Boxing films will never go out of style – due in part to the sport’s long history, but also thanks to their relevance to the everyday battles we face in life.
Most boxing movies rely on the same old tropes, so why do these yarns continue to get us going? Perhaps it’s because boxing movies are metaphors for every fight in a person’s life – those moments where it doesn’t come down to trick plays, but just the bare essentials of heroism and heart. We’ve all been the scrappy underdog pinned against the ropes at one time or another and we all want to believe we can make a comeback and become the champ. Here are 15 of the best boxing movies that pack a real cinematic punch.
Image from Rocky
Director: John G. Avildsen
With its stirring emotional uplift, Rocky is a sweet science indeed. The 1976 sleeper hit penned by its star, Sly, was shot in just 28 days with Stallone fighting like a champion to bring his journeyman to life. An unlikely but deserved three-time Oscar winner, Rocky remains the blueprint for underdog sporting dramas.
An impoverished screw-up from a bad neighbourhood gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to be champ and Balboa gets in shape for his shot by punching beef carcasses in a meat-packing plant and running up the steps of art museums – all inspired by the real-life regime of Joe Frazier, who makes a cameo in the flick. It’s overdone, obviously (and has been tarnished that little bit more by the overplayed theme tune in lazy television commercials), but the layers get more interesting the more of them you peel off – there’s a clear reason that the film’s become a reference point for three generations. Rocky remains one of the most uplifting movies ever made. So much so, that – even in this scathing age – it’s pretty impossible to resist the charm.
Most punch-packing thing about it: That fight that ends the film. The scenes before it set us up for it so completely – so emotionally – that when it’s over, we’ve had it. We’re kissing canvas.
Image from Million Dollar Baby.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Few directors do their best work after their sixties, but Clint made his finest, most mature movie at the ripe old age of seventy-four. While Million Dollar Baby might’ve been pitched to the studios as a traditional boxing flick about an ageing guy looking for redemption by teaching the art to an eager young woman, in no way does that description give a proper impression of what the movie is actually like. Perhaps the best film about boxing in its less glamorous aspects, Eastwood himself storms the bleak and dirty drama with amazing audacity, supported by Morgan Freeman’s incredible turn as Clint’s “buddy,” and Hilary Swank, who just about acts these two icons off the screen with her performance.
Suffice to say, what starts out looking like another triumph-of-the-underdog flick turns into something much more as it takes on a massive moral weight that ultimately lands with the force of a knock-out punch.
Most punch-packing thing about it: The boxing scenes have a rawness that makes them scary to watch, especially as Swank impresses with surprising athleticism.
Image from Raging Bull.
Raging Bull (1980)
Director: Martin Scorsese
It’s almost unfair to compare Raging Bull to other sports movies; probably one of the darkest movies ever made and with two things that no other sports movie has – Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro – the film is more than just the rise and fall of a sports star. It’s an intense black-and-white outing that refuses to pull any punches in or out of the ring, with loathsome LaMotta’s dealings with the Mafia, ridiculously short temper, and paranoid tendencies becoming frighteningly clear as the film progresses.
When Ray steps inside the ring and obliterates his opponent, he’s a prizefighter. But when he treats his family and friends the same way, he’s a ticking time bomb. As he becomes consumed by the belief that his wife’s doing the dirty, we begin to see the trap he’s in. Poor raging bull… By the movie’s end, he has alienated himself from his wife and brother, and lost both his boxing title and freedom. Ouch.
Most punch-packing thing about it: When LaMotta’s wife mentions that his next opponent isn’t bad looking, he doesn’t just win the fight but destroys the fighter’s face, so that “he ain’t pretty no more”.
Image from When We Were Kings.
When We Were Kings (1996)
Director: Leon Gast
Boxing as a sport is inherently cinematic. It makes sense, then, that one of the best boxing films should be a documentary. And it especially makes sense that this doc should focus on boxing’s most titanic figure: Muhammed Ali. Covering the dramatic circumstances of the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, the film looks at the confluence of black nationalism and Ali’s unique status in the sport. Throughout the film, his slightly slurry speech hints to his future and our present.
When We Were Kings is so much more than a sports film. There is a lot of video footage of the build up to the fight, which expertly blends with viewpoints about culture and politics from writers and directors like George Plimpton and Spike Lee. Their interesting insights add weight to what you can see unfolding in front of your eyes – Ali coming face to face with his worst nightmares.
Most punch-packing thing about it: It’s the strongest case around for the validity of hero worship.
Image from Klitschko.
Director: Sebastian Dehnhardt
Klitschko is an entertaining documentary about Ukrainian sporting bros Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, who – back when the film was released – dominated the world heavyweight boxing division. It’s a massively celebratory flick, with the same tropes of adversity and triumph you would expect from any boxing movie. This one has an edge, though, from the Klitschkos’ upbringing in a Soviet-era Ukraine. Their father, an air force officer, was one of the first into Chernobyl after the nuclear accident, and the brothers speak rather humorously of their fear during their first visit to the States.
