Documentary Review: The gloves are golden in the “Cradle of Champions”

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Showtime slick and boxing picture predictable, “Cradle of Champions” is about the New York epicenter of Golden Gloves boxing.

Journalist/director Bartle Bull picked three veterans of the annual Daily News charity event and followed them on their march towards amateur boxing’s pinnacle in this unsurprising but still illuminating portrait of pugilists facing their ultimate tests.

Titus Williams is a boxer’s boxer, a skilled tactician trained by a colorful former 9/11 firefighter turned trainer, Joe Higgins.

James Wilkins is a brawler in the “angry Mike Tyson” mold. His trainer yells “Body shots, jab and BODY shots!” at him for bout after bout, shouts that Wilkins ignores.

Both men own Golden Globes belts and more importantly — necklaces with actual gold gloves on them. But when Wilkins moved up to 132 pounds, they were destined to tangle. More than once, including the 2015 bout which the documentary captures.

Nisa Rodriguez is a tall, 24 year old South Bronx single mom and a multiple year Golden Gloves winner who dreams of the Olympics.

“Cradle” follows them on their quest, letting them show off their trophies, necklaces and belts, Rodriguez mentoring junior high kids in the South Bronx, Williams heading off to church, Wilkins’ mother showing off all the Bible verses she papers the walls’ to his room with “for inspiration.”

The film’s quick overview of New York Golden Gloves history doesn’t dwell on the winners, but on all the great fighters who were humbled there when they were learning their trade — Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Patterson and the young Cassius Clay, later “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, all lost there.

Bull gives a lot of screen time to the charismatic Higgins, who tells stories of pulling brother firefighters out of the ruins of the Twin Towers after 9/11, and who found new purpose after respiratory problems caused by that made him retire.

“They are the humblest of warriors,” Higgins says of fighters. And Titus Williams? He’s “a nice church-going kid from Long Island. He’s just not so nice in the ring.”

Wilkins is here for the contrast, a raging, flailing white working class slugger who resists civilizing influences and training, ignores mid-fight instructions and dreams only of landing that one big punch which will make him famous, let him turn pro and give a lift to his family.

His Bible-quoting mom is almost as colorful as Higgins, shrieking “GET IN THERE JAMES” at ringside. “It’s KNOCKOUT time!”

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Bull tries to get in close to his fighters, but never achieves anything more than an arms-length portrait of any of them, with the even-tempered Williams getting the short end of that stick.

Wilkins turns wrestler in one sparring session when he doesn’t like his partner’s tendency to tie him up with headlocks. His motivation for getting into the sport is that cliched “tragedy” that he witnessed as a young teen. You’re glad he did, because who knows how much mayhem this hothead would be stirring up with no boxing outlet?

Rodriguez is the most interesting, but even she’s left without much in the line of explainable motivation for why she took this sport up in her early teens.

“Who wakes up in the morning ready to go get hit?”

The fights aren’t shot like “Rocky,” thank heavens. Just a few rounds just a couple of minutes long each, with head protection and referees quick to call a standing eight count and fighters inclined to throw haymakers that most often miss makes for a more audience-friendly boxing experience.

At this point, finding an angle or fighter or story in this genre of sports films — features or documentaries — is impossible, even though audiences are diving into the “Creed” pictures as if they’ve never seen a fight.

“Cradle of Champions” doesn’t change that, but it does show the sport at its most enthusiastic and hungry, via fighters whose main glory, at this stage, is a pair of golden gloves they can wear around their neck when they win it all.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: TV-14

Cast: James Wilkins, Nisa Rodriguez, Titus Williams, Brian Adams, Julio Salinas Albino, Teddy Atlas

Credits: Directed by Bartle Bull. A Showtime release.

Running time: 1:40

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