What makes a great man great? Is it his wealth, power, fame, achievements or the high-profile individuals he surrounds himself with?
A man isn’t defined by his glamorous achievements. Instead, it is his devotion to his family that truly makes a man great. James Walter Braddock was one such man who understood the unequivocal importance of family.
You might recognize Braddock’s name if you’ve ever seen the 2005 Hollywood film, “Cinderella Man,” starring Russell Crowe. Crowe played the role of James J. Braddock (the name Braddock fought under), a New Jersey boxer most prominently known as “Jimmy” or Jim Braddock.
The film is based on the true story of how Braddock became a boxing legend after making a comeback late in his career, and for his famous upset against Max Baer to become the world’s new heavyweight champion.
But anyone who has seen the movie or further researched Braddock’s life knows that the real story isn’t just about what he did with his fists. It’s why he did it and the motivation behind Braddock’s miraculous feats in the ring that makes his story so inspiring.
Jim Braddock was a successful amateur boxer before entering the professional boxing circuit in 1926. In 1929, he got a shot at the light heavyweight title in a bout against Tommy Loughran. Braddock lost the fight by decision after 15 rounds. He would lose everything else two months later on September 3, 1929 when the stock market crashed, plunging America into the Great Depression.
With no work available, Braddock struggled to provide for his wife Mae, and their three young children, James (called Jay), Rose Marie and Howard. He continued fighting but lost 16 out off his next 22 fights. To make things even worse, Braddock was fighting injured during this period of time after he shattered his right hand in a fight.
Life continued trying to knock Jimmy down. In addition to lingering injuries to his hand, Braddock’s boxing license was revoked due to his declining career. He was essentially forced to hang up his gloves and retire from boxing as the world around him seemed to be caving in.
But Jimmy wasn’t a quitter and he never gave up the fight for his family. He swallowed his pride and filed for government assistance. He was also able to occasionally get some work on the docks as a longshoreman.
Braddock’s ever persistent will to keep trying is described in the following excerpt from an article published by “The Art of Manliness”:
“Daily he would walk the three miles to the docks of Weehawken and Hoboken to see if work could be found. If there was, he would spend the day unloading railroad ties. If there wasn’t, he would walk another 2 miles to West New York. If there wasn’t any work to be found there either, he’d walk home to try to find some odd jobs like shoveling snow. It wasn’t unusual for him to walk 10-12 miles a day in search of a way to put food on his family’s table.”
Then, in 1934, the seemingly washed-up boxer was given a chance to fight again after a last-minute cancellation. Braddock shocked everyone by winning the fight against John “Corn” Griffin-an event no one could have predicted. He was then given another opportunity to fight and stunned both fans and critics once again by winning his next two fights against top heavyweight contenders.
During his time away from boxing, Braddock had stayed in shape from all the manual labor he did in order to put food on the table for his family. His injured right hand had forced him to use his left while he worked. His right hand was finally able to heal as he unknowingly strengthened his left, making it a powerful weapon in the boxing ring.
After beating Griffin and winning his following two fights, Braddock became the top contender to face Max Baer for the world heavyweight title. Baer had a powerful right hand and is considered by many boxing experts to be one of the hardest single punchers in all of boxing. He had even killed one of his opponents in the ring.
On June 13, 1935 Braddock fought and defeated Baer at the Madison Square Garden Bowl to become the new heavyweight champion of the world. Jim was a 10-to-1 underdog and his victory over Baer is considered to be one of the greatest boxing upsets of all time.
In an interview with NPR News, Ron Howard, director of “Cinderella Man,” shared some further insights into Jimmy’s amazing character. He spoke about letters Braddock’s granddaughter had given him to read in which Howard said he gained “a real sense of the disappointment that Braddock felt at not being able to take care of his family.”
Howard also talked about the significance of a line included in the film that was quoted by the real James Braddock. This dialogue came when Jim was asked about his unlikely winning streak: “Why do you think you’re winning again, Jim? It seems to kind of come out of nowhere.”
Jim responded saying, “I know what I’m fighting for now,” to which he was then asked, “What’s that?” “Milk,” replied Braddock. Howard went on to say how the Cinderella Man expounded on this by expressing how he was tired of always seeing the empty milk bottles on the stoop.
This was a genuine answer from a family man whose aspirations went well beyond winning any kind of title.
Though he wasn’t required to and as is seen in the movie, the real-life Braddock paid back the full amount of relief money he’d received from the government. He also really did buy his kids a turtle. This funny story occured while Jimmy was leaving the house to go and fight Baer and his kids asked him where he was going. He told them, “To get the title,” though they thought he had said, “To get a turtle.” So, he kept his word and paid up after defeating Baer.
James J. Braddock truly was an incredible man. But more than that he was an incredible husband, and a father who always put his family first. This is the accomplishment above all else that will always make a great man great.