Russell Crowe will star as NB native Movie under way about boxer James Braddock; grandson runs Web site
by Jim Hague
Jul 16, 2004 | 5110 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
He is without question the most famous person to ever come out of North Bergen. His life and story captivated everyone in the 1930s when he came from relative obscurity to become the premier performer in his field. And a Hudson County park was named in his honor.

His name is James J. Braddock, and his life will soon be featured in a multimillion dollar biopic that will have an Oscar-winning flavor, from director Ron Howard down to actors Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger.

"The Cinderella Man," based on the incredible life story of North Bergen's Braddock, who rose from a humble background in Hudson County to eventually become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1935, is currently being filmed in Canada, with Crowe portraying North Bergen's favorite son.

The idea that the movie is being made pleases someone with a very familiar name - namely James J. Braddock III, the champ's grandson.

The young Braddock is doing his best to keep the memory of his famous grandfather alive with an all-encompassing website,

"The family is all pretty ecstatic," said the 32-year-old Braddock, who is a professional musician and songwriter. "We've been hearing for years and years that a movie was going to be made about my grandfather. We kept hearing, 'It's this year, it's this year,' but it never happened. We're so excited that it's finally coming through."

Young Braddock, who resides in Saddle Brook, is in charge of his grandfather's estate. The champion Braddock died in his sleep in 1974, and James J. Braddock II passed away three years ago.

"Because he died when I was real young, I had no idea about who my grandfather really was," the younger Braddock said. "I just remember him as my grandfather. When I turned about 8 or so, I realized just who he was and I became more interested. I was able to watch films of him boxing. I'd listen to stories my father would tell. Once I knew, I was quite the loudmouth in school, telling everyone about my grandfather. I was very proud of it."

One of five brothers

Braddock III said that he grew up with stories of how the champion would invite legendary people like Joe Louis into their North Bergen home.

"My grandfather also owned a restaurant in New York City," Braddock said. "All sorts of famous people came in there. It was always a thrill for my father and his family to hear those stories."

Born in New York in 1906, James J. Braddock moved with his family of five brothers and two sisters to West New York when he was a toddler. As a youngster, Braddock loved to play baseball and marbles, with hopes of becoming either a fireman or a train engineer.

He went to St. Joseph of the Palisades grammar school, where his propensity to fight began.

He never graduated from St. Joseph. Instead, he went to work to help his family. From 1919 through 1923, he had an array of jobs, working as a messenger for Western Union, a printer's assistant, a Teamster and an errand boy in a silk mill.

Braddock was introduced to the world of boxing as a teenager and soon found out that he had a devastating right hand. After a three-year career as an amateur, Braddock turned professional in 1926, beginning a career that would span 12 years and more than 100 bouts.

His first chance for a title came in 1929, when he fought light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, but he suffered a heart-breaking, 15-round decision. The stock market crash of 1929 put Braddock in dire straits, finding it hard to find fights.

Even when he did fight, he wasn't successful, losing six out of seven bouts that year. The Braddock family went through the Great Depression, just like everyone else in America.

After spending five years as a club fighter, sometimes receiving as little as $5 per fight, Braddock's luck began to change for the better in 1934. He had upset wins over John "Corn" Griffin and John Henry Lewis, improving his career record to a less-than-stellar 49-21.

Fights in MSG

After defeating Art Lasky on March 22, 1935, in Madison Square Garden in a brutal 15-round decision, promoters were ready to give "The Cinderella Man" his shot at the grand prize, the heavyweight championship of the world against reigning champion Max Baer.

On June 13, 1935, in Long Island City, N.Y., Braddock entered the ring as a prohibitive underdog to Baer, with some pundits actually calling Braddock a 10-1 underdog.

But Braddock shocked the boxing world by defeating Baer in a 15-round decision, giving the heavyweight crown to the man dubbed "Cinderella Man" by legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon.

Writers at the time called Braddock's win "the greatest fistic upset since the defeat of John L. Sullivan by Jim Corbett." No heavyweight fighter since has claimed the crown with as many defeats as Braddock.

