The Best Boxing Movies of All Time
With ‘Creed 3’ heading toward a big weekend, we choose the best films about the sweet science
With Creed 3 heading toward huge box-office numbers this weekend, it’s time to examine the enduring popularity of boxing movies. While not as popular or numerous as the Western or the mob movie, the boxing movie is a distinct genre unto itself. Usually a gritty reflection of current socioeconomic conditions told through the most literal metaphor of man vs. man, it’s no coincidence that it’s subject was the favorite sport to cover for verisimilitude concerned new journalists Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe, et. al. And like Westerns and mob movies, there are widely used cliches and tropes: the broken fighter convincing the sage trainer to grant him one last shot at making it; gym as church with endless training montages; slippery managers; real-life boxers, ring announcers, cornermen, ringside celebrities; and corners ready to throw in towel. The films vary in quality of course, but also in focus, from cameo-heavy art-of-the-fight films, biopics, dramas, comedies, or, as is often the case, combinations of all the above.
Before the list of champions, however, there are a few contenders that didn’t make it because you can better classify them in other genres, such as John Ford’s The Quiet Man, Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront, and Daniel Day Lewis’s The Boxer; they are overly derivative: The Great White Hope and Hurricane were a hit play and an epic Bob Dylan hit respectively; a better alternative exists despite its considerable merit as is the case with Michael Mann’s Ali; or, like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Champion, we dropped them like a boxer, because of the unkindness of age.
When We Were Kings
The only documentary on the list also gets the top spot. When We Were Kings is a distillation of Muhammad Ali’s unadulterated greatness. Shot during in Zaire in 1974 during the Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, the fight responsible for introducing rope-a-dope into the lexicon, it not released until 1996—it won the Best Documentary Academy Award that year—due to financing issues. Showing both Ali’s profound effect on Americans but also Africans as well, WWWK explores racial identity in both society and boxing, against a soulfully funky soundtrack of James Brown and B.B. King, who both also appear in the film. Ali is already no spring chicken but is still in the tail end of his prime and as eloquent as ever and already with a touch of reflectiveness. Cobbled together with sometimes unintentionally comical interviews with Mailer and Plimpton shot in the ‘90’s, critics consider Leon Gast’s decades-long passion project not only the best boxing documentary of all time, but one of the best docs, period.
Raging Bull is still, and maybe will always be, the best piece of cinema of in the genre so could easily be number 1 by that standard. Written by screenplay savant Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo) and directed in haunting black-and-white by Martin Scorsese, it’s the most artistically sound, visually compelling—the New York public pool still stuns more than 40 years later—and contains the best acting in the genre. And that’s not just Robert De Niro, as savage middleweight Jake LaMotta, who famously fluctuated his weight 60 pounds for the role, but also Frank Vincent, Cathy Moriarty in her film debut as LaMotta’s 19-year-old year paramour, and a pitch perfect Joe Pesci, who was a maitre’d at a restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy before accepting the role.
Not already being familiar with the entire Rocky oeuvre is frankly bordering on being un-American (the soundtrack, the steps, the statue), as is not ranking the fourth installment as tops. The Cold War allegory with an original James Brown song contains the most satisfying of the genre’s de rigueur training scenes, when Rocky trades his comfortable confines for a Russian farm in winter that’s contrasted with Ivan Drago’s high-tech steroid supplemented state-sponsored Russian facility. A close second, however, is Rocky III. I can still recall the childhood fear Mr. T’s Clubber Lang put in me even though I adored his B.A. Baracus on A-Team. No boxing movies hasn’t been derivative—or pointedly un-so—ever since.
Ryan Coogler’s Rocky reboot Creed (Steven Caple Jr. took over directing duties for the worthy second installment) features Stallone’s best acting this side of Copland—better than any of the Rocky movies—so it’s both improvement upon and a continuation of the Rocky legacy. Wood Harris, better known as Avon Barksdale from The Wire—where star Michael B. Jordan in the titular role got his start—along with English actors Ritchie Coster and Graham McTavish (after Russians, the British make boxing’s best bad guys, both on screen and in the sport itself) add acting chops while the expository use of iPad YouTube videos showing clips of previous installments as well as pop-up infographics detailing the fighter’s name, nickname, record, titles, and rank innovated the genre. A mouthwatering Philly cheesesteak scene and a star turn by boxing’s most knowledgeable real-life voice Max Kellerman add to its considerable attributes.
