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Chapter 1 A Lucky Man

Madison Square Garden, New York, November 30, 1928 There were nineteen thousand boxing supporters around the center ring in Madison Square Garden, and most were waiting for just one thing—for one fighter to murder another. Tonight they were waiting for Gerald “Tuffy” Griffiths, the “Terror from out West,” to destroy New Jersey’s Jim Braddock.

At the sound of the bell, Braddock stood under the hot lights and watched Griffiths rush out into the ring. Tuffy Griffiths had come to New York after winning fifty fights. He had won his last fight with a knockout in the first round. Everybody knew that he would do the same to Braddock—everybody except Braddock and his manager, Joe Gould. Gould believed in Braddock.

A sudden jab from Braddock knocked Griffiths back. The fighters started moving around the ring, throwing and blocking punches. Griffiths threw the same punches that had easily beaten his other opponents, but Braddock stayed on his feet. Blood and sweat poured into his eyes.

None of the reporters around the ring expected the New Jersey boxer to reach the end of the second round. But by round two, Braddock had timed his opponent’s rushes. Within one minute, he hit Griffiths with his big punch—his right cross—and Tuffy went down. The crowd stood, shouting. But the referee had only counted to three before Griffiths was back on his feet and the fight continued.

Time stretched for Braddock now, and his opponent’s slightest move seemed enormous. Braddock paid no attention to the screams of the crowd, to the pain he felt. This was his chance to finish Griffiths. He threw his big right punch again, and again Tuffy was on the floor.

“One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . .” the referee counted.

For a second time, Griffiths got to his feet. But Braddock was ready, stepping in close and throwing punch after punch. Then his right hand flew forward and found Griffiths’ chin for the last time. The big fighter hit the floor again. He tried to stand, but his legs were like rubber. No more punches hit him, but he went down—and stayed down.

“And from the great state of New Jersey, by a knockout, tonight’s light heavyweight winner . . .Jim Braddock!”

The crowd was back on its feet. The local boy had won!

Braddock had been born in Hell’s Kitchen, a poor neighborhood of New York just a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden.

Braddock punched the air in celebration. He looked at the crowd, at the men in their suits and ties and the women with their fashionable haircuts and expensive clothes. It was Friday night, the world seemed to be having a party, and Jim Braddock’s win was one more reason to celebrate!

Griffiths was Braddock’s eighteenth knockout since his first professional fight in 1926. His twenty-seventh win. The fight organizers had had big plans for Griffiths. After this surprise win, maybe Braddock would have his chance to fight for the title of heavyweight champion. That was every boxer’s dream.

Inside the ring, Joe Gould rushed out of the corner and jumped onto his boxer’s back. Both men looked at the crowd and listened to its shouts. Jim smiled. He was a winner . . . •

The tall boxer and his manager stepped out through the side entrance into a crowd of about a hundred well-dressed supporters.

“Just sign your name for a few of them,” said Joe. “Leave them wanting more.”

“Do you want to sign my name for me, too?” Jim asked his manager with a smile.

People crowded around Jim. He liked them; he liked the fact that they loved him.

“You win some, you lose some, Johnston,” said Joe.

Jim looked up. His manager was talking to a big man who had come out of the same side entrance. Jimmy Johnston organized the fights at Madison Square Garden. No boxer fought there without his permission. Johnston and men like him ruled the world of boxing. Tonight Johnston had wanted Griffiths to win the fight. Braddock was supposed to be an easy win for Griffiths.

Jim touched his manager’s arm. “Leave it,” he said.

But Joe continued talking. “Maybe you support the wrong guys? Griffiths was heavier than my boy, and what happened? Jab, cross . . .”

“Actually, it was jab, jab, cross,” said Jim. He didn’t like to see Joe arguing with a man as powerful as Johnston. But the little manager had always supported Jim, and the fighter couldn’t let his manager stand alone now.

“Jab, jab, cross!” repeated Joe. “And then your boy’s out! So maybe no one’s a loser? Right, Johnston?”

Loser. Jim hated that word. Some people had said that his early opponents were no good. Easy fights. Losers. So what did that make Jim? But after tonight. . . after Griffiths . . . what could they say now?

Joe Gould and Jimmy Johnston stared hard at each other. Just like inside the boxing ring, time seemed to stretch. And then Johnston turned and walked to his waiting car.

Jim shook his head. His little manager had no control over his mouth. “I’ll get us a taxi,” he said.

But Joe pointed to a big, shiny new car across the street. “You have to show you’re doing well,” he said. The manager organized his life by this belief—expensive clothes, the best restaurants, and now this car. A uniformed driver opened the back door, and the two men got in.

Through the car’s windows, New York seemed alive. The city’s bright lights shone and people laughed and talked as they went to shows and clubs. It was an exciting time to live in the city. Tall buildings were going up everywhere, and everybody seemed to be getting rich. Jim Braddock and Joe Gould wanted a piece of that success, too. They had even started their own taxi company.

“Let’s go to a club,” said Joe. “You should be seen in the right places . . .”

