Sports views

Boxing dramatics limited to movies

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005

If only life did imitate art. Boxing could use some story lines as good as those in theaters these days.

Not that you want to see anyone die, like Hilary Swank did in ''Million Dollar Baby.'' But, before that movie took a tragic turn, it was a pretty good tale of love and perseverance in the ring.

Now there's ''Cinderella Man,'' a feel-good movie if there ever was one. If you walked out of ''Million Dollar Baby'' in tears, you'll leave this heart warming flick convinced that the human spirit can triumph over anything.

James Braddock was more than a boxer to millions suffering in the Great Depression. He was one of them, someone who had lost everything only to fight his way back against great odds to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

He was their hero when they needed one desperately.

I'll be thinking about Braddock next week in Washington, D.C., where another fighter who lost everything laces them up again. That would be Mike Tyson, a modern day anti-Braddock.

Braddock and Tyson do share a few things in common, though the similarities end with the fact both were heavyweight champions and both were broke at one time in their careers.

Braddock was a man of integrity, a man of honor. Forced on the dole when he couldn't find work and had to feed his family, Braddock would later repay the state of New Jersey when he became flush again.

Tyson is paying the government, too, though not voluntarily. He owes the IRS $15 million, taxes he didn't pay while he was blowing some $300 million on cars, women, houses, wine and whatever else you can blow that kind of money on.

Other creditors claim another $25 million or so, which is one big reason the 38-year-old is fighting journeyman stiff Kevin McBride at the MCI Center next Saturday.

No, Tyson is no James Braddock, though he, too, remains a hero to some. Why that is, 14 years after he last won a significant fight against a significant fighter, is a mystery only the thousands who will likely turn out to cheer him on can answer.

Hollywood romanticizes some things, of course, so it's easy to cheer for James Braddock when you see him portrayed on the big screen by Russell Crowe almost 70 years to the day when he scored one of boxing's biggest upsets by beating Max Baer for the heavyweight title.

It's not so easy to cheer for Tyson because this is real life, and Tyson, despite recent efforts to improve his image, is just not a likable sort. Braddock had the Depression to deal with, while Tyson can only blame himself for the bizarre way he leads his life.

For a few hours in a darkened theater, it's nice to get away from the real world and transport yourself back to another time when heroes were easier to make. ''Cinderella Man'' is not without its faults, but it does succeed in taking you into the ring with Braddock as he finds himself in the right place at the right time and gets an improbable shot at the heavyweight title against Baer.

Before that, it tugs at your heart by showing Braddock's family shivering in their rundown apartment after the gas and electric had been turned off because the bills couldn't be paid. Director Ron Howard paints a dismaying Depression-era scene around which Braddock's story is built, a place where one cake has to do when a group of neighborhood children celebrate birthdays.

At one point, Braddock's wife and children are seen dismantling a fence in the snow for wood to keep them warm. In another scene, she adds water to the remaining milk after the dairy cuts them off, too.

''Who needs a cow?'' she proclaims.

Earlier this week, Howard said he thought the boxing scenes were among the most realistic ever on the big screen. They're not bad, though they are typically Hollywood with sound effects added to each punch and quick cutaways and changes in camera angle that sometimes makes it difficult to figure out who is hitting who.

Crowe sure felt like he was in a fight while filming the movie in Australia. One day he did 42 rounds of two minutes each, which is probably more than Tyson has spent training for McBride, and paid the price for it.

''You're doing a movie about a boxer and you're going to get hit,'' Crowe said. ''I got whacked heavily.''

You've got to love a movie that begins with a quote from a sportswriter, in this case Damon Runyon, who gave Braddock his ''Cinderella Man'' nickname. And you have to laugh when Braddock is offered the princely sum of $250 as a last minute replacement to fight a top contender.

''For $250 I'd fight your wife — and your grandmother too,'' he tells his manager.

In the end, though, it's the story of an honorable man who triumphs against all odds that had moviegoers cheering at a recent screening. Braddock, who died in 1974, lost the title to Joe Louis in his only defense, but he parlayed his big shot into a comfortable life for his family.

There was nothing flashy about Braddock, but his story is so endearing that Hollywood saw fit to dust it off 70 years later. Millions will go to cheer him on this week in theaters across the country.

It's not the real thing, but it's close. And it's a lot more entertaining than anything that will happen Saturday night in Washington, D.C.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org



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