Sports play a major part in the way the world works; from Superbowl Sunday to the World Cup final, pretty much everyone follows one sport or another. The problem is, the popularity of sports in general dictates that Hollywood tries and tries to churn out successful sporting movies, but sporting movies are notoriously hard to get right. That said, boxing seems to be one of the few sports that does work on film, and I’m here to prove it with 10 great boxing movies. Before we crack on with this list, I have to give some honorable mentions to a few films that didn’t quite make it into the top 10.
Rocky III (1982): When you think of boxing movies, you naturally think of the ‘Rocky’ franchise, but we can’t have seven ‘Rocky’ films in here can we? In this third film, the villain Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T) makes a strong case for himself and this is a great film, but not quite as good as some of the others in the series.
Cinderella Man (2005): One of Russell Crowe’s finest works, with a fantastic Paul Giamatti supporting role, but this film’s old-old-old school mentality lulls a hair too much to sneak into the top ten.
The Boxer (1997): Keeping it simple with the title, ‘The Boxer’ stars Daniel Day Lewis as a killer. But ‘The Boxer’ is not even his best film about being an Irish Revolutionary. I mean, come on Daniel; what kind of warped sequel to ‘In the Name of the Father’ is this?
Okay, on with the real winners…
10. Fat City (1972); Directed by John Huston; Starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges
Synopsis: Two men, working as professional boxers, come to blows when their careers each begin to take opposite momentum.
Verdict: A real old school boxing flick and the godfather of all boxing movies, pre-dating both ‘Rocky’ and ‘Raging Bull’. Stacy Keach, as Tully, carries the film’s focus in his showdown with a young Jeff Bridges. ‘Fat City’ is everything you want it to be; non-formulaic, aware of its angle, full of classic 70s dialogue, and a rip-roaring bout that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Had the story aged better over time, ‘Fat City’ would, indubitably, deserve to be ranked higher.
9. The Fighter (2010); Directed by David O. Russell; Starring: Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg
Synopsis: A look at the early years of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, and his brother who helped train him before going pro in the mid 1980s.
Verdict: Micky Ward sure does come off as a prick, but with Bale and Wahlberg in tow, the director Russell actually makes you want to root for Ward by the end. Dysfunctional in nature, Dicky Eklund’s portrayal absolutely ties together what would have been a rather bland stint without him. Docked points for sub-par boxing scenes by Marky Mark, ‘The Fighter’ has a candor and a degree of authenticity which allows it to keep it’s head above water among the all-time boxing greats.
8. Ali (2001); Directed by Michael Mann; Starring Will Smith, Jamie Foxx
Synopsis: A biography of sports legend, Muhammad Ali, from his early days to his time in the ring.
Verdict: Will Smith brings to life the childhood hero of many, Muhammad Ali. We’ve all got posters on our walls of the man who could truly float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. From his “Thrilla in Manila” to his personal journeys stateside, Ali fought more powers than just Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier. Smith’s wily persona of the world-class champion lands a devastating blow on this list amongst the great boxing flicks of old.
7. Southpaw (2015); Directed by Antoine Fuqua; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker
Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Wills to help him get his life back on track after losing his wife in a tragic accident and his daughter to child protection services.
Verdict: A vociferously flashy, most glamorous, Eminem-infused battle blast, ‘Southpaw’ attacks both fast and strong. Gyllenhaal is so unbelievably ripped and his surreal training sequences totally make this film. Fighting Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar, the fiery Colombian antagonist only makes you root for Billy Hope and his lost hope even more. Some may call ‘Southpaw’ formulaic and chalk this one up to bias based on its recent release, but Antoine Fuqua gets everything right from tight boxing sequences, to max-level grandeur, to a hard-hitting lefty landing a wonderful wallop into this top ten.
6. Rocky IV (1985); Directed by Sylvester Stallone; Starring Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren
Synopsis: After iron man Ivan Drago, a highly intimidating 6-foot-5, 261-pound Soviet athlete, kills Apollo Creed in an exhibition match, Rocky comes to the heart of Russia for 15 pile-driving boxing rounds of revenge.
