Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorite Boxing Movies

This weekend, one of the most hyped sports movies in recent memory has been released. That movie is The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg as former welterweight champ Mickey Ward. Though I haven’t seen it yet, I am anxious to. To me, boxing movies reign supreme in the genre of sports films. It seems that the folks who give out awards agree with me. The only two sports movies to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture were both about boxing. Don’t worry, I’ll name them as I get to them.

Truth told, none of these movies are truly about boxing. They’re about the triumphs and tragedies of an individual. They’re about one person trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps which earns our vested interest in whether they succeed or fail. They’re about winning and losing, both in the ring and in life.

I haven’t seen every boxing movie. In fact, while researching this topic I found there are a great number of them I’ve missed. Therefore, this is not a comprehensive “Greatest” list, it’s a “Favorites” list. As in, of the dozens I’ve seen these are my favorites. Oh, and why 12 instead of the normal 10? When I was growing up, championship fights lasted 15 rounds. In an effort to make the sport safer that number was reduced to 12. Initially, I was going to do 15, here. However, in the interest of your safety I’ve limited myself to…

My 12 Favorite Boxing Movies
(Quick Key:
The Key
Promoter = the director
Fighter = the person starring as the boxer
Weight Class = Fighting weight class of the boxer)

12. The Hurricane (1999)
Fighter: Denzel Washington
Weight Class: Middleweight
Promoter: Norman Jewison[/size][/color]
Based on the life and times on middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted of murder and the subsequent fight to prove his innocence. In the title role, Denzel Washington gives a fantastic performance that elevates the movie past other contenders. However, as good as he is, take away a point for him being much bigger than any middleweight.

11. Tyson (2008)
Fighter: Mike Tyson
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: James Toback
Former Heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson basically psychoanalyzes himself. He displays the intelligence he’s hardly given credit for possessing. He also has some his own version of the truth and his sanity is very much in question. It’s hardly a traditional boxing movie but an intriguing watch, nonetheless.

10. Ali (2001)
Fighter: Will Smith
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Michael Mann
Instead of trying to chronicle Muhammad Ali’s entire life, this focuses on the period between 1964 and 1974, culminating with his historic fight in Zaire against then unbeaten and menacing champ George Foreman. It’s probably the most underappreciated movie on the list. Audiences and critics alike were rather apathetic towards it. Still, Will Smith’s powerful portrayal of “The Greatest” garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

9. Rocky II (1979)
Fighter: Sylvester Stallone
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Sylvester Stallone
Somehow, people conveniently forget that in the original Rocky our hero didn’t actually win the big fight. This is the movie where Rocky actually turned the trick. When he finally does, we let out two movies worth of exhilaration. Thus, some have proclaimed this to be the best in the series. I disagree, but it’s a pretty clear cut second as the series took a sharp turn in tone and slathered on the cheese even heavier starting with Rocky III.

8. Cinderella Man (2005)
Fighter: Russell Crowe
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Ron Howard
Here, we get a biopic on Heavyweight champ James J. Braddock. More than anything we watch him try to hold his family together through the Great Depression. Bills piled up and money stopped coming in, but through it all our champ remained a gentleman. Russell Crowe is as compelling as always. The only real knock is Braddock seemed a little too perfect. Still, it works.

7. Let’s Do it Again (1975)
Fighter: Jimmy Walker
Weight Class: Middleweight
Promoter: Sidney Poitier
This is the most unique movie on the list. It’s the only comedy and the fighter has little to do with our enjoyment of the film. That fighter is super scrawny Bootney Farnsworth played by Jimmy Walker, better known as J. J. from Good Times. It’s really about a couple guys pulling a con on a pair of gangsters to raise funds for their lodge. Those two guys are played brilliantly by the one of the 1970s greatest comedic duos, Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. As for our champ, well, let’s just say the power of positive thinking is taken to new heights. Hip Hop culture owes this movie a debt, as well. One of the gangsters is named Biggie Smalls, the original and still more popular moniker the late MC, The Notorious B.I.G.

6. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)
Fighter: Jack Johnson
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Ken Burns
Ken Burns’ epic documentary on the first Black Heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, is a sprawling, enthralling masterpiece. It’s the only movie here that might not qualify as such. It originally aired in two parts on separate nights on PBS and totals about four hours making it a made-for-TV flick, at best. That’s okay. Quality transcends medium. Through Johnson, we get a palpable sense of the political and racial climate of the late 19th and early 20th century and we get to see a man who, for the most part, embodied a song Frank Sinatra would make decades later: “I Did it My Way”.