Prime James Woods, a young Heather Fox, Oliver Platt, and even real-life heavyweight contender turned character actor Randall “Tex” Cobb, work in harmony for this pulpy saga that goes from jailhouse to city slicker in the South comedy to action drama seamlessly making this the boxing flick that I will watch anytime it’s on TV. A sinister Bruce Dern, and Lou Gossett Jr., in his best role with maybe the exception of An Officer and a Gentleman, rounds out the cast. While it’s not very good cinema, it’s a great movie—definitely the best to wrap yourself in on a lazy afternoon. Directed by Michael Ritchie, also responsible for The Candidate, The Bad News Bears, and Fletch, among other Hollywood classics and not-so-classics.
The Great White Hype
The next two on the list are unsung ‘90’s masterpieces from ‘90’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction costars Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames, both playing Don King although the former has some Al Sharpton thrown in but with a Caesar haircut. First up is the The Great White Hype from 1996 (the same year When We Were Kings debuted), a racially prescient comedy with great cast including Jamie Foxx, who was best part of Ali as Ali’s real-life cornerman and poetic inspiration Bundini Brown ( a role also tackled by Bernie Mac in the next installment on this list). Damon Wayans, coming to the ring accompanied by Method Man, does his best Mike Tyson via The Simpsons’s Drederick Tatum, while Jon Lovitz, Corbin Bernsen, and Cheech Marin round out a stellar cast that features Jeff Goldblum’s hilarious “freelance crusader” as a parody of literary boxing journalist and Peter Berg as “Irish” Terry Conklin, a former grunge musician whose continual insistence he’s not Irish nonetheless leads to a ring entrance preceded by a pair of leprechauns.
Only In America: Don King
Only in America: Don King from 1997 is one of a handful of HBO-generated classics—before Netflix owned the originals game—along with Armand Assante’s Gotti from the year before (n.b. Sammy “the Bull” Gravano claims John Gotti once put a hit on Don King), the seed from whence the Sopranos sprung. Mixed up in Ving Rhames 90’s heyday of Con Air and Out of Sight, the biopic steps out of its confines sheerly due to King’s force of personality.
Director David O. Russell’s The Fighter is perhaps the best overall boxing movie. It tells story of Irish Mickey Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg who was born for the role, known for his trilogy of fights again Arturo “Thunder” Gatti. Wahlberg and his on-screen mother Melissa Leo, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, perfectly portray the daily mundanity of a particular kind of New England poverty, with help from Christian Bale as his brother Dicky Eklund, who went the distance in his 1978 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard, and Amy Adams, who more than holds her own amongst the motley crew.
A tortuous melodrama written by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, Southpaw is the most realistic portrayal of boxing of any of the movies on the list. And that saves it from a squinty mumbling performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, as does an unctuous 50 Cent and the father-daughter relationship at its core. That’s bookended by the ultra naturalistic boxing scenes, including the finest hand-taping scene in list at the beginning of the picture and the climatic fight at the end with real-life announcers Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr., who have so much screen time they are supporting actors. But it’s the performances of Forrest Whitaker and acting prodigy Matilda star Oona Laurence, who plays Gyllenhaal’s plucky 10-year-old daughter, that really land.
Million Dollar Baby
Speaking of squinty, Clint Eastwood offers what the kids call a master class in directing by harnessing Hilary Swank’s immense talents for Million Dollar Baby, one of his two late-era masterpieces along with Mystic River.The stool scene still shocks two decades later, as do the end-of-life portrayal that helped win in Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor, for Eastwood’s old Unforgiven costar Morgan Freeman in some of his finest work of his storied career.
One thought on “The Best Boxing Movies of All Time”
Raging Bull really is no. 1 here. The only thing I have ever agreed with Leonard Maltin about!