinner on the town, and Baer all but guarantees that Braddock will die in their match. As such, Mae wants nothing to do with the fight, and attempts to force their children to not listen to the radio broadcast. As this is Hollywood (though it did happen this way), I am sure you can guess the ending. With much of New York listening to a boxer that they feel is one of them, Braddock defeats Baer in a unanimous decision. This serves as the ending, though an epilogue explains that he ended up losing his only title defense to Joe Louis, served in World War II, and later owned a company supplying machinery to the docks on which he labored during the Depression.
In the introduction to this review of Cinderella Man, I mentioned how he was a practicing Catholic. Throughout, the Church has a prominent role in his life, and one can point to the size of his family as being stereotypically Catholic. That means large if you are not up on such things. At other moments, there is the suggestion that it is his parish priest was the one that first taught Braddock to fight. This is not a new theme in films featuring a priest in any role, and I have a suspicion that there is another stereotypical link between the Irish and boxing that comes from Braddock’s career. These are all surface observations. Where Braddock displays his Christian attitude the best is in his feelings towards his friend and fellow longshoreman Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine). Mike helps Braddock early on the docks by shielding Braddock’s his injury from the foreman. This is the basis of their friendship. Unfortunately, Mike’s fortunes take a turn, particularly as he has a penchant for gambling. He also turns to drink, and there is an awful scene where he confronts his wife during a parish picnic. It is Braddock’s turn to help, picking him up and telling him to straighten out his life. Being good to each other is not the sole purview of Christians or Catholics. Still, I find that those who are brought up in this culture and earnestly follow Christ’s examples are more willing to step into other people’s messes. This is what Christ does for us whenever we ask.
Okay, Cinderella Man is another historically based movie, so I apologize again for giving you a further example of this genre. This one is pretty good, too, in terms of its accuracy, although Baer was not nearly the monster that he is portrayed to be. Braddock seems to have been a good guy, as well. In the end, though, I will always prefer Ali’s style. Braddock’s film has the hope, and that is always good to see.