This week’s Famous Catholic marks our first foray into the sporting world (not really my thing) with what is hands-down the most inspiring world heavyweight champion of all time: James J. Braddock; the Cinderella Man.
Catholic Credentials: Cradle Irish-Catholic; happily married for 44 years
Nerd Credentials: Heavyweight champion of the world from 1935-1936 (okay, kind of stretching the ‘nerd’ thing, but it's really cool nonetheless).
In the 1920s and 30s, boxing was king. Almost literally; the Heavyweight Champion of the World was one of the most famous men on Earth (to the point that when contender Louis Angel Firpo met Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States, it was the boxer who had to be told whom he had just shaken hands with). Jack Dempsey was pulling down almost a million dollars a fight, at a time when Lou Gherig, the best paid player in baseball, was making less than half that a season. Boxing was far and away the most popular sport of the time. Not only did it present a unique spectacle and drama, but it was one of the few sports that was open to everyone: Irish, Jewish, Polish, Black, Indian, Italian; anyone could box. As a matter of fact, boxing was one of the most viable ways for recent immigrants and minorities to acquire wealth and prominence at the time. Boxing was the most Catholic of all sports.
In 1929, one of the most promising up-and-coming contenders for the Heavyweight crown was a big, quiet Irishman named James “Jimmy” Braddock. A slow, powerful puncher with a deadly right hook (he had broken aspiring champ Pete Latzo’s jaw in four places with one blow), Braddock had been slowly working his way up through the heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions (he had a lot of trouble keeping weight on, which meant he vacillated between the two divisions). His frequent high-profile wins had earned him a comfortable fortune, which, at a friend’s suggestion, he partially invested in a taxi-cab company. Financially secure, poised to become the most famous and well-paid athlete in the world, and engaged to the woman of his heart, Jimmy Braddock had achieved the American Dream.
The child of Anglo-Irish immigrants (Irish who were born and raised in England), Jimmy was the youngest and biggest of seven children. Growing up in New Jersey, his favorite pastime was fighting; with his brothers, with his classmates, or just with anyone who was game. The sisters who ran his parochial school generally let the boys fight; they only intervened when it looked like one of them was actually going to get seriously hurt. Which, indeed, happened to one boy whom Jimmy fought; he ended up unconscious for half-an-hour while the sisters called an ambulance and eleven-year-old Jimmy was left wondering whether he had actually killed someone. Fortunately, the boy recovered and the sisters came to an agreement with Jimmy’s father that he had probably had enough formal education to be getting on with.
After leaving school, Jimmy went to work as a Western Union messenger. It was while working in this capacity that, one day, he happened upon a crowd of men hovering around a shop radio. They were listening to the famous Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard fight of 1919, in which Dempsey took the Heavyweight title. Jimmy was so enthralled by the fight that he completely forgot about the rest of his rounds.
This incident hooked him on boxing as a fan, but he didn’t consider it as a career until he got into a fight with his brother, Joe, over a sweater that Jimmy had borrowed. Joe, who was an up-and-coming professional boxer, fought his younger brother for over an hour until the police finally (reluctantly) broke up the fight. Jimmy had absorbed all the blows his older, trained brother could through at him, and no one could decide who actually won the fight.
Following a period of sulking in which the two brothers weren’t speaking to each other, Joe agreed to help Jimmy enter the boxing world. During his amateur stage, while Joe (whose own boxing career had faltered) served as his manager, Braddock was working out at the local gym when professional manager and former fighter Jim Gould spotted him. Thinking the skinny Irishman would be an easy mark for his own fighter, Harry Galfund, whom he had plans to sell and wanted to look good for some investors, Gould invited Braddock to fight Galfund. To Gould’s slight horror, Braddock destroyed Galfund right in front of his would-be investors. Gould managed the sale (though for considerably less than he had hoped for) and immediately approached Braddock to be his manager. Thus began a remarkable partnership: the small, ostentatious, chatty Jew and the big, modest, quiet Irishman were not only a powerful boxing team, but also became inseparable friends.
Together, they began to rise through the ranks. Braddock began his career with a string of victories, then hit a brief rough patch before surging back with brutal upsets against heavy favorites Pete Latzo and Tuffy Griffiths (Griffiths had won over fifty consecutive matches at that point, was a 7-1 favorite, and outweighed Braddock by a considerable margin. Braddock knocked him out in the second round). From there, Braddock proceeded all the way up to challenging the Light Heavyweight champion; Tommy Loughran on the eighteenth of July, 1929.
That’s when it all went wrong.
Loughran was a light, quick fighter. His nickname was “the Phantom of Philly,” due to his skill at dodging and footwork. Braddock was a glacial pounder: his footwork was nearly non-existent, and his whole style relied upon his huge right hand. Loughran made Braddock look like a complete amateur; he handily defeated the Irishman in a fifteen-round decision. Braddock, unable to land a punch, was reduced to goading the other fighter to bring him in range. Loughran, a consummate professional, was unimpressed and didn’t take the bait.
