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'Cinderella Man' has a sport in its corner


A noble Depression-era boxer, James J. Braddock went from being washed up, exiled from the sport and struggling to feed his wife and three children to winning the world heavyweight title and the hearts of a struggling nation - all in the span of 12 months.

It is a compelling story not only about a boxer, but about a country in one of its darkest hours.

But is it so compelling that, 70 years after Braddock's remarkable upset of Max Baer for the heavyweight championship, it's inspired both a book and a movie?

Director Ron Howard and author Jeremy Schaap believed so, and although they worked independently during their projects - both called Cinderella Man - the timing of the recent release of the book and the opening of the movie last night is no coincidence.

Schaap, an ESPN reporter, said in an interview this week that he was seeking a book project last year when his literary agent, Scott Waxman, told him about the upcoming movie about Braddock and suggested he might capitalize on it.

"In the wake of Seabiscuit [a story about a Depression-era horse's comeback], I was looking for an inspirational story that had been perhaps forgotten over the years," Schaap said. "I figured that with the movie, a book about Braddock would generate a lot of interest."

Cliff Hollingsworth, a Hollywood screenwriter, recognized the potential in Braddock's story more than a decade ago. After spending time with the boxer's descendants in upstate New York, he wrote a screenplay and sold it.

At one point, the film was supposed to star Ben Affleck as Braddock. Penny Marshall was originally set to direct, then Billy Bob Thornton.

The project eventually ended up in the hands of actor Russell Crowe, who brought it to Howard's attention.

Howard was enthralled.

"Braddock's story is a timely reminder about a great man who wasn't driven by ego and pride to be a champion," Howard said in a conference call with reporters this week.

"But, instead, by the desire to take the very best care of his family that he possibly could at a moment in history when that, in and of itself, seemed like a next to impossible task for a guy like Braddock."

Crowe wasn't the first person to point out Braddock's story to Howard, who, at the time, was working with the actor on the Oscar-winning, A Beautiful Mind.

Howard's father, Rance, had told his son about being an 8-year-old who had listened on the radio to Braddock's crowning achievement - the 15-round victory over Baer on June 13, 1935.

"I was extremely flattered [at Crowe's request] and a little daunted because there had been a lot of great boxing films before, and I, as a director, knew it was going to be my responsibility," said Howard, the third man to take a shot at directing the film.

"I hope it stimulates excitement [in the sport of boxing]," he said. "My real hope is that people will go see our film and discover something within themselves; that they will connect with Braddock, his family and their survival story."

The book and movie have hit the American scene at a time when boxing's flagship heavyweight division is continuing its struggles to find a star with whom the public can relate - even as the sport has gained cross-over visibility from the success of the Academy Award-winning film, Million Dollar Baby, documentaries on Jack Johnson and Emile Griffith, and a reality boxing television series, The Contender.

It's possible that, by now, long after his death in 1974, Braddock already is more of a household name than modern heavyweight champions Vitali Klitschko, Chris Byrd, John Ruiz and Lamon Brewster.

"The heavyweight division declares the state of boxing, and right now, we haven't got a legitimate heavyweight," said Angelo Dundee, a former trainer for Muhammad Ali who appears in Cinderella Man. "I guarantee you, boxing needs this movie right now."

"At this point," said Schaap, 35, son of the late, award-winning journalist Dick Schaap, "I believe that with people being interested in boxing, this is a good time for [Cinderella Man] - an inspirational story that's been forgotten over the years."

"Boxing's place in American culture is always changing, but it's more visible than it has been in a long time."

Schaap will be in this area next week reporting on the June 11, non-title heavyweight bout between former champion Mike Tyson and Kevin McBride.

The fight, scheduled for the MCI Center in Washington, will take place nearly 70 years to the day after Braddock's greatest moment. Like Braddock, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound McBride is a tall Irishman who is considered to be in way over his head.

But Schaap won't be holding his breath waiting for McBride to become the next Cinderella Man. Unlike Braddock, who suffered his lone knockout when he lost the crown to Joe Louis in 1937, McBride has been stopped four times: once by a 211-pounder (DaVarryl Williamson), once by a fighter (Louis Monaco) whose record is 14-29 (seven KOs) and once by an opponent (Michael Murray) with a mark of 16-26 (nine KOs).

"Let's put it this way," Schaap said. "If Kevin McBride were to somehow find a way to defeat Mike Tyson, it would be the greatest win for an Irish heavyweight since Braddock beat Baer," Schaap said.

"Kevin's a very big man, but he's also very slow and he's got a very big, long chin that Mike shouldn't have trouble hitting."

In other words, it might be less of waste of a boxing fan's time that night to curl up with a good book or go to a movie about the real Cinderella Man.

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