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Lessons in entrepreneurship from James Braddock, the ‘Cinderella Man’

November 17, 2014

James Braddock was born on June 7, 1905, on West 48th Street in New York City. Like most kids, he enjoyed playing marbles, baseball and hanging around while he dreamt of someday becoming a fireman or a train engineer, living in a tough city, at a tough time.

Leaving school, Braddock worked a series of jobs until he discovered his passion for boxing. He spent a few years honing his skills as a successful amateur fighter until 1926 when he entered the professional boxing circuit as a light heavyweight – and nine years later he was World Champion!

The sportswriter Damon Runyon dubbed Braddock ‘The Cinderella Man’, from his seemingly fairy tale like rise from a poor local fighter to the World heavyweight champion. The story of a simple, honest, hard-working man who was dedicated to his wife and family during the Great Depression, and who just happened to have talent in the boxing ring, made Braddock as a hero who wasn’t fighting for fame or fortune, but for the betterment of his family

During his early years, Braddock overwhelmed the competition, knocking out opponent after opponent in the early rounds of most fights. On the evening of July 18 1929, Braddock entered the Yankee Stadium ring to face Tommy Loughran for the coveted light heavyweight championship. Loughran knew about Jim’s powerful right hand and spent the match ducking and dodging Jim’s punches. Braddock couldn’t land a clean, hard punch and lost the 15 round bout on points.

Two months later, the stock market crashed and the US plunged into the Great Depression. As the banks went under, Braddock, like so many other millions of Americans, lost everything. Along with the economy, his fight career hit the skids as well. He lost sixteen out of twenty-two fights during which time he shattered his right hand in a fight. At the bottom of the barrel, Braddock swallowed his pride, hung up his boxing gloves and filed for government relief to help support his family.

But his luck was about to change. In 1934, due to a last minute cancellation, Braddock was given the opportunity to fight John Griffin on the undercard at the heavyweight championship fight between Max Baer and Primo Carnera. To the amazement of everyone, he went on to upset Griffin with a third round knockout. As word of Braddock spread, he was given another chance to fight. This time the opponent was John Lewis. Once again, most predicted that Braddock wouldn’t make it through the fight, but he proved the critics wrong with a ten round victory.

In March of 1935, with the nation in his corner, Braddock defeated Art Lasky in 15 rounds: I hit him with everything. I mean, wherever his kisser was, I had a punch there, a left hook, a right cross, it was one of them nights. With his win against Lasky, Braddock was now considered to be the top heavyweight contender to go up against Max Baer, who had the reputation as possibly the hardest hitter of all time.

On the evening of June 13 1935 at Madison Square Garden, Braddock, a ten-to-one underdog, faced Baer. He knew he could beat Baer if he could stay away from his hammering right hand, and that’s just what he did. In an amazing feat of courage and determination, Braddock won the 15 round decision, to become the new heavyweight champion of the world.

Two years later, after retaining his title in five bouts, on June 22 1937, Braddock lost his heavyweight title in an eight round KO to Joe Louis. Even though it was a loss, it was perhaps Braddock’s bravest, greatest fight. But Braddock was a man who wanted to go out on top and on January 21, 1938 after beating Tommy Farr after 10 rounds, James Braddock, the beacon of hope for millions, hung up his gloves and retired from professional boxing.

Braddock’s story is compelling, not just who he was as a champion, but who he was before he was a champion, where he came from to get to that place and who he was after that. Braddock did it for himself, showing the traits and characteristics of successful entrepreneurs – determined, single-minded, focused, and most of all fearless.

As a boxer, the goal is to go out there and impose yourself on your opponent — and that’s how you need to think in business, always hold that fighter mentality. Another parallel is that entrepreneurs must withstand the competition, just as Braddock had to stay strong through 12 rounds – it’s the ones who are left standing that have a chance of winning.

So let’s look further at the lessons to be shared between successful entrepreneurs and boxers, what does going the 12 rounds look like?

1. Discipline Both have discipline, entrepreneurs to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, they must have the discipline to focus and not deviate. In boxing, maybe the game plan is to establish a jabbing strategy, to work the body. Every time you go to jab, however, you get hit in the face — so you slightly alter how and when you throw your jab. Your game plan doesn’t always work out immediately, but you have to stick with it, adapt, and eventually it will work.

2. Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic three-minute bouts of physicality; boxers have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from training, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone that fighter’s mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

3. Resilience Boxers get punched in the face, some get knocked down. The difference between a good boxer and a great boxer is the ability to get back up. They have to be able to dig deep, look within themselves, and have the confidence, courage and heart to keep getting back up, no matter how many times they get knocked down.

Entrepreneurs may not get punched in the face, but sometimes when things don’t go your way, it feels like it. But if you are confident enough in yourself and your business, and you want it bad enough, no matter how many times you get knocked down, you will find the courage and heart to keep getting back up.