The fight with Loughran sapped Braddock’s confidence. From then on, he was only just able to hold onto his career. He lost the next two fights, won one, and then lost the next three in a row.
At almost the exact same time as Braddock’s career faltered, the United States was plunged into the depths of the Great Depression. Like Braddock, America had relied too heavily on an unreliable set of resources though in her case it was credit and the stock market rather than a right-hook. Unprepared, with money apparently evaporating everywhere, the country fell into poverty.
Braddock, who had recently married his sweetheart, Mae Fox, found his accumulated fortune, won in the punishing hours he spent in the ring, was vanishing before his eyes. His taxi-cab company, which, with his sinking boxing career he had intended to turn his whole attention to, was failing fast. The banks in which he had invested his winnings failed. The $20,000 he had saved up via his frugal, modest lifestyle simply disappeared.
To make matters worse, his right hand, his one weapon, was giving him problems. It kept getting hurt. During one fight, he broke it against his opponent’s face. Never one to complain, needing to save every penny he could, and fearing the loss of more fights, he kept quiet. Finally, Gould talked him into seeing a doctor, who informed him that the hand now needed to be re-broken and set properly; a procedure that would cost some $1400. Braddock, unable to gather that much money to save his life, suggested that he simply take another fight and try to break his hand then. The doctor, amazingly, agreed, and Braddock proceeded to purposefully break his own hand in his next fight, allowing the doctor to set it properly.
Nevertheless, the sore hand continued to bother him, and his career slipped further and further into obscurity. His record before the Loughran fight was 35 wins, 5 loses, 6 draws. By the time 1933 rolled around, it was 44-22-7. And things were only getting worse. He was humiliatingly disqualified from his first fight of 1933 for ‘not trying’ (he had broken his ribs in a car accident days before, and his right hand still hadn’t healed). His fights were getting rarer and rarer. He even began to think he was jinxed. Finally, he ended his dying career in a humiliating no-contest (his third. One was enough to end a career) with the newcomer Abe Feldman, during which he broke his right hand yet again. And this time, he wasn’t going to be able to fix it.
Braddock was done. He returned to his dressing room and cried. When he was done, he announced his retirement from boxing, but no one really noticed or cared. As far as the boxing world was concerned, Jimmy Braddock’s career ended the night he lost to Tommy Loughran.
The problem was that Braddock couldn’t do much but box. He never even attended high school, and his marketable skills were limited. Plus, with a quarter of the whole country out of work, no one was going to waste their time hiring a washed-up, uneducated, failed boxer.
But, with a growing family to provide for, Braddock didn’t have a lot of options. Every morning he walked 3 miles down to the docks of Weehawken and Hoboken to see if there was work to be had. If there was, he spent the day unloading railroad ties and didn’t leave until the foreman told him to. A double-shift meant double pay, and fatigue was for sissies. If, as often happened, there was no work, he walked another 2 miles to West New York to see if there was work on those docks. If there wasn’t, he’d go home, looking for odd jobs like shoveling snow on the way. In this way, he frequently walked 10-12 miles a day looking for a way to feed his wife and kids.
Meanwhile, his busted hand mended slowly, but he was forced to use his weak left to pick up the heavy bales and tiles. When even his time on the docks couldn’t keep the bills paid, and with the threat of having his milk, electricity, and water shut off, he went on Welfare. To Jimmy, Welfare was the final humiliation; the admission that he couldn’t care for his family on his own. He told only a very few close friends about it, and carefully kept a record of how much he took out. If and when prosperity found him again, he vowed, he would pay it all back.
Braddock knew he was finished as a boxer, but Gould didn’t. Despite Jimmy’s suggestion that he find himself a different fighter to back, Gould remained loyal to his friend. Even after all Braddock’s defeats, in midst of all his poverty, Gould continued to try to get him a fight. He would tell anyone who would listen about he time Braddock had broken Pete Latzo’s jaw, or taken down the storied Tuffy Griffiths. Every fight promoter in the city knew Gould’s speech, and most had fallen asleep to it at one point or another.
And one day, after nine months of unemployment, bread lines, welfare, and hungry kids, Gould finally had something. The Heavyweight Champion of the World, Primo Carnera, was about to defend his title against a charismatic westerner named Max Baer, and they needed someone to open for the title bout; a preliminary round to help get the crowd excited. For that, they knew exactly whom they wanted: a rough, ex-soldier named Corn Griffin who had been one of Carnera’s sparring partners and who had made the huge-yet-untalented Carnera look ridiculous in training. Griffin was a favorite as a Heavyweight contender, and his handlers wanted someone weak, unknown, and easily beaten for Griffin to show off on.
Of course, since they were being so upfront about it, the promoters were having a lot of trouble convincing any to actually sign up for it. None of the high profile fighters would touch it, and none of the up-and-comers wanted to sacrifice themselves to Griffin’s glory.
