Difficult Lives: On Cradle of Champions

When Paul Gallico, the sports editor of the New York Daily News, pitched his publisher on an annual amateur boxing tournament during a meeting in 1926, few could have foreseen its outright success. Boxing tournaments, in some form or another, had existed for years, but they were largely isolated events tucked away from the broader public. The “Golden Gloves,” as Gallico suggested his be called, would change that with a simple tweak: it would it open its doors to total beginners.

The “novice” class ensured that any motivated, typically working-class male—from, say, a pushcart peddler on the Lower East Side to a newsboy hawking broadsheets at the South Street Seaport—could compete for personal glory, see his name in the headlines, and reap the top prize: a mini replica of a pair of golden gloves. The idea was an immediate sensation. On the first day of enrollment, Gallico’s office received two hundred entries. By the end of the submission period, Gallico was sifting through over a thousand applications. His employers at the Daily News were thrilled, to say the least. The underlying premise behind the Golden Gloves, after all, was that it would offer the paper’s sportswriters material during the slow winter season and now, with as many as five cards going on a night, there would be no shortage of compelling copy with which to fill the paper’s sports section. Readers, eager to find out who advanced and who got knocked off, awaited each issue as if it were the next chapter of a serialized Victorian novel. Given the playoff format and the inherent Everyman appeal of the tournament, such enthusiasm came as no surprise. Who among these participants did not look in the mirror and have thoughts of becoming the next Jack Dempsey or the next Harry Greb? Gallico himself hoped that the tournament would one day “unearth some unknown with a bland and modest smile and a kick like a mule, who will blast through the national championships in Boston with Golden Gloves dangling from his belt.”

The inaugural finals took place on March 28, 1927, at Madison Square Garden, a tradition that would last eighty-five years. A roaring crowd of 21,594 showed up; roughly 10,000 more were turned away. The tournament was a smashing success. Soon, Chicago, unshackled from a decades-long ban on boxing, declared that it would host its own version of the Gloves. In the next year, 20,000 fans packed the Garden for the 1928 finals. And they did so again in the next. And the next. And so on and so forth. In time, the Gloves would transition from being a local phenomenon to becoming something of a national sporting touchstone. From Sugar Ray Robinson to Muhammad Ali, many of the greatest professional prizefighters came of age competing in the Gloves. In the 1976 finals, over 20,000 spectators flocked to the Garden to watch Howard Davis Jr., Gerry Cooney, Juan Laporte, and Davey Moore fight—and win—under the lights. In 1980, over 19,000 showed up to watch Mark Breland take home the first of five Golden Glove championships.

In Cradle of Champions, a new documentary, by first-time director Bartle Bull, that follows the lives of three New York City Golden Gloves hopefuls in 2015, the famed tournament appears in its eighty-eighth iteration. That it still exists today nearly a century after Gallico’s initial proposal is a testimony to its resilience; only the Olympics exceeds it in terms of longevity. And yet one does not have to look too hard to find that the Golden Gloves, like the sport itself, is a far cry from what it used to be. The finals, for one, no longer take place at the self-styled “World’s Most Famous Arena,” but across the East River, in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. The crowds, which once turned up in droves for the finals from Gallico’s days to the mid-80s, are now unspeakably small, no more than the size of a large wedding or a bar mitzvah. (In fact, the tournament has almost no constituency outside of relatives and friends of the participating boxers.) Like every other legacy media outlet today, the Daily News, which continues to sponsor the tournament, struggles to stay afloat in the Digital Age and has seen its daily circulation drop to 200,000 from the more than two million it boasted in its heyday. And, of course, there is the unassailable fact that boxing, simply, is no longer a sport that most Americans much care for.