5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Fighter: Hilary Swank
Weight Class: Welterweight
Promoter: Clint Eastwood
One day, a fighter walks into Frank’s gym asking to be trained by him in hopes of one day winning a title. First off, the fighter’s already 31 years old. The bigger problem: the fighter is a woman. Frank refuses, but she keeps coming back until he relents. From there, we get a fantastic boxing movie. Along with Swank as our champ, Maggie, and Clint bringing his usual gruffness to his role as Frank, we get a great supporting turn from Morgan Freeman. In case you’ve forgotten, this is one of only two sports movies to ever win an Oscar for Best Picture. It’s only movie featuring a female to make this list.

4. When We Were Kings (1996)
Fighter: Muhammad Ali
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Leon Gast
Back when he was young enough to do so, Muhammad Ali played himself in the autobiographic film The Greatest. It’s a solid movie in its own right that culminates with the champs win over George Foreman. Years later, Will Smith would play Ali in the movie of the same title and earn an Oscar nod for doing so. That movie also ended after the Foreman fight. Between the two is this documentary that takes us much deeper inside the making of that legendary fight. We see Ali realize that he is, and comfortably step into the role of an international figure. Meanwhile, Foreman struggles with having the cloak of a villain practically forced upon him. It’s a spectacular piece of work.

3. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1964)
Fighter: Anthony Quinn
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Ralph Nelson
After taking a beating at the hands of Cassius Clay, a young Ali playing himself in a cameo (he’s all over this list), Mountain Rivera finds out that was his last fight. Damage to his eye has caused the doctor in attendance to forbid him to fight any longer. He’s been a fighter for 17 years, that’s all he knows. We watch him struggle to make his way in the world while the people close to him tug him in different directions. It’s a heart-breaking picture that’s just perfect all the way through, including the wonderful performance of Anthony Quinn as Mountain.

2. Rocky (1976)
Fighter: Sylvester Stallone
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: John G. Avildsen
This is where we first meet and fall in love with Rocky Balboa. At this point, he’s not even a has-been, he’s a never-was fighter trying to make ends meet on the mean streets in Philly. He lucks into a shot at the heavyweight title when the guy scheduled to fight the champ breaks his hand. From there, we get arguably the most imitated movie in history. Hundreds, if not thousands of movies have followed its template and not all of them are sports movie. For creating something so iconic, Sylvester Stallone never gets enough credit. After so many sequels and so many other not nearly as thoughtful movies, we forget that Stallone didn’t just play Rocky, he created the character and wrote the screenplay. Oh yeah, this was the first sports movie to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

1. Raging Bull (1980)
Fighter: Jake La Motta
Weight Class: Middleweight
Promoter: Martin Scorcese
Former middleweight champ Jake La Motta has far more in common with Mike Tyson than Rocky. He pretty much defines “self-destructive.” He’s also destructive to those around him, too. He views them all like they’re his opponents, wary of every move they make, fearing they’re trying to land the knock out blow. He treats them as such and it costs him big. Here is a brutal movie about a brutal man in a brutal sport. To bring Jake to life, Robert De Niro gives what might be the best performance of his career. This didn’t win Best Picture, but it should’ve in my opinion. C’mon Academy! Ordinary People? For my money, this is the best sports movie ever made.

Other Contenders:

The Great White Hope (1970)

The Champ (1979)

Rocky IV (1985)

The Great White Hype (1996)

Resurrecting the Champ (2007)

Facing Ali (2009)


  1. great posts.
    it would be better if you post article about great film about boxing weight classes

  2. yes,this is greatest post :),thanks wendell
    and george,is any film about boxing weight classes

  3. Thanks guys. The problem with trying to get into specific weight classes is most of the boxing movies that are any good are about heavyweights or middleweights. Other classes are severely under-represented.

  4. Now those are fight movies and certainly way better than the bullshit that happened last night. It was a disgrace to the sport of boxing.

    1. Lotta complaining about it. Didn't get to see it, myself, as I planned to. Now I'm glad I didn't.

    2. My dad knew it was going to suck as all of his friends told him it wasn't. Now, they have to realize how right he was. We watched it but through illegal streaming in French and.... that didn't help things either. I've seen better fights at schoolyards than that charade.

    3. Not being able to speak French would have made that quite the experience for me, lol.