When it comes to the sports film, boxing is the undisputed champion with no challenger in sight.
Yea we remember how “Hoosiers” made us feel and how “Caddyshack” made us laugh. Who can forget the inspirational “Remember the Titans” or the over-the-top “Any Given Sunday”? One of my very favorite sports films is “Against All Odds”, which featured an incredibly ridiculous soundtrack highlighted by Phil Collin’s searing title score.
But when its done right, nothing can compare to a boxing film and what it can produce in cinematic scope. Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, Mickey Ward, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, James Braddock… The lives of these fighters have been turned into classic, even iconic, films. The duality of their fighting existence is often so fascinating, that even works of fiction has produced the stuff of legend. Rocky Balboa is one of the most recognizable characters in movie history and earned Sylvester Stallone a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
No other sport strips a man (or a woman) to the absolute core of who you are (or who you’re not) than boxing. Because fighters so often come from a place of disadvantage and abject poverty; its that perilous journey they walk in pursuit of glory – a journey that becomes so personal to us – which makes their triumph or failure resonate within our souls.
These are 10 of the very best ever made.
#10. WARRIOR (2011)
There haven’t been a lot of really great MMA movies made but this one certainly qualifies, as it wasn’t really expected to make any box-office noise at all. Right around the time Tom Hardy was preparing to play ‘Bane’ in the “Dark Knight Rises”, he was going head-to-head with his brother in what proved to be a high-octane action film with plenty of fight scenes and family drama. Its not often you get a film that features two protagonists, leaving you unsure who you should root for. The movie does manage to journey down to cliché-ville every now and then, but still, this was a great film.
#9. GIRLFIGHT (2000)
The film that introduced Michelle Rodriguez to the world, Girlfight, is the fascinating tale of a troubled girl who can’t stop getting into fights at school and copping verbal abuse from her Dad when she’s home. She eventually winds up at a local boxing gym – gets into a fight with one of the fighters – and becomes one. Rodriguez’s raw performance wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, and from a sociological standpoint it was a very important film. In a cool ode to Rocky, her love interest in the film is a guy named Adrian. Another cool fact about the making of the film is, Rodriguez was chosen by the producers over 300 other women in her very first audition ever. What a career she’s had since then.
#8. THE HURRICANE (1999)
This just may be the most underrated performance of Denzel Washington’s incredible career. Nominated for an Oscar for his gripping portrayal of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, it took watching it a second time to fully appreciate it (it is not a date movie, as my date for this movie actually started snoring on it in the damn theater). Who knows what kind of greatness Carter was headed for when he was wrongly convicted of murder. The movie chronicles Carter’s early boxing career and his incarceration until the case was overturned in 1985 after almost 20 years behind bars. Carter was a bona-fide badass, and Denzel showed he was every bit one too in the title role.
#7. CINDERELLA MAN (2005)
Russell Crowe and Rene Zellweger made you morph into the Great Depression and everything James Braddock experienced as a fighter who suffered far more outside of the ring than in it. Braddock broke his hand and was forced out of the game to work for pennies on the dock, only to be forced to return to the ring. All he did was over-achieve his way to an improbable upset of Max Baer to become heavyweight champion of the world.
#6. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)
I had no idea what to expect when I saw this film, only that it was a Clint Eastwood film- which meant it had to be great. Turns out it was unforgettably great. What made this film so special (beyond the tragic turn that left me soaking my popcorn in tears), was how Eastwood was able to offer a very realistic and poignant rendering of the fight game’s brutal reality in every grim aspect. A little hard to watch and capable of prompting an immediate trip to the liquor store, it was never-the-less a totally worthy Oscar for Best Picture, and produced deserved Oscars for Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman as well.
#5. THE CHAMP (1979)
I never saw the original in 1931 with Wallace Berry and Jackie Cooper, possibly making me an asshole big-upping the 1979 remake the way I am. But Jon Voight nailed his role of a father staging a comeback to help retain custody of his young son. Voight’s son in the remake was played by a pre- Silver Spoons Ricky Schroder, who automatically moved audiences to the core when he kept uttering the famous, iconic line “Wake up champ”, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in any sports film.
#4. THE FIGHTER (2010)
The acting in this film is superior to any of the others on this list. It was a marvel to behold what Boston’s own Mark Wahlberg was able to do with “Irish” Mickey Ward, and equally amazing to watch Amy Adams so accurately portray Mickey’s wife. As great as they were, the performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo (as Mickey’s brother Dickey Ecklund and their Mom respectively), were extraordinary performances for the ages. Bale made you absolutely believe he was the manic, out of control crack-head who once fought a prime Sugar Ray Leonard, while Leo minimized every actor she shared the screen with, portraying the sensitivity of a mother who couldn’t hide Mickey wasn’t her favorite son. If you haven’t seen this film- kill yourself.
(Please- I’m just kidding!)
#3. WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)
This documentary, 20 years in the making about the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the 1974 heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, is quite simply a masterpiece. You’re basically not a fight fan if you haven’t seen this (I’m not gonna ask you to kill yourself, but you should think about it). All of the unique things that lead to this fight being made, the making of Don King, the financing of the fight by deadly dictator Mobuto Sese Seko… Its just an amazing behind-the-scenes look at one of the most famous boxing matches of all-time.
#2. ROCKY (1976- …it just doesn’t end)
There’s never been a better underdog movie ever made, as Rocky Balboa is beloved by all. The fact that Sylvester Stallone was a complete unknown himself, makes it all the more compelling and real. We believed him, and he made us believe in him. The first film has to be the best of the franchise, while the first three sequels were insanely popular and are all considered iconic films (Rocky IV was my sh*t). Rocky V, which featured 90’s heavyweight Tommy Morrison (who was also the nephew of John Wayne) as the villain, didn’t have the heart of the other films and was largely forgotten. Rocky Balboa redeemed things in 2006 as Antonio Tarver (who has an upcoming bout on SPIKE TV with Premiere Boxing Champions) played the bad guy, and we’re looking to seeing what Balboa does with the grandson of Apollo Creed in the 7th installment.
#1. RAGING BULL (1980)
Raging Bull isn’t really a traditional movie about boxing, rather, its a ridiculously deep character story about Jake LaMotta. What Robert De Niro does so brilliantly (in a way no other actor has before or perhaps ever will), is paint a Picasso on the big-screen of how LaMotta used boxing as an outlet for this immense rage inside of him, while also using it for the punishment he feels he deserves. Throw in Martin Scorsese’s ability to weave in LaMotta’s mafia ties and myriad personal problems with an edgy grace, and you’ve got not only the best fight film ever made, but one of the greatest movies of all-time.
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So… I’m sure you ‘ve got your own list or feelings about where certain pugilistic films may rank – or how some of these may not rank at all to you. Films like “Somebody up there likes me” or “Requiem for a heavyweight” are great films, but its just a matter of taste. I initially had “Ali” in the mix before deciding against it. Its very ambitious and features an all-star cast, but its just not a very good movie. Either way that’s cool, for what is life without a contrasting view?
I reflected on all of this due to the fight film project I’m currently involved with, as “Oklahoma Sun” is slated for release in late 2016. The film revolves around the aforementioned Morrison, who was really almost a boxing version of Scarface or the anti-Rocky in almost every way. As a film crew, we’re challenged with trying to get our film placed among your top 10. With a new round of fight films in the works in a new era of boxing, if these films don’t beat the one’s of yesterday they’ll at least promise to challenge them tomorrow.
Keep swinging- and don’t spill the popcorn.