Braddock held the title for two years before losing it to the famed "Brown Bomber" Joe Louis in an eighth-round knockout in Chicago on June 22, 1937. Braddock only fought once more, defeating Tommy Farr in Madison Square Garden before retiring.

Stayed in NB

Braddock remained a resident of North Bergen with his wife and three children right until his death in 1974. James J. Braddock III developed the website four years ago, after he started to collect memorabilia and artifacts that pertained to his grandfather.

"I started doing research because I was so fascinated by my grandfather's life," Braddock said. "Once I got computer savvy, I started to find things on eBay and started purchasing those."

Braddock said that his father kept a lot of items from the champ's heyday, including the heavyweight championship belt, several pairs of boxing gloves and trunks that he used in the ring, and hundreds of photographs, with his grandfather posing with celebrities galore.

But once the younger Braddock got involved with his artifact collection, he couldn't stop.

"Let's just say that I invested some money," James J. Braddock III said. "There were press photos and books and old Ring magazines. I also bought a lot of stuff that my grandfather autographed. My family also collected every newspaper that pertained to my grandfather, great articles from the 1930s."

Braddock said that his late father and his Uncle Howard, who still resides in Forked River, were approached by California screenwriter Cliff Hollandsworth about nine years ago with the idea of bringing the champ's life to the big screen. The champ Braddock's third child, daughter Rosemarie, also is deceased.

"There had been a bunch of books written about my grandfather over the years, but there wasn't anyone who was interested in making a movie," Braddock said. "Cliff spent a lot of time with my dad and my Uncle Howard in writing the screenplay."

One of the most respected books about the life of Braddock was written by the late Lud Shahbazian, who was the sports editor of the now-defunct Hudson Dispatch for more than 60 years. Shahbazian's book, "Relief to Royalty," is considered the most in-depth and closest of the Braddock biographies, and was used by Hollandsworth to write the screenplay.

How to make a movie

However, even after Hollandsworth put together the screenplay, there was limited interest in making the movie.

"The rights were sold to Miramax Pictures a few years ago," Braddock said. "The project went through a ton of directors and studios. It could never be determined who would make the movie."

Until Ron Howard stepped forward to take over the project and cast Crowe to portray "The Cinderella Man." The two had teamed to make "A Beautiful Mind," which won Howard an Academy Award for Best Director. The movie was named Best Picture. Nominated for Best Actor for "A Beautiful Mind," Crowe had received his Oscar for his work in "Gladiator."

When Zellweger, who won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in "Cold Mountain" last year, was brought in to play Braddock's wife, the award-winning team was assembled.

"That's quite a team they have there," said the younger Braddock.

The movie is currently being shot in Toronto, and the Braddock family does not own any rights. So regardless how well the movie does in the box office, James J. Braddock III won't earn royalties.

"My family has received compensation for being consultants in the movie," Braddock said. "But that's it."

Will get to see filming

The younger Braddock said that he will travel to Canada later this month to watch the filming of the movie, which is expected to be released around March, 2005.

"It's going to be a big thrill for me," Braddock said. "I can't wait to meet everyone. Ron Howard and Russell Crowe met a few of my family members, and they were great with them, asking questions about my grandfather. They were ecstatic to meet the members of my family."

Howard was so enthralled with the Braddock family that he has cast Braddock's cousin, Rosemarie DeWitt, the daughter of the champ's sister, in the movie as a neighbor.

There are seven grandchildren of the former champ, including James J. Braddock III's sister, Cathleen Braddock Antonucci. Braddock III's mother, Jane, is also alive.

"It's quite crazy that all these years later, some 69 years or so, people are interested in my grandfather once again," Braddock said. "Hopefully, he'll become a household name. I'm thrilled that this generation is going to get the chance to know more about him because of this movie."

Braddock added, "I really feel after going through all of my grandfather's stuff and doing the research for the website, that I've gotten to know him pretty well. Through all these stories and such, we've gotten pretty close."
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