As the camera peers into the gorge-like gash on Vitali’s face, post Lennox Lewis fight, the lunacy of stopping a fist with your head may never be any clearer: This is a sport for nutters only!
Most punch-packing thing about it: The brothers’ brains, which are as substantial as their battering powers.
Image from The Fighter.
The Fighter (2010)
Director: David O. Russell
David O. Russell is a fiery chap; Christian Bale was arrested for attacking his mother; Mark Wahlberg did time for an unprovoked attack which left his victim blind. Let’s face it, these men are no saints. But, together, they make up a trio that’s pretty perfect for a movie about an insane boxing family. The Fighter is based on the true story of welterweight of the ’80s Micky “Irish” Ward and his junkie, ex-fighter brother Dicky Ecklund. Micky tended to lie back and take the hits, until the last minute where he’d spring the famous left hook that could annihilate his opponent – just like that.
O. Russell uses different techniques to build the documentary feel he’s trying to achieve. At the start, a camera follows Dicky and Micky down the street as they parade themselves through the neighbourhood, being followed by a camera crew recording what Dicky thinks is a documentary about his “comeback”. It ends with a disconcerting whoosh as the camera suddenly backs away from the scene, as if legging it from imminent disaster.
Most punch-packing thing about it: The eerie, faintly smug video clip of the real brothers themselves, right at the end.
Image from The Harder They Fall.
The Harder They Fall (1956)
Director: Mark Robson
A thinly disguised account of the Primo Carnera scandal, The Harder They Fall follows broke sportswriter Eddie Willis (Bogart’s last ever role) who’s hired by corrupt Nick Benko to promote his current protege. Moreno is a giant, but his chances for success are hampered by a glass jaw, and all his fights are fixed. When he gets a shot at the title against the brutal Buddy Brannen, Eddie is faced with the tough decision of whether or not to tell Toro that his entire career is a sham, as he realises for the first time how badly prizefighters are manipulated by their unfeeling managers.
It’s a nicely lensed sport-noir portraying the sleazy side of boxing. While it isn’t exactly Raging Bull in the violence department, the bruising fight scenes are incredibly savage for their time and Burnett Guffey’s Oscar-nominated cinematography has more than a few potent gut punches both in and out of the ring.
Most punch-packing thing about it: A movie masterpiece just until you witness the softest ending to a boxing film imaginable – the best thing about this movie has got to be Bogart’s incredible performance.
Image from Crying Fist.
Crying Fist (2005)
Director: Seung-wan Ryoo
Crying Fist is a well-crafted tale of two men regaining their self-respect by duking it out. It follows a former Olympic champ reduced to street-fighting for a living and a young aspiring boxer who learns to pull his punches in prison (much to his gran’s disdain). The sweet science gives them both a new sense of pride but, as always in the ring, only one man can win.
The two stories play out separately for much of the flick, meeting only in the final reel. Sang Hwan’s story is a fairly standard one of finding redemption, but Tae Sik’s thread really gives the film some welly. Thanks to another exceptional performance from Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik, you can see his pride evaporating as he offers himself up as a “human sandbag” in a shopping centre, on which passers-by can take out their frustrations by thumping him hard as he earns his wage. The fact you’re not sure who to root for in the final showdown (not to mention the uncertain outcome) makes this Korean number a refreshing change for the genre.
Most punch-packing thing about it: There’s barely a shred of unnecessary sentimentality.
Image from Requiem For a Heavyweight.
Requiem For a Heavyweight (1962)
Director: Ralph Nelson
Although Raging Bull will always hold the title among depressing boxing movies, Nelson’s 1962 downer holds its own quite nicely, refusing to give us a final glimmer of hope of any kind. The film considers sad, pathetic Mountain Rivera a good-hearted soul who was once among the nation’s best fighters, but is now little more than a gravelly-voiced shell. He does what he’s told by Jackie Gleason’s unscrupulous, self-serving bastard who also happens to hold the most realistic view of Mountain’s future.
Most of America can be reduced to a trumped-up victory or mindless competition; “comebacks” as the epitome of national virtue. But what of the cast-offs, the rejects, and the bums? Requiem for a Heavyweight is a judgment against the very idea of the endless parade for our heroes: People make poor choices that lead to ruin. What a refreshing downer, indeed!
Most punch-packing thing about it: A depressing realism that shines through in the script, largely due to the scriptwriter Rod Sterling’s own experiences as a boxer.
Image from Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)
Director: Ken Burns
Boxing movies often play on the fight for freedom – economic, social, and sometimes even political. Jack Johnson, the focus of Burns’ documentary, fought for all three. The film follows Johnson’s journey from his humble beginnings in Texas, as the son of former slaves, to his entry into the world of professional boxing, where “Heavyweight Champion of the World” was an exclusively “white title.” In 1908, he became the first African-American to earn the championship.
