By Jeanne Sager
NORTH BRANCH February 11, 2005 The glass slippers of a Hollywood story are resting under a bed in North Branch.
The buzz is just now building in Tinseltown for Ron Howards newest summer blockbuster, but folks in Sullivan County have always known there was something special about James Braddock.
The boxer whose fairy-tale-like rise to fame will be chronicled in Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger and arriving in theaters in June, was just a regular guy to his neighbors in North Branch.
But Jim, as he was known locally, was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world who beat Max Baer in a 1935 fight that had him entering the ring as a 10-to-1 underdog.
And its the story of grit and determination that turned a kid who dropped out of school in West New York, NJ into the hero of the boxing world that caught the eye of a Hollywood screenwriter almost a decade ago.
James Jay Braddock III, who keeps up his grandfathers Web site and serves as unofficial historian, remembers when Cliff Hollingsworth, a screenwriter with a passion for boxing, first approached his family.
He was just this big boxing fan and knew the story of my grandfather, Jay Braddock recalled.
Hollingsworth wanted to know the real story of Jim Braddock he sat down with Jays father, James Jr. and his brother, Howard. A cousin, Joe, was also included in the talks hes the only living relative who attended the Baer fight and could tell the tale blow by blow.
From what Jay has learned through visits to the set and talks with the producers many of the familys stories made it on camera. Previews of the film show Braddock as a family man first, a boxer second.
For Jay, its hard to say how much is true and how much is legend.
Im one of the younger grandsons; I was just 4 years old when he died, Jay said. I remember sitting on his knee . . . he was very sweet and very big.
Everything about Braddock was big. The boxer was born at home in New York City on June 7, 1906, weighing in at 17 pounds.
At his prime, he was 6 2 1/2, weighing 193 pounds with a reach of 75.
One of Irish immigrants Joseph Braddock and Elizabeth OToole Braddocks seven children, Jim was a regular kid.
A family history tells of an athlete who hung out under the Hackensack River bridge swimming and playing baseball, a kid who dreamed of one day being a fireman or train engineer.
As a student at St. Josephs Parochial School in West New York, NJ, he let his fists do the talking, duking it out with classmates in the schoolyard. His first KO was childhood nemesis Elmer Furlong.
Braddock left high school without graduating and took up odd jobs, working as a messenger boy for Western Union and an errand boy for a silk mill.
He didnt break into boxing until November 27, 1923, when, at the ripe age of 17, he stepped into the ring as Jimmy Ryan to do battle with a police officer from Fort Lee, NJ.
Newspaper reports from the following morning showed Tommy Hummell had an edge over the fighting Irishman, but the fight was touted as the best on the evenings card.
By 1926, Braddock was ready to turn pro. But like any Cinderella story, his was an uphill battle.
Braddock secured victories over pros like Jimmy Slattery and Pete Latzo that sent him to the light heavyweight championship bout in 1929.
In a heart-breaking 15-round decision, Braddock lost the title fight to Tommy Loughran. It was the year of the stock market crash, and the entire country was hurtling into the Great Depression Braddock among them.
During the lowest point in the countrys economy, Braddock struggled to win enough fights to put food on the table for wife Mae and their three children, James Jr., Howard and Rose Marie.
His luck wouldnt turn until 1934 when upsets of Corn Griffin and John Henry Lewis put him on the path to the heavyweight championship.
It was in that time period that the Braddock family discovered Sullivan County.
Jay Braddock said his grandfather trained for his upcoming fight in Loch Sheldrake, and the family rented a home in North Branch (eventually, they bought the house next door).
A 10-to-1 underdog walking into the title fight, Braddock defeated the worlds heavyweight champion, Max Baer, on June 13, 1935 in Long Island City.
He held onto the title for the next two years, finally handing it over to the legendary Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, after an eight-round KO.
Jay Braddock said the movie chronicles his grandfathers rise in the boxing world, with an emphasis on his real life his dedication to his wife and children.
Its been billed as a love story in some places, Jay Braddock said. Its a lot about the family more than just the boxing.
Its been exciting for the family to see the story go from concept to screenplay, and seeing a studio latch on.
At one time Penny Marshall was slated to direct, then she agreed to produce, and Oscar-winning director Ron Howard signed on.
Filming began last year in Toronto, and the family was invited on-set for a number of the fight scenes.
They sat with the crew and met the stars, Jay Braddock said.
That was very exciting . . . it was this tremendously huge set with hundreds of extras.
Crowe was gracious and a good fit for the role, Braddock said.
He really took it upon himself to train for this, he noted. He really took the role seriously he quit drinking while training, he even got hurt while training.
While the family was on set they saw Crowe ask for entire scenes to be reshot.
He wanted to get things right, which was nice, Braddock explained.
Zellweger wasnt in most of the fight scenes, so the family had limited contact with her Braddock said she was sweet, but he doesnt know much about her.
Braddocks cousin, Rose Marie (daughter of his aunt Rose Marie), got the most inside dirt on filming an actress, the boxers granddaughter plays her grandfathers neighbor in the film, and she was on set even when it was closed to visitors.
The whole familys seen the trailers which have begun popping up in theaters.
Jay Braddock said it looks good.
Im sure it will be great, he said.
Hes looking forward to the movies premiere and then seeing the worlds reaction to his familys story when Universal Pictures releases the film on June 3.
With two Academy Award-winning actors in the starring roles, an Oscar-winning producer, Oscar-winning director and Oscar-winning screenwriter (Akiva Goldman, who won for A Beautiful Mind, was involved with Hollingsworth in penning the script), its sure to be a hit.
The story is sure to strike a chord with folks who remember the Braddock family even Jays current neighbors in North Branch.
The house is still very much in use by the family today, and Jay spends much of his time writing songs there.
As much as the family loves the area, its also a way of holding onto a piece of his grandfather.
He loved the Catskills, Braddock recalled.