The picture above is of Jim Braddock. Don’t recognize the name? He is often referred to as Cinderella Man. Braddock is remembered for becoming the Heavyweight Champion of the World when he took on Max Baer during the U.S. Great Depression.
Jim Braddock was the common man’s champion. His story is also that of a husband and father, not just of a boxer. Yet, this champion wasn’t expected to be champion at all. In fact, the younger Max Baer intimidated everyone, having killed two men in the ring prior to fighting Braddock. Baer was a stereotypical champion, though, spoiled and arrogant.
Braddock, like most in his era, experienced the worst of the Great Depression. In the movie, Cinderella Man, the amicable local hero even had to resort to begging and welfare at one point to keep his family from starving. The family watered down milk in order to stretch it out for the children. Dignity was stripped from the broken down man, yet his determination to keep “standing” seems to have never faltered. Getting by on small fights and even concealing his ailing hand before employers at the dock, Braddock pushes through.
An intervention of sorts takes place as Braddock’s trainer lands him a fight against a #2 contender for the Heavyweight Title. It was an incredible opportunity for some much-needed income. Jim wasn’t expected to win. He just needed to show up. Indeed he did show up, knocking the opponent out. This led to another opportunity where he’d be offered a series of fights against younger, heavier, and stronger boxers. Braddock seems fueled after his apparent comeback event and proceeds to make his way through the ranks of these future opponents. The spirits of the disenfranchised rose with each of Braddock’s successive wins and its now time for him to carry the hearts of the disenfranchised into the sport’s biggest stage.
The last fighter in the way of Braddock is the most impressive Max Baer, the current holder of the title Heavyweight Champion of the World. Max was enormous compared to Braddock. He was monstrous. Surely Jim Braddock will be the third man he kills inside the frame of vinyl ropes! Even Baer himself urges Braddock to reconsider the fight for his title. As Braddock humbly declines the opportunity to simply walk away he accepts the ominous stage set before him. Baer, in his flippant demeanor, mocks and snorts in his effort to embarrass the contender.
We know the shocking conclusion to the story. We know that an underdog won and the legend is remade and retold in the film. A true Cinderella Man surprised everyone.
There was a Greek historian (around 7 B.C.) who first recorded a variant of the Cinderella story. Strabo recorded the story of a hetaera (Rhodopis), whose sandal was snatched from a maid’s hand by an eagle and taken to the sunset where it was dropped in the lap of a king of Egypt. This king searched for the owner and found Rhodopis. This story has been rewritten and become popular all over the world. The most famous version you and I might be familiar with is that of Charles Perrault (1697). In Perrault’s version, a gentleman’s step-daughters took on the nature of their mother and sought to humiliate this gentleman’s other beautiful young daughter (by another mother). The beautiful young girl was given harsh labor by her new step-mother lest she outshined the two step-daughters. After finishing her daily work she would sit in the corner of a fireplace among the cooled char of cinder and ashes. She was teased as Cinderwench originally but mercifully called Cinderella not long after. Cinderella treated her step-sisters graciously in spite of their callous behavior toward her and . . . we know the rest of this story, too.
A convenient segue we now have into Mark’s portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. Nazareth, for Mark’s original audience, was the equivalent of what we might consider El Dorado, Arkansas, is today compared to New York, New York. Nazareth was in the region of Galilee in the north, which was cut off from the southern region of Judea. Samaria was fixed in between. Galilee is said to have been surrounded by Hellenistic cities (Greek culturally) and full of Gentiles. They were mostly poor. Even the Galilean accents have been compared to the drawl of the American south. Judeans might consider anyone from Nazareth to be a country bumpkin, someone who would be expected to be unsophisticated, unlike a proper Jew. Galilee was at a greater distance from the Temple and for the Jerusalem elites this reinforced opinion that anyone from that northern region would’ve been at a disadvantage religiously; ‘foreigners’ who don’t know the Law and can’t be trusted. So, when we hear Mark in 1:9 say that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, it’s kind of like saying that Jesus came from what many considered the “boonies,” the fringes and sub cultures of Israel. Nazareth was not the place where the best universities were, or the best industries, or the best pedigrees. Nazareth wasn’t known for people of determination, especially for kings. Even though Jesus was born in Bethlehem (the city of David – Luke 2:11), just south of Jerusalem, he grew up in Nazareth (cf. Luke 2:4, 39).
No wonder the locals loved Jesus! He was “one of them.” They identified with Jesus. Mark is likely getting astonished expressions on the faces of his readers when they hear him say that the heavenly appointed King (Son) came to be baptized by John, looking like one of the crowd, and comes not from the majestic, reputable and credentialed metropolis of Jerusalem, but from Nazareth! . . . Mark, are you trying to tell me that Jesus was initially thought to be an underdog, a man who appeared to not have what it takes to step in the ring with the big boys of Jerusalem? Could this really be the One who has come into the world and has overcome its monstrous dictator, the Max Baer of every generation, the Satan? Mark, are you saying Jesus is a Cinderella Man? Just as Jim Braddock’s reputation was small to the power players of Max Baer’s world, so Jesus of Nazareth’s initial reputation was as small to the elites of Jerusalem and Judea.
However, we know that from the lowly ‘cinders and ashes’ of Nazareth there was one who was truly beautiful on the inside. The beauty of this one was the envy of an evil step-mother. Even the step-sisters tried to suppress this beauty in order that they, through all of their fashions and jewels, might have the allure of the king they desired. Would the one who was truly beautiful ever be recognized? We know the conclusion to this story.
We also know that from the commoners of Nazareth there was one who appeared just as common, just as easy to keep knocking down. His humility was mistaken for weakness and so it was easy to keep on mocking and berating him. Yet, this one kept on getting up, kept on standing, and kept on talking. This underdog was no dog in the making. We know the shocking conclusion to the story. We know who stepped into the ring repeatedly, who kept on fighting and kept on winning. And we know who eventually stepped into that ominous stage set before him, even though his Max Baer told him to reconsider the fight lest he becomes just another dead man. We know the shocking conclusion to this story. We know who carried God’s hopes and dreams into that ring, who won and took the title of Champion of the World! It was who? It was Jesus of Nazareth, Cinderella Man . . .