Verdict: In the fight that single-handedly ended the Cold War, Rocky goes toe-to-toe with the juiced-up Russian cyborg machine, Ivan Drago, who inexplicably felled the great Apollo Creed. Rocky lights our hearts on fire by selecting the hard way out in defeating his Russian nemesis. Through snow-clogged sprints and intense cabin training, Rocky once again shows us that there are no demons out there incapable of being defeated. A 15-round packed-punch of emotion, passion, and defeating the Soviets lands ‘Rocky IV’ a place in the throes of greatness.
5. Undisputed (2002); Directed by Walter Hill; Starring Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames
Synopsis: When heavyweight champion George ‘Iceman’ Chambers lands himself in prison, the resident gangster arranges a boxing match with the reigning prison champ.
Verdict: Outside of having, pound-for-pound, the greatest boxing sequence of all time in film history (and you can take that to the bank), ‘Undisputed’ brings the unique concept of prison boxing to the table, an advantage unbeknownst to any other of its contemporaries. Iceman Chambers vs. Monroe Hutchens is right up there with Balboa vs. Creed, in terms of strength of fighting skills plus high class drama. The total underdog of the list, ‘Undisputed’ will wow you with its technical, authentic feeling final round. A must-see for boxing fans everywhere.
4. Creed (2015); Directed by Ryan Coogler; Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone
Synopsis: Everyone’s favourite former World Heavyweight Champion, Rocky Balboa, serves as trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.
Verdict: After the abomination that was ‘Rocky Balboa’, ‘Creed’ gets the franchise right back in line with technically savvy, intense boxing, led by magnificently deft camera work throwing us into all angles of the ring. Throw in real life boxer, Tony Bellow, playing the indomitable ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlon across the ring from Adonis Johnson (Creed), and the authenticity levels are unparalleled. With great training montages, including a dirt bike sidled run up the steps to victory, ‘Creed’ supplants not only Southpaw as the best boxing flick of 2015, but perhaps may be the #1 boxing picture of the past decade.
3. The Hurricane (1999); Directed by Norman Jewison; Starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber
Synopsis: The story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder, and the people who aided in his fight to prove his innocence.
Verdict: One of the better “outside the ring” stories of the bunch, elevated by a Mt. Rushmore performance by Washington. Washington, as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter fights not only his weary opponents in the ring, but the racism and hate that imprisoned an innocent man, until love overflows to bust him out. A real knockout punch right into the sixteenth round, ‘The Hurricane’ will box a hole right into the throws of your heart.
2. Rocky (1976); Directed by John G. Avildsen; Starring Sylvester Stallone, Carl Stone
Synopsis: Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer, gets a supremely rare chance to fight the heavy-weight champion, Apollo Creed, in a bout in which he strives to go the distance for his self-respect.
Verdict: The ultimate underdog story. The picture that made you believe you could conquer any obstacle in life by running up a few steps in front of a local museum. Bill Conti’s epic soundtrack, Rocky Balboa’s finest clash with Apollo Creed, and the city of Philadelphia’s soul combine to make ‘Rocky’ an all-timer. With Burgess Meredith, a world class stick man, and the darling Talia Shire along for the ride, Rocky conquers every mountain, both real and metaphorical on its climb to the top (well, nearly the top).
1. Raging Bull (1980); Directed by Martin Scorsese; Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
Synopsis: An emotionally self-destructive boxer’s journey through life, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring, destroys his life outside it.
Verdict: A legendary, poetic performance by the menace of a boxer, Robert De Niro playing Jack La Motta. This it the film that makes any young kid want to be a boxer and perhaps evokes a raging bull inside all of us. ‘Raging Bull’ is filled with demons, relief, and a pleasantly insane narrative. Viciously brutal boxing sequences mixing slow beating and frenetic flurries of blows, plus a heart of gold, mean Scorsese’s finest work tops this list.