Though the subject of boxing’s demise is not explicitly taken up in Cradle of Champions, it can be intuited, at times, in the brief shots that show empty rows of bleachers during a qualifying round at a high school gymnasium. But such gloomy forecasts are not the chief motivation behind this film, which is to pursue its rather uncomplicated human-interest angle by observing the hardscrabble and still-innocent lives of twenty-five-year-old Nisa Rodriguez from the Bronx, nineteen-year-old James Wilkins from Staten Island, and twenty-four-year-old Titus Williams from Long Island in the weeks leading up to the Golden Gloves finals. Despite the many changes that have contributed to the tournament’s loss of status, it remains, in a tangible sense, a beacon of hope for these fighters whose personal circumstances have afforded them few other choices. Bull hews closely to the conventions of the standard documentary, which includes an abundance of “talking heads” and a clear narrative arc and, in the process, enters an intensely private world bound by strict rituals and codes of conduct. The boxing subculture has long fascinated sociologists and storytellers and Bull treats it, as an outsider, with equanimity and respect. As Brian Adams, the director of the Golden Gloves and four-time champion of the tournament, declares at one point in the film, “The pressure that these kids have on their shoulders—people don’t understand and can never understand.”

For Rodriguez, a four-time Golden Glove champion looking to make it five, the challenge is in balancing her pugilistic aspirations—she hopes to make it to the Olympics one day—with her duties as a single mother and teacher of an after-school program. Her poise belies her years. Despite the drudgery of her material obligations, she maintains a radiant demeanor that earns the viewer’s admiration. Williams, a man of faith who exudes confidence and humility at the same time, hopes to turn back a lousy year that he had in 2014, after winning the tournament in 2013. He vows not to underestimate his opponents again. And Wilkins, a short-tempered youth and sometimes sparring partner of Williams, is most desperate to forge a different path for himself than those in his household. Raised by his grandmother with twenty-three other siblings under a single roof, Wilkins yearns to become “the first to say that ‘I made it’ in my family.” Wilkins apprehends the world with pent-up hostility, as exemplified by his frequent tantrums and one is indeed led to speculate where he would be today were it not for boxing.

Such ordeals should ring familiar to anyone who has seen a boxing film, fiction or otherwise. But adopting these clichés does not make Cradle of Champions any less effective. The plight of the underdog, after all, is one reason that Hollywood continues to churn out boxing films year after year, even as the sport itself continues to recede from mainstream relevance. That Bull, a career journalist who specialized in covering the Middle East, commits to these well-trodden themes speaks resolutely to his belief in the fighters and their collective stories. There is plenty of fighting shown in the film as well. When Wilkins and Williams meet each other in the 132-pound finals, it seems almost too good to be true. Their wild tussle comprises the film’s blistering climax, which was shot as elaborately as a Hollywood production, with multiple cameras from various angles.

The film also illustrates that what separates boxing from other endeavors is how it is so often a matter of existential importance—not only for the fighters, but for those surrounding and living vicariously through them. The trainers are as idealistic and motivated as the fighters they guide. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Williams’s trainer Joe Higgins, a retired firefighter who was tasked with digging out his colleagues’ bodies from the rubble after 9/11. Though his drillmaster attitude and frequent exhortations jar with the quiet demeanor of his pupil, Higgins’s gruffness is rooted in the belief that fighting can improve the soul and one’s moral character. This point is reiterated later in the film by veteran trainer Teddy Atlas. “Anybody that can climb up those steps and walk out of that locker room . . . ” Atlas tells spectators during a break in a qualifying card. “That even with that fear they can still summon up their courage and get in this ring and find out who they are. When you do that you become a fighter, and most importantly you become a better person.”

That may be true, but boxing is mostly a thankless sport, and the absence of this harsh reality in Cradle of Champions is why, in some sense, it falls short of its predecessor, On the Ropes, the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary that also depicts the lives of three Golden Glove hopefuls. In that film, one boxer is sent to jail after becoming caught up in a drug-dealing scheme, and another leaves his trainer only to get two-timed by an unscrupulous manager. In that film, the forlorn economic realities and repugnant figures from boxing’s professional underbelly all come to bear on the young fighters. That, sadly, is the side of the sport that predominates. One wishes there was more of that nuance in Cradle of Champions, however unsavory, if only because the difficult lives that these fighters are pursuing demands the utmost transparency.


About Sean Nam 30 Articles
Sean Nam has written for The Cruelest Sport, Undisputed Champion Network, and The Sweet Science. His non-boxing writing has appeared in New Rambler Review, Slant Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Rain Taxi, Mubi Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cineaste. In 2017, he curated the Boxing on Film series for the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.