Thursday 13 August 2015

Top 5: Boxing Films

Few sports enjoy as rich a relationship with cinema than boxing. A sport that explores the entire human spectrum of emotion, from dizzying highs (Rocky) and spiralling, disparaging lows (Raging Bull), boxing isn’t just rich with tales of legendary heroes (We Were Kings), it’s also hugely cinematic in real life; how many other sports can draw crowds as far reaching and diverse as Mayweather v Pacquiao did in May earlier this year?

To coincide with the release of Antoine Fuqua’s new boxing drama Southpaw, I decided to take a look at some the greatest bouts ever put to film. So pull on your gloves, grit your teeth and step into the ring for my picks for Top 5 boxing films ever made.

1. Rocky (1976)

Director: John G. Avildsen
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young

Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed; a classic tale of David v. Goliath, and an underdog story for the ages as Sylvester Stallone’s iconic working-class hero taking on the reigning champ in the unlikeliest of success stories. Whoever wins, it was always going to be Rocky that captured our hearts through sheer will and steely determination.

Does it get any better than this? Apparently not, as Rocky’s astronomical success saw it not only bag Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, but also spawn a sprawling series of films that actually don’t deteriorate in quality as they go (well, if you discount 1990’s Rocky V that is).

Shot in just over a month on a shoestring budget of US$1 million, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why Rocky resonated so clearly with a downtrodden and war-weary United States. An uplifting rags-to-riches, against-all-odds sports fable, Rocky soared to a sweet US$225 million box office gross and converted Stallone into a bona fide megastar in the process.

As overplayed as Bill Conti’s theme has been over the years, it’s undeniably one of the best, and most uplifting, pieces of music in cinema history. I challenge anyone to give it a listen and not feel like they can take on the world. 

2. Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are a dynamic duo who’ve worked together on multiple occasions (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino), but arguably their most brilliant cinematic sortie was their 1980 biographical drama, Raging Bull.

Despite not being a fan of boxing itself (or any sport for that matter), Scorsese knew that he could relate to the tormented everyman tale of Italian-American boxer Jake LaMotta (De Niro), and channel this understanding of the complex man to the silver screen in a way that constructed "the ring as an allegory of life.” 

You see, despite containing some truly astounding fight scenes, Raging Bull is more about the sexual and physical politics happening inside LaMotta’s head, as he struggles to keep a lid on the untempered rage driving a wedge between him and his wife (Cathy Moriarty). A terrific lead performance from De Niro that is driven by possessive jealousy and searing anger, this is one sports film that is equal parts psychology and physicality.

After receiving a raft of less than positive reviews for its confronting content, Raging Bull was branded a box office flop; it grossed a disappointing $23 million on a budget of $18 million. However, since then, Scorsese’s magnum opus has rightly gone on to be recognised as one of the greatest films ever made, with its inclusion in the National Film Registry taking place in 1990. 

3. The Fighter (2010)

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams

Before David O. Russell discovered (and presumably adopted) Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, he stepped into the ring for biographical feature The Fighter, one of the better boxing films we’ve seen in recent years.

Starring Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg as two brothers who’re working together to propel the latter into a successful pro career, The Fighter is most definitely Wahlberg’s best film to date, with the former rapper delivering a brilliant performance as the down-on-his-luck Micky Ward. That being said, this film is elevated to another level entirely thanks to an uncompromisingly committed performance from a transformative Bale. Slimming down to play Wahlberg’s crack-addled older brother Dicky, Bale once again disappears into a role with both his mind and body. His reward: a Best Actor Academy Award.

Rounding out the all-star cast is Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, both of whom were rightly nominated in the Best Support Actress category at the Academy Awards that year (Leo went on to win).

In many ways, The Fighter is an amalgamation of many other bygone boxing films; it borrows the family element from Raging Bull, the underdog story from Rocky and the period setting of something like Ali. Plus, it kick-started O. Russell’s current purple patch that extends across his later films, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle

4. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman

Films like American Sniper make it easy to forget, but Clint Eastwood was once as powerful behind the camera as he is in front of it. No film is better proof of this than 2004’s Best Picture Academy Award winner Million Dollar Baby, a film that Eastwood not only directed, but also co-produced, scored and starred-in.

At first glance, Million Dollar Baby feels like your typical boxing film; you’ve got Maggie (Hilary Swank), a fame-hungry youngster eager to work her way through the ranks with the help of the grizzly reluctant ageing superstar (Eastwood with Morgan Freeman as his co-star). But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a deep, complex film where the initial premise is only first 20%, with the rest twisting and turning in ways that defy the generic boxing film set of troupes.

Needless to say, it also includes one of the most unexpected plot twists I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen it, you won’t find any spoilers here. Just do yourself a favour, and find out for yourself. It’s fantastic.

5. Ali (2001)

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith

Arguably Will Smith’s finest hour in the realm of drama, Ali is a sprawling biographical film from director Michael Mann about 20th Century sporting icon, Muhammad Ali.

Spanning an entire decade and clocking in at a whopping 167 minutes, Mann arguably bites off more than he can chew with Ali; credit where credit is due, Mann strives to not just paint a portrait of the man himself, but also cover the entire canvas with commentary on the great social upheavals taking place across America during that time period, including the assassination of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and Martin Luther King Jnr (Le Var Burton).

Despite being a relative hit with critics, Ali was a doomed endeavour for both Mann and Smith; after two years on the job, the project racked up a bill in excess of $100 million, and ultimately couldn’t earn back the extortionate costs. Ambitious but flawed, Ali is an unduly overlooked insight into an enigmatic man that should at least be given points for trying.

Thanks for reading! What're your favourite boxing films of all time? Let me know in the comments section below!


  1. Nice work. I did a top 12 back just before The Fighter came out. I flip flop your top 2.

    Think I'm going to redo it after seeing Southpaw and Creed. So probably, next year.

    1. Good thinking Wendell! :) Southpaw would miss the cut if I redid this list, but maybe Creed might sneak in there if the trailers are anything to go by.

  2. Excellent choices. The Set-Up would be my champion, with Raging Bull #1 contender!

  3. Glad to see The Fighter on this list! Probably my favorite boxing movie, without putting much thought into it.

    The only one that I know I would add to this list would be Rocky IV. It's just so dang epic. Basically, it is a metaphor for American sticking it to the Soviets, but, nonetheless, so much fun!

    1. Might have to give Rocky IV a rewatch - it's been a while ;)



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