Boxing movies might be the most cinematic of sports, putting two people into a ring and letting knock seven bells out of each other seems like the perfect sport for high tension. It’s no wonder that since images began moving there’s been boxing films. At the top might be the Rocky / Creed franchise, which has spanned a whopping nine instalments over fifty years and shows no sign of slowing. As the release of Creed III draws closer we take a look at ten essential boxing films.
While it may not be the first, it certainly is the most influential. Stallone’s lead performance and screenplay won him nominations at the Oscars, and went on to spawn a franchise we’re still talking about today. A story of rags to riches, the film couches its emotional core in brutal ringside fights. At its heart, like the title character, the film is more interested in the burgeoning relationship between Rocky Balboa and timid pet-shop worker Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire). There’s a reason this has become a pop culture phenomenon.
RAGING BULL (1980)
The true story of Jake LaMotta, a middle-weight boxer who’s addictions, rage and jealousy destroyed his marriage and relationships. Martin Scorsese directs the boxing scenes with exacting, precise detail, turning fights into poetic ballet. This is entirely a film belonging to a director at the height of his powers and Robert De Niro commands the screen as LaMotta. His easy chemistry with Joe Pesci as his brother Joey make the film what it is today. A tough, but rewarding look at one man’s fight against his worst instincts.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)
Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winning drama gained him a second Best Director win, as well as Hilary Swank’s second Best Actress award and a much deserved award for Morgan Freeman. The story, about an amateur female boxer who is helped by a fading trainer might seem like the old school formula to a feel good triumph but under the steady direction of Eastwood it becomes a meditation of father-daughter relationships with an emotional ending that is as heartbreaking as it is controversial. Not one for the faint of heart.
DON KING: ONLY IN AMERICA (1997)
A promoter almost as famous as the fighters he promoted. Don King is to boxing what Colonel Tom Parker was to rock’n’roll. This TV Movie stars Ving Rhames as the ex-convict who had been incarcerated for second degree murder. King is controversial, and his questionable practices show a darker side to the world of boxing but it’s that contradiction that has made King one of the biggest names in boxing despite him never throwing a punch. Rhames’ performance ranks as pretty much uncanny.
THE HURRICANE (1999)
The penultimate film by legendary filmmaker Norman Jewison is the true story of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter as played by an Oscar nominated Denzel Washington. For those not in the know Carter was a top ranking middle-weight boxer by 1966 when he was wrongfully arrested for a triple murder in a New Jersey bar. Carter spent twenty years in prison. His story is incredible as is the story of young Lesra Martin who fought to prove Carter’s innocence. A story of humanity and sports that feels as racially charged now as it did in the late 90s.
REAL STEEL (2011)
Not all boxing films need to be about blood and sweat, some can be about oil and gears. Hugh Jackman’s sports-sci-fi movie follows him as a former boxer who begins building robots to engage in boxing matches. The father/son dynamic is a little coy at times but the rock ‘em, sock ‘em punch ups are fantastic to watch.
Before she became The Fast and the Furious’ leading lady, Michelle Rodriguez made her debut in the first feature from Karyn Kasuma. The story of Diana Guzman, a hot-headed Brooklyn teen who can’t help but get into fights. Kasuma’s more down-and-dirty take on the formula pays off with a grit that is sometimes lost in the glitz of the boxing world.
FAT CITY (1972)
John Huston’s sport’s drama sees Stacy Keach as an ageing fighter beginning a rivalry with young upstart Jeff Bridges who he has begun training. Huston’s sure direction allows this lean 90-minute film to fly by with an ease that comes from the rapport between Keach and Bridges. Often overlooked but frankly delightful.
THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970)
James Earl Jones dominates the screen in the film adaptation of Howard Sackler’s play based on the true story of Jack Johnson. Though somewhat fictionalised, the story follows an African American boxer who rises through the ranks in Jim Crow era USA. His controversial marriage to a white woman and the fact that no white man could beat him in a fight makes this emotionally charged and politically important. Jones and Jane Alexander give performances for the ages.
THE CHAMP (1931)
Wallace Beery won an Academy Award for his turn as a washed up boxer who attempts to get his life back together for the sake of his son Jackie Cooper. King Vidor’s pre-code film might be the template for sports dramas to come, and most importantly won an academy award for woman screenwriter Frances Marion. Its blueprint is all over films like the Rocky sequels, Real Steel and Southpaw, and with good reason.