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"Am I in shape?" Braddock said. "Are you kidding? Look at me."
Braddock, who had turned 29 on June 7, was in the best shape of his life--and desperately needed the fight. The gas and electric company had threatened to shut off his service. He had been forced to move his wife and three children to a basement apartment in the building in which they had been living because he couldn't pay the rent on the apartment upstairs. Most humiliating to Braddock, he had gone on the welfare rolls and each month was receiving $24 from the relief agency.
Johnston had advanced $100 on the purse, which Gould split with Braddock. For the first time in months, Braddock had a few dollars at his disposal. He handed over the money to his wife, Mae, and she in turn paid the milkman, the utility company and the landlord.
The day before the fight, Braddock took the ferry from New Jersey to 42nd Street and headed for Stillman's Gym, where Gould was waiting for him. The plan was to get in one solid workout with a sparring partner--to shake off the rust that had been accumulating for nine months.
Stillman's, New York's preeminent gym from the 1920s through the 1950s and consequently the center of the boxing universe at the time, was dubbed the University of Eighth Avenue by A.J. Liebling. Every heavyweight champion from Jack Dempsey to Joe Louis trained there. Lou Stillman was successful because he never played favorites--except when he felt like it. "Big or small, champ or bum, I treated 'em all the same way--bad," he once said. "If you treat them like humans, they'll eat you alive."
Gould and Braddock had spent thousands of hours at Stillman's--but the Jim Braddock whom Gould saw on June 13, 1934, was a stranger. He fired lefts with stunning precision and force. For years he had fought entirely from starboard; now he seemed to be ambidextrous. His sparring partner wilted under the assault. Braddock was also moving differently: up on his toes, resisting the urge to settle into his customary flat-footed stance. No one was going to confuse Jim Braddock with Fred Astaire, but his movement could no longer be described as glacial. As a fighter, he had undergone a metamorphosis.
His longtime trainer, Doc Robb, looked at Gould from behind the heavy bag that Braddock was pummeling and shook his head in astonishment. The thought raced through Gould's mind that perhaps Braddock wasn't washed up.
On the night of the fight the gates opened at five at the Madison Square Garden Bowl. The massive wooden structure, erected in 1932, could seat 72,000. For the main event, the Baer-Carnera showdown, 56,000 people filed into the Bowl--a significant turnout, considering how few people had disposable income in 1934. But those who could spare a dime--movie stars, politicians, mobsters, athletes--showed up in droves.
After a few lackluster four- and five-round bouts on the undercard, Braddock and Griffin prepared to step into the ring. Braddock was wearing old trunks and borrowed shoes. When he climbed through the ropes, the crowd paid scant attention. Those who knew little about boxing were at the Bowl only to see the championship fight. Those who knew the sport assumed this prelim would be a one-sided affair: If they had been following the goings-on at Carnera's camp, they knew that Griffin was considered an up-and-comer, and if they had been following boxing since the 1920s, they remembered Jim Braddock as a onetime light heavyweight hopeful.
Gould, as usual, was chattering. "You feel good, Jim? You feel good?" he kept saying. It was a tic, not a question.