The film shows with perfection how Johnson took orders from no one and resolved to live as if color did not exist; reveling in riches, fame and women to the anger of many Americans. Because he did so, Burns shows how the federal government set out to destroy him – how he was forced to endure prison and exile. As the movie’s tagline goes, “They couldn’t knock him out, so they tried to tear him down.”
Most punch-packing thing about it: It’s as tragic as it is uplifting to see Johnson battle the bigotry.
Image from Rocky IV.
Rocky IV (1985)
Director: Sylvester Stallone
It’s the boxing equivalent to a superhero movie; his buddy gets taken out and Rocky sets out to avenge his death in American flag boxing trunks. Although it’s a formula we’ve all seen before (with an added layer of Cold War-inspired anti-communism), it’s still impossible not to root for old Rocky and get up off the canvas to whup that bully one more time.
The film contains one of the franchise’s best soundtracks, with fist-pumping tunes like Survivor’s “Burning Heart”. And there’s a reason Dolph Lundgren became so famous as Russian heavyweight Ivan Drago; he’s incredibly menacing. “Menacing,” however, is not to say that Sly and Lundgren aren’t much more concerned with waxing/oiling their chests than they are with technique. It’s off-putting, actually; they look varnished. Sly’s 1985 ode to the Cold War is laughably full of stereotypes, yet it remains majestic.
Most punch-packing thing about it: The showdown that features fourteen minutes of straight punches to the heads of both Rocky and Ivan.
Image from Girlfight.
Director: Karyn Kusama
Girlfight is a raw, low-budget tale of triumph against the odds that offers a female spin on the Rocky formula. Kusama’s film draws on her own experiences as a female boxer immersed in what is traditionally a pretty masculine culture – and it shows. Michelle Rodriguez, in her acting premiere, plays a young woman who discovers a way to channel her aggressions through training as a boxer, while hiding it from her father.
Despite it’s predictable plot, the intense acting from Rodriguez elevates this film to an engaging coming-of-age story. After seeing the movie, you’ll feel like you can hear every director that has ever worked with M-Rods since giving her the same direction: “Um, Michelle, do you think you could, uh, give me a bit more Girlfight?” And that’s no bad thing, because Rodriguez does everything one is expected to do and more in her first outing as an actor. It’s brilliant.
Most punch-packing thing about it: Kusama wholly defamiliarizing boxing as a subject, and making us see afresh the sport from a different perspective.
Image from The Champ.
The Champ (1931)
Director: King Vidor
This sentimental boxing film is worth seeing for the performances of Wallace Beery (who won the Oscar) and Jackie Cooper alone. Beery’s “Champ” goes from down-and-out loser to a man determined to quit the booze and show his son just what his old man used to be like in the ring. Dink loves his alcoholic dad, despite their squalid living conditions. And even more so when Champ accomplishes his goal. Unfortunately, his goal comes at the ultimate, tear-jerking price.
Beery’s drunk performance is fantastic. He swaggers his steps, stumbles on cue and can really slur his speech when he needs to do so and the on-screen chemistry between him and Cooper is surprisingly affecting. The climactic boxing scene isn’t as hokey as you might fear either, but neither would you actually mistake Beery (or his opponent) for boxing professionals. Don’t watch it for the action – watch it for the heart.
Most punch-packing thing about it: Dink weeping inconsolably over his father’s post-fight body.
Image from Ali.
Director: Michael Mann
The Ali script was fought over by Mann and Spike Lee. Mann came out the winner, and Lee was left protesting the decision saying that “only a black man could do justice” to the story. Still, Mann’s legendary eye for detail gets a good workout in this film, looking at the early years of Muhammed Ali’s life, which also functions as a backdoor history of the civil rights movement in ’60s America (how many other sporting champs could be used for a similar purpose? Wayne Rooney?). Mann plays perfectly on the most striking moments of Ali’s life, aided by Will Smith’s spot-on impersonation (he can be a good actor when he chooses the right roles).
Interestingly, Mann depicts J. Edgar Hoover as the biggest villain of the film; he’s the one attempting to vilify Martin Luther King and Muhammed Ali in the public’s eyes.
Most punch-packing thing about it: Ali trash talking America towards civil rights.
Image from The Hurricane.
The Hurricane (1999)
Director: Norman Jewison
The subject of a Bob Dylan song, the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter tells of one of boxing’s most famous martyrs, wrongly imprisoned for murder. The Hurricane is one boxing flick that really hits the sweet spot, doing all the cheesy and obnoxious things that biopics are notorious for while still being supremely entertaining. It’s Denzel Washington’s performance as Carter that allows it to reach its dizziest heights, but the filmmaking occasionally matches him, like in the impeccably edited scene with Carter talking to multiple versions of himself in solitary confinement.
Because Carter was eventually freed after 20 years in jail, the tale can be given a happy, upbeat ending and the movie is nicely sentimental. Just try not to get choked up as you watch it.
Most punch-packing thing about it: Denzel’s great acting, reminding us that there’s still a lot to be said for the old-fashioned, inspirational Hollywood movie.
Written by Sarah Gibson for Highsnobiety.com