Films My Father Loves: Rags to Riches, Peasant to ‘Cinderella Man’

Nov. 6, 2022, 8:23 p.m.

God, I love a boxing movie. A horror movie might make you squirm in your seat and a thriller could have you leaning forward in anticipation. But a boxing movie, that’s going to have you swinging your arms, jutting your head and whispering under your breath. A boxing movie is going to have you feeling as if you’re the one on the screen, going through the training montage. You’re the one punching underwater and hitting the bag, running those miles and taking those punches. It’s not the Marvel film or the Bond movie that’s the purest form of unadulterated fantasy, it’s the boxing movie. Those characters are impossible, reserved for fiction. But the boxer is a real superhero, the peak of what a human can be. Millions imagine themselves as ripped as Michael B. Jordan, as determined as Hillary Swank or as fierce as Jake Gyllenhaal. Hell, I’d put that robot boxing movie Hugh Jackman did a couple of years ago in the same category.

In 2005, Ron Howard directed a biopic on James J. Braddock — the once World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. “Cinderella Man” is not a boxing movie. You’ve got the rousing speeches from the man in the corner of the ring. You got the little love story on the side. You’ve got the underdog component to it. But it’s not a boxing movie. It’s a movie about class. About money and not having enough. It’s about poverty at its core. The main character just happens to be a boxer. 

Do you know what it’s like to have nothing? I honestly don’t.

I’m on full financial aid and worked three jobs at once last year. I got free lunches in high school. Plenty of times I’ve let loose a look of desperation to tell the person across from me that the number they spouted wasn’t possible. But I’ve never had nothing and you’d have a hard time telling me I’ve ever been an underdog. I have never in my life felt as though I’m at an inescapable rock bottom.

The crazy thing is that my dad would say the exact same thing, though I can look at his life and say that he at one point had nothing.

I called my dad after watching “Cinderella Man.” For someone who struggles to remember where he put his headphones (they’re in his ears), his recollection of the movie was shockingly crisp. He was quoting lines from the epilogue that were on screen for only a second. He said he remembers a movie only when he likes everything about it. So I asked him what he took from this one and he told me that “sometimes bad things happen to good people” and that I agree with.

James J. Braddock, having the unfortunate fate of being alive during the Great Depression, was once on the rise in the boxing world. Knocking opponents out while never being knocked out himself. He was on his way to a championship bout. But a broken arm and a slew of pathetic fights got his boxing license removed and forced him to beg for shifts at the docks once the stock market crashed. At one point, his wife sent his children away because they couldn’t afford the heating bill for their own basement apartment. That is having nothing.

When my dad was younger, during his first years in the U.S. and before he had met my mom, he spent all his money on an eighteen-wheeler. For a man who knew no English and had no papers to get him a job, this truck was everything. It was more than the accumulation of his past — it was the embodiment of his future. While doing a delivery, his blinks became slower and slower until his eyelids fell shut and the truck rammed into a freeway wall. He survived, but the truck did not. When I imagine the scene, I picture the truck on fire, the dollar bills he worked for burning with it.

It was no Great Depression, but I would characterize it as rock bottom. Braddock gets back on top because having a broken right hand makes his left stronger and he eventually beats the insufferable, vicious Max Baer to win the title. I’m not sure how my dad’s beatdown lent itself to his own success, but I know it did. You can’t get up without having been down.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people and it can be an opportunity for the better. I mentioned horror movies earlier. If I’m being honest, my real fear is the idea that I won’t know how to get up if I ever get down. God bless my dad for giving me the best life he could, but I do wonder what I will do when it’s my time to stare at the truck on fire. Maybe he knew this movie would help.

Editor’s Note: This article includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

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