On June 13, 1935, James Braddock, just a year after coming out of retirement, won a unanimous decision against heavyweight champion Max Baer in one of boxing’s greatest upsets.
Braddock’s Inspiring Comeback
Boxer James Braddock rose to prominence in the late 1920s and earned a bout for the light heavyweight title against champion Tommy Loughran on July 18, 1929. He lost a narrow decision in the fight at Yankee Stadium, and two months later lost most of his savings when the stock market crashed.
Braddock’s career nosedived, as he lost 16 of his next 26 fights and suffered multiple fractures in his feared right hand. In desperate need of money to feed his family, he retired from boxing in 1933 and took a job as a longshoreman in New Jersey.
Joe Gould, Braddock’s manager, tirelessly continued to promote Braddock, blaming his losses on his broken hand. Braddock’s luck changed when he offered a bout against John “Corn” Griffin on the undercard of a title fight between Primo Carnera and Max Baer on June 14, 1934, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Queens.
Braddock was expected to serve as a little more than a punching dummy for the up-and-coming Griffin; fight promoter Jimmy Johnston remarked to Gould, “Don’t blame me if Griffin kills that old Irishman.” But after a rough first round, Braddock stunned Griffin with a third-round knockout.
After back-to-back upsets of John Henry Lewis and Art Lasky, which earned him the nickname “Cinderella Man,” Braddock found himself back at the Madison Square Garden Bowl 364 days after beating Griffin, this time fighting for the heavyweight championship against Baer. Despite his momentum, the aging Braddock was a heavy underdog, with odds ranging from 8-1 to over 10-1.
The powerful Baer, who earlier in his career had killed an opponent, worried that he might do the same to Braddock. “I'm scared stiff I'll kill Braddock,” he told reporters. “I dreamed last night I hurt the boy. I woke up in a cold sweat.”
Baer didn’t take his challenger seriously in the opening rounds, “smirking at Braddock as if he were some huge private joke,” described Time. Though the hard-working Braddock could do little damage to Baer, he won round after round on the scorecard until Baer became more focused; by that time, however, the champion needed a knockout to win the fight.
“As an exhibition of good boxing, the match lacked intrinsic excitement,” wrote Time. “But the crowd was on its toes right up to the final bell on the chance that Baer might somehow suddenly land the dread blow which would cut down the striving underdog.”
Braddock, who was renowned for his strong chin, avoided any damaging blows. “With five seconds left in the fight, Braddock landed two rights to Baer’s head,” writes Jeremy Schaap, author of “Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History.” “Then the bell sounded. Gould jumped into the ring, grabbed both of Braddock’s legs and lifted him into the air. Braddock looked down and quietly said, ‘We did it. We did it.’”
Braddock was declared winner by unanimous decision, becoming heavyweight champion of the world.
Biography: James J. Braddock
Sources in this Story
- Sports Illustrated: Cinderella Man
- Time: Sport: New Champion
- The Boxing Magazine.com: James J. Braddock— He Made the Impossible, Possible
James J. Braddock was born and raised in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York by Irish immigrant parents. His upbringing made him a fan favorite around the city, where many of his most famous bouts were held.
After defeating Baer, he fought a series of exhibition fights over the next two years before putting his title on the line against 23-year-old Joe Louis. Braddock was over-matched by Louis, losing by an eighth round knockout. Despite the loss, Braddock received a massive 10 percent of the fight’s gross, ensuring that he would no longer have to worry about his finances.
He retired after his next fight, a victory over Tommy Farr, and went on to serve in the Army during World War II.
“Cinderella Man” Film
Braddock’s unlikely comeback is portrayed in director Ron Howard’s 2005 film “Cinderella Man.” Russell Crowe stars as Braddock, and Paul Giamatti plays devoted trainer Joe Gould.