But Jim just said, “Home, Joe.”

With a shake of his head, Joe told the driver, and the car turned toward New Jersey. This had been Jim’s home since soon after his birth. His parents had moved from Ireland to New York, looking for a better life. Later, for the same reason, they had moved their family across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

Here Jim had grown up a typical American boy. By the time he stopped going to school, his older brother had started to box.

One day he and Jim began to argue, and soon they were fighting.

Although his brother was bigger and had much more experience, Jim didn’t do badly. That’s when he realized—-maybe he could be a winner in the boxing ring.

Not long after this, he had first met Joe Gould in a local gym.

Joe needed someone to train with one of his boxers, and he offered five dollars to the tall teenager. Jim had gone into the ring and given Gould’s boxer a lesson. The manager had stayed with Jim since then, through one hundred amateur fights, and then through all his professional fights.

Now the car turned onto Jim’s tree-lined street in a nice, quiet neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey’s biggest city. Joe pulled some cash out of his pocket and began to count out Jim’s share of the prize money.

‘Do you want to come in?” asked Jim as the car stopped outside his house. “The kids would love to see you.”

Joe paused. “Are you still married to the same girl?”

“I was this morning,” answered Jim.

“I’ll come in another time,” said Joe. “And tell her I didn’t charge you for the towels.”

As Jim climbed out, he forced himself not to laugh. Joe Gould was afraid of nothing in the world of boxing, but he turned and ran from Jim’s wife, Mae, with her hard questions about the prize money and Jim’s share of it.

The front door of the house was open now, and there, in the golden light of the hall, was Mae. Her pale face was serious as she waited. From the first time he had met her, Jim had loved her.

He moved toward her now, telling himself he was a lucky man to have a wife like Mae.

When Mae Braddock saw her husband, the dark cloud of worry disappeared. She could breathe again. Feel again.

Fight night was always like this for Mae. In the afternoon, Jimmy kissed her goodbye. Then she just watched the clock and hoped that he was safe. The long hours full of fear only ended when Jim came home.

She knew that men died in the ring. Not often, but it happened. And if they didn’t die, they were hurt, badly. Mae didn’t understand the sport. To her it was a world of pain and danger. But she loved her husband, and so she tried to support him.

Mae Theresa Fox had grown up near the Braddock family in New Jersey. She had always liked big Jim Braddock, and he loved Mae from the time he first met her. But Jim was shy, and it took him a long time to ask Mae to marry him. He said that he wanted to wait until he had enough money to buy a nice home. When he had $30,000 from his prize money—a small fortune—he finally asked. As he waited nervously for her answer, Mae noticed the sweat on Jim’s face. She couldn’t stop herself from laughing. The money didn’t matter to her—of course she would marry him!

Now Mae looked at her husband. She knew that Griffiths had been expected to win tonight’s fight. Her eyes asked the question, and Jim’s answer was a slow shake of the head. Mae looked away.

She hated to see Jimmy in pain—that’s why she never went to the fights—and she hated to see him like this. But then she looked up and saw Jimmy smile. He had won!

“I could kill you,” said Mae, kissing her husband.

Jim’s two sons ran into the hall. They jumped around their father’s legs, shouting with excitement.

“Daddy, did you win?” cried four-year-old Jay.

Howard, who was only three, was just happy that Daddy was home. Jim picked the boys up and kissed them. My little men, he thought. His eyes met Mae’s. My little family.

Jim told them all about the fight, acting it out punch by punch.

It wasn’t easy for Mae to put the boys to bed after that. When she had checked their sleeping baby girl, Rosy, she sat down to eat dinner with Jimmy.

“So did Griffiths have a big punch?” she asked.

“You could come and watch me fight,” suggested Jim.

But Mae looked away. “You get punched, and it feels like I’m getting punched. But I’m not as strong as you . . .” She forced herself to smile. “And who wants newspaper stories about me running out from a fight again?”

Jim remembered when this had happened. His opponent had knocked him down that day, and Mae had seen it. Jim still remembered the look of fear on her face. It didn’t seem to matter that Jim had won the fight in the end. After that, Mae bravely continued coming to watch Jim box. He didn’t know how painful it was for her until a few fights later. Jim was having a bad night and he took a lot of punishment. Not able to watch anymore, Mae had run off before the final bell. A reporter saw her go, and the story was in the newspapers. Mae never went to a fight again.

Now she looked at her husband. “Were there any girls waiting outside after the fight?”

“Maybe,” said Jim with a smile.

Mae moved around the table. She spoke in a different voice now, pretending to be one of the women. “Oh, Mr. Braddock,”

she said. “You’re so strong. Your hands are so big.”

Mae moved in close, and she wasn’t joking now when she said, “I am so proud of you, Jimmy.”

That night, as he got ready for bed, Jim stood in the bedroom of his beautiful home. He looked at their wedding picture. Then he took off the gold cross from around his neck and kissed it, looking at his own face in the mirror. It was the face of a lucky man. A lucky man and a winner.

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