Humble, hungry, and ready.
There’s no better entry point into a subject as expansive and famed as the New York Daily News‘ Golden Gloves tournament than a pair of talented fighters with history. This way you’re able to turn your focus onto them as they train and work their way to the finals for a brutally close bout wherein both leave everything in the ring. Sprinkle in some historical tidbits about the tournament itself with a litany of legendary names cutting their teeth before prolific professional careers and you’ve made what would otherwise be an informative, matter-of-fact documentary into a human story of perseverance and heart. Suddenly Bartle Bull‘s Cradle of Champions isn’t about the Golden Gloves at all, but the prospective victors seeking glory in sport and also life.
Similarly named to Bill Farrell‘s 2007 book, Bull’s movie portrays the ninety-year old establishment as a legacy rather than encyclopedic document of talking points and talking heads. What it means to be a champion because of that heritage becomes a driving force behind Titus Williams and James Wilkins‘ 2015 season. This is their final chance at repeat glory with professional contracts waiting around the corner, so they understand it means more than simply bragging rights. The former is calm and collected thanks to the tutelage of Joe Higgins while the latter is a hothead with a quick temper despite the best efforts of Gary Starks Sr. They’re so tuned-in that both cheer when the other makes the final because that last win now becomes even sweeter.
While there was probably enough footage compiled of their parallel journeys for a feature-length film, Bull decides to add a third character with five-time women’s champion Nisa Rodriguez as she seeks her sixth en route to a hopeful Olympics bid. Hers is a great story all on its own because it’s not coming from the toxic masculinity angle that shapes a lot of the narrative surrounding the boys. Nisa didn’t take up the sport as a way to avoid gang life. She did it because it gave her purpose, agency, and the mental fortitude to raise her son and go to college. She’s here to set an example for her child as well as those young girls who look up to her at the school where she works.
So Nisa proves a welcome reprieve from James and Titus punching things in the gym with the singular goal to be the best and earn their paydays. Unfortunately, however, her thread never quite gels as anything other than that distraction. Learning about Higgins’ harrowing experience as a firefighter during 9/11 or Pat Russo‘s fight to reopen New York City gyms with public funding that worried parents voted to close has the benefit of their connection to the boys as coach and mentor respectively. Moving the spotlight to them is natural because a transition back towards the boys in their sphere is built-in. Nisa doesn’t have that advantage. For better or worse, her trajectory takes us away from Titus and James despite their collision course being the obvious centerpiece.
It’s a shame because her story becomes a hybrid wherein she’s old enough to be both the athlete putting everything on the line and the wise adult who comprehends the meaning of it all beyond selfish pursuits. Where the boys need their coaches to talk and add perspective beyond hype, Nisa provides her own context. That makes her the most three-dimensional of them all (alongside Higgins who really steals the show in many instances with his introspective philosophies on boxing as a way of life). So it’s disappointing that she ultimately becomes the afterthought. Without any external build-up to her final by supplying information about her opponent, that match loses its drama. We know Nisa will be okay win or lose because boxing got her life on track.
Williams versus Wilkins is compelling because we aren’t sure what happens to them if they lose. They have so much riding on a victory that anything less could derail everything. Does that make it more meaningful than Nisa’s road? No. It’s just more exciting—another truth that unfortunately lessens her story’s impact when shoehorned in on the side. If not for the ease of us really pulling for Nisa to win, the constant starts and stops away from the boys might have been too frustrating to overcome. As it is, though, even knowing who will win thanks to having seen camera operator Kirsten Johnson‘s wonderful documentary Cameraperson doesn’t lessen the adrenaline rush of watch Titus and James trade haymakers. We want to know how they’ve fared since.
Cradle of Champions is therefore helped and hindered by its choice of subjects. The 2015 tournament wasn’t lacking captivating storylines and picking three probably was the right call to delve into the motivations behind the fighting, but the third is left out when the other two are so interconnected. I think Bull does a great job with pacing and editing to get everything in there, but the struggle for attention can never be won by Nisa when the other two journeys ending in the same ring together becomes a foregone conclusion. It’s a case where Titus and James’ finals match-up should have forced Bull’s hand to shift gears and cut Nisa out. I get him not wanting to, but it does a disservice to her and the film.
Luckily the broader topics of boxing as a sanctuary of mind, body, and spirit shine above individual narratives. When you take away the prospect of the finals and see the struggle these three have faced and conquered, that core messaging comes through loud and clear. That urge to make everything about the championship by the end is merely too potent to ignore, though, because it starts asking for more examples of conflict than camaraderie. It’s almost too late then to show James working so compassionately with a young kid after the last match when he was always colored as the uncontrollable rage-monster beforehand. The latter angle worked in tandem with Titus’ composure, but it may have also stifled his complexity. It’s thus two steps forward, one step back.
 Heading to the Ring Barclays Center finals
 Nisa Rodriguez
 Titus and Coach Joe corner Barclays Center finals