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Seconds out for a hard-hitting look at city life

Poignant documentary tells stories of boxers and their hopes and dreams in the spit-and-sawdust gyms of New York

22 March, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Titus Williams in Cradle of Champions

CRADLE OF CHAMPIONS
Directed by Bartle Bull
Certificate PG
☆☆☆☆☆

WHETHER you are in the ban boxing camp, or consider it to be the Noble Sport, the stories of the people who risk their lives in the ring make intriguing copy.

New York’s Daily News sponsors the Golden Gloves competition, a legendary amateur boxing tournament that dates from 1926. The GG sees hopeful boxing wannabes pit their skills against one another with the aim of being crowned New York’s finest. It can lead to a place in the Olympics, or the switch to professional – but it also provides young men and women with a sense of focus as they train at a variety of spit and sawdust gyms that come straight from central casting.

In this documentary, we learn of the battles from the past – and how some of the sport’s biggest names tasted defeat. Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Leonard and even Ali all hit the canvas in Golden Gloves bouts.

We meet rivals Titus Williams and James Wilkins, and learn what motivates them to stick to a gruelling schedule. We follow teacher and single mother Nisa Rodriguez from the Bronx, who has won the event four times and has her eyes on a fifth. And we meet the trainers: Teddy Atlas, who was once a boxer with Cus D’Amato and bears a facial scar inflicted during a street fight that needed 400 stitches to close up.

Trainer Joe Higgins, a retired firefighter who had to leave the service after 9/11 due to the severe respiratory illnesses he developed after digging people out of the rubble of the Twin Towers, makes for a poignant subject.

They all do – and that is this documentary’s key strength. Bull has found a number of stories and hasn’t needed to dress them up with a narrative arc, though of course the training for each bout provides tension, as do the fights each must win to reach the finals.

For those of us who don’t really like boxing, there is still plenty here. Think of David Remmick’s seminal book King Of The World, or Norman Mailer writing on the Foreman/Ali fight in Zaire – you don’t have to enjoy the sport to recognise these are classics. The same goes for this film: it’s much more than a story of an amateur boxing competition, rather a social documentary about New York, the people who live there, their hopes and dreams, and how sport can provide aims, goals, ambitions. It is extremely inspiring and heartfelt without being cheesy. It isn’t Rocky – there are no training montages with over-dubbed workout music, and the fights are well shot without feeling choreographed, but instead create a real sense of pain and drama.

This a snapshot of a city and its people in the modern age.

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