4. Build muscle memory Braddock’s built his success around his strength – his right hook – repeating the same punch (or the same defensive move) hour after hour and day after day in training. Why? Because it’s critically important to build muscle memory so that, in the heat of battle, your muscles will respond instinctively.

Muscle memory is equally important in business, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so, despite the loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers.

5. Patience In boxing, you need to carefully study your opponent, look for openings, and attack at the precise moment that you see the opening. Fighting with a lack of patience will cost you and your fight will most likely be a short one.

As an entrepreneur patience is key. Sometimes you may want to rush out and spread the word about what you’re doing or talk to potential investors, but like boxers, if you move too soon, you will get knocked out. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, able to recognise it, and attack it with great precision.

6. Enjoy the oxygen Braddock’s trainer used to give him 30-second breaks in-between agility drills, weightlifting, jump-roping and sparring. During those brief seconds, he exhorted him to enjoy the oxygen. This taught Braddock how to breathe using his diaphragm, not his lungs, and to lower his heart rate during breaks.

So many business folks are so caught up in the heat of the moment that they don’t stop to take a deep breath, step back, and pause for reflection, or to appreciate, understand and evaluate what they’ve accomplished. Pausing to collect your thoughts, regain composure and adjust your physiology helps entrepreneurs persevere over the long-term, especially when encountering those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions.

 7. Stamina Boxers know that most fights don’t last one round. They don’t prepare themselves for 1,2,3 or even 10 rounds. If they have a 12 round fight, they need to train as if they were fighting 15. They need to be mentally prepared to last the entire fight, and understand that even if they have a bad round, it is a long fight with plenty of opportunities for success.

Entrepreneurs also understand that owning a business isn’t a three round amateur fight, but a 12 round main event. Even if a few things don’t go their way early on and a few opportunities fall through, they remember that there are plenty of opportunities down the road. This allows them to compose themselves and move forward with a chance for future success.

8. Anticipate the next move Braddock was schooled not only to think one punch ahead but also, critically, to try and anticipate his opponent’s. Aside from studying what an opponent has done in the past, there is really no way to predict what they are going to do when they fight you. Because of this you need to be able to recognise what they are doing, and make adjustments to be successful against them.

Like boxing, there is no way of predicting the challenges that may come up in business, so an entrepreneur must be able to read what adjustments must be made, and make them quickly. The ability to adapt and adjust is vital for all successful entrepreneurs. Scrutinising your rivals and the market place provides insight into opportunity and changing customer appetite, to spot what your unique riff is or your next innovation could be – anticipating your next move as well as your opponent’s is crucial.

9. Put accuracy before power Like other sports such as rowing and weight lifting, boxing is more about rhythm, technique and accuracy than simply raw power. Focus on accuracy, power is useless if it misses its target, it wastes energy. That’s a great analogy for any entrepreneur who’s chomping at the bit to launch a new product or service, and dazzle the world. The best planned product or service will fail miserably if it doesn’t solve a customer want or need, all the smart marketing muscle in the world won’t matter.

10. Keep moving forward Although success in boxing is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, anyone can be broken physically by a relentless opponent. It’s hard to defend against someone who keeps punching, and who keeps moving forward, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill.

The same is true with business, many of the greatest successes are of those people who just kept working – James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. We never hear about the guy who quit, but the guy who persists and perseveres and keeps moving forward to their goal.

11. Don’t go for the knockout right away The rookie fighter always tries to go for the knockout right away, exuberance and inexperience combine, and fuelled by adrenalin, all that does is leave you open to a side step and counter punch, and tire you out and put you down quicker.

The experienced fighter understands that a knockout happens in the middle of an exchange, and it’s the punch you don’t see that gets you. In business, we expect success quickly, but it often takes longer than anticipated, and involves more risk and challenge. Business success is a journey, just keep punching, creating, and innovating, and the knockout will come.

12. Go for the Belt When a boxer is training they have one goal in mind, becoming champion. This drives them to get up early, to work out, eat healthy food, sacrifice some social events, get up when they get knocked down, and keep moving forward.

As an entrepreneur, decide what your championship belt is and use it to drive you. When things get challenging or you get knocked down, think about how badly you want it, get back up, and keep fighting for it. If you have the heart of champion you will never quit, and because you never quit, you can never fail.

The greatest fighter of all time, Muhammad Ali, said: I hated every minute of training, but I said, Don’t quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion; it’s a lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.

This captures the mental and physical spirit of boxers, something entrepreneurs need too, as it’s tough out there and the pace is fast. Both aim for ‘Personal Best’ in terms of achievement and results, both get up when knocked down, and both, like ’Cinderella Man, James Braddock, have discipline, clarity and focus to guide their thinking and doing towards their goals.

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