The media blitz for the Russell Crowe/Ron Howard film Cinderella Man is in full swing. But the detail and drama that are oftentimes difficult to capture in a movie are located in the pages of this book subtitled, "James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History." In the tradition of the bestseller SEABISCUIT, the drama builds until the climatic final chapter, which says, "Of the 30,000 people in the [Madison Square Garden] Bowl, virtually everyone except the Jews was cheering for Braddock. In 364 days, Baer had squandered all the good will and respect by winning the title."
Damon Ruynon called Braddock "Cinderella Man." Once a promising light heavyweight boxer, the quiet, burly Irishman faced a string of losses in the ring combined with a broken right hand that occurred with the Great Crash of 1929. With only one good hand and no trained skills other than boxing, Braddock was forced to work as a laborer on the docks of Hoboken to provide for his wife and children. Joe Gould, his diminutive yet loquacious Jewish manager, also fell down on his luck but still believed Braddock should have one more chance. In less than twelve months, one of boxing's oddest combinations staged one of the greatest comebacks in fighting history.
The book follows a dual storyline that merges in the final chapter with the fight between Braddock and Baer. One theme follows the life of Jim Braddock -- how he started in boxing and his hardworking beginnings. As Schaap writes about Braddock, "When people saw him at the gym, they were always impressed by the quality of the effort he put into his workouts and by the seriousness with which he approached his procession. Braddock could easily have grown cynical about boxing, which at times had treated him cruelly. Even when he believed that he wanted out of the fight game three years earlier, he could not have stayed away for long. Fighting was as essential to him as breathing. When the sport seemed unfair, he maintained an abiding respect for it, and he was determined to acquit himself honorably regardless of the bad decisions and chronic injuries he suffered."
The second theme carefully woven into the fiber is the story of Max Baer, nicknamed the Livermore Butcher Boy. Allegedly Baer killed two men in the ring and was a brash outspoken boxer who made headlines in the ring but also outside of the ring through his Hollywood film The Prizefighter and the Lady, along with his dating Hollywood stars. The newspapers wrote a great deal of material about Baer, and he wore his trademark boxer trunks that bore the Star of David symbol.
The contrasting lives of these two men are built on a backdrop of the Great Depression, which leads to a classic David and Goliath type of story with an almost fairy tale ending. I confess to knowing little about the history of boxing yet I was fascinated with the intersecting lives of these two men. Jeremy Schaap, the host of ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and an Emmy Award-winning reporter, does a masterful job of constructing a richly told story that is difficult to put down.