Only one fighter in New York was both desperate enough and brave enough to even try; Jimmy Braddock. Gould had been badgering the promoters every chance he got, and, when he heard they were looking for a fighter, he jumped at the opportunity. Reluctantly, they agreed.
Gould tracked Jimmy down, laboring on the docks, and clapped a hand on his shoulder saying “Well, champ, I’ve got a fight for you.”
Braddock only had two days to prepare. But at 29, after walking 10-12 miles a day and hours of lifting heavy bales and railroad tiles, he was in the best shape of his life. When he walked out into the ring against the formidable Griffin, Braddock, thinking about all the hell he had had to endure over the past few years, came in roaring. In three brutal rounds, he pummeled Griffin with both hands, moved more gracefully than he ever had, and thrashed the promising would-be-contender so badly that the ref stopped the fight.
No one could believe what they were seeing. Not only was Braddock supposed to be all washed up, but even in his heyday as a champion he had never fought like that. His left hand, previously an almost useless weapon, was now at least as powerful as his right. His footwork, which had been almost non-existent, was at least passable. Moreover, he brought with him the raw hunger of a man on the rise, a man fighting to put food on his family’s table. After nine months of grinding poverty, despair, and struggle, Braddock had reemerged as a completely new – and formidable – fighter.
Four months later, Gould secured another fight against John Henry Lewis, followed by another against Art Lasky. Both Lewis and Lasky were dangerous, prominent fighters. Braddock trounced both of them, breaking Lasky’s nose in the process.
After the Lewis fight, Braddock went to the welfare office for one last time. But this time, it wasn’t to ask for anything. Instead, he gave back every cent he ever received during those long months on welfare. And now was about to face the chance of the lifetime.
The night that Braddock fought Griffin, Primo Carnera lost his title to Max Baer. Baer was about as different from Braddock as was possible. Braddock was Irish, Baer was Jewish. Braddock came from the city, Baer gained his muscles working on his parents’ farm. Braddock grew up fighting, Baer never threw a punch in anger until he was seventeen (he and his friends had been swiping swill when the moonshiner caught them). Braddock was famously quiet and modest, Baer was famous joker and self-promoter. And while the Depression plunged Braddock into poverty, as far as Baer was concerned there might not have been a Depression at all.
Baer was a formidable opponent. His punches packed incredible power; they were literally deadly. He inadvertently killed an early opponent named Frankie Campbell when the referee failed to notice how viciously he was attacking. Despite this, Baer was a gentle soul outside the ring. The Campbell fight haunted him his whole life; he donated a number of his purses to Campbell’s wife and children, whom he had sat with in the hospital while Campbell lingered.
Now Braddock was about to challenge the “Livermore Butcher Boy” for the most lucrative prize in all of sports. In preparation, Braddock secluded himself in “Homicide Hall” as the press called it: a private gym in the Catskill Mountains where he, Gould, and his trainer worked rigorously to prepare for the bout. He pushed himself furiously; running ten miles a day, boxing with the toughest sparring partners Gould could throw at him, and keeping to a brutal diet. The result was that he packed on over ten pounds of pure punching power. Baer, meanwhile, dithered away much of his training time by goofing off and mugging for his fans. He didn’t consider Braddock to be much of an opponent, with his age and earlier troubles.
Baer expected Braddock, like most fighters, to be cautious at first. Instead Braddock, still thinking about his family and the poverty they had endured, came out swinging. He took everything the fearsome Baer could through at him (to Baer’s astonishment: no one had ever stood up to his punches like that before), and pummeled the Butcher Boy in fifteen punishing rounds. As with Griffin, Braddock was picked specifically to be an easy fight for Baer. He went in facing odds of 10-1. He walked out the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
His financial woes were over, and the public, who had seen themselves in the scrappy old fighter, adored him. He and Mae moved the kids out of their cold basement apartment into a new house in North Bergen, New Jersey where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Braddock was one of the most popular Heavyweight Champions in history, but he only kept the title for one year. A powerful young fighter from Detroit named Joe Louis, who like Braddock embodied the hopes and aspirations of a generation, first destroyed a disheartened Max Baer, then took on the reigning champ. Braddock took a savage beating, but refused to let Gould stop the fight until he was knocked out in the eighth round. Louis and Braddock remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives (Braddock was the only fighter whom Louis would call 'champ').
When WWII broke out, Braddock and Gould both enlisted, and both achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant. Braddock ended his service honorably, but Gould was court martialed for accepting bribes and was discharged before the war ended. When he got home, Braddock signed on with a contracting company operating heavy machinery, a job he loved and which, late in life, he used to help build the Verrazano Bridge. He died in 1974 at the age of 64.
Braddock remains a legend in the fighting world, not for his skill or power (he was only moderately talented at his best, and both Baer and Lewis packed more raw power than he did) but for the incredible story of his life, and the unfailing determination he showed both in and out of the ring. He serves as an example of how far a man can push himself to care for his family, and how God never abandons us, even in our darkest hours.