Showtime’s Cradle of Champions aims to be the “Hoop Dreams” of boxing. While that level of ambition exceeds its grasp, it’s still a fascinating look at three young fighters entering the purest of competitions, the New York Daily News Golden Gloves.
Nisa Rodriguez is a single mother going for a record sixth championship. Straight outta Brooklyn with skills and moxie to spare, she is the most sympathetic of the trio.
James Wilkins and Titus Williams couldn’t be more different, but they are on a collision course at 132 pounds.
Wilkins has had the tougher life. He’s less polished. Both in and out of the ring. He’s talented, but it’s easier to see his style of fighting playing better as a professional than as an amateur.
Williams is the slicker boxer and the more enigmatic personality. His style of boxer/counter puncher with fast hands plays better in headgear than it might without. He’s better on defense. Harder to grasp. Whether in the squared circle or not.
There is an immediacy to the way the first time director Bartle Bull shoots the 100 minute film. It’s vibrant and compelling. At times it’s more like eavesdropping on a live event than watching a movie. It’s an ingenious use of style to match content.
The fight and training scenes are superb, but it’s the way Bull presents the three fighters’ lives that is every bit as significant. The volatile Wilkins with his hardscrabble background and family history, you get the feeling he is fighting for his very life. The mysterious Williams who clearly is the least open, but through that protective nature, something is revealed. He needs control. Craves it. But there are signs of self-doubt around the edges. In the look of his face when being interviewed. And then Nisa. A woman who splits the difference between Williams and Wilkins. Her life is challenging, but she has found order to it. Above all three, she most knows who she is and why she fights. She is both open and stable. She is among the easiest people to root for you could ever meet.
“Cradle of Champions” also reminds of what types of athletes become boxers. Working class folk. Those from broken homes. People for whom life itself is a series of scraps.
If boxing didn’t exist already, it would have to be invented for them. These people are fighters. At the end of Cradle of Champions, you’ll be thankful to have spent some time with them and eager to know what they are doing now. Which, thankfully, the postscript before the credits provides.