There have been many movies made over the years about the sweet science and some of boxing’s greatest fighters and personalities. People love watching boxing films because of the inspirational recurring theme of overcoming challenges in life to achieve your goals and dreams. Of course, there’s also a fascination of watching two guys in the ring pounding the hell out of each other. In any event, here are my picks for the five best, most powerful boxing films to date.
5. Million Dollar Baby
The picture won the 2004 Oscar for Best Picture. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a former “cut man” who owns a rundown boxing gym called Hit Pit. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) comes to the gym and starts training. Frankie tells Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who oversees the gym, that he doesn’t train girls but winds up being her trainer and manager. One assumes that it’s Frankie’s estrangement from his own daughter years earlier that has something to do with why he took the determined fighter under his wing. After a series of fights, Maggie finally gets a shot at the title. After she beats her opponent in a title fight (played by one of the greatest female fighters of all-time Lucia Rijker) she mistakenly turns her back and the beaten challenger sucker punches her from behind and knocks her down. On the way down, Maggie hits her head on the corner bench and snaps the vertebrae in her neck. During a long rehab Maggie develops body sores so bad that one of her legs is amputated. Ultimately, she decides that she doesn’t want to live as an invalid any longer and be a burden upon Frankie so she asks Frankie to put her to “sleep”. All in all , the film was a heart-breaking well-done drama that examines the emotional bond between fighters and trainers as well as the pursuit of the American dream. Through Frankie’s isolation, the film also suggests an existential theme that man is ultimately alone and must answer to himself whether it’s inside or outside the ring. The movie’s four Academy Awards including Best Picture were well-deserved.
4. Requiem for a Heavyweight
Released in 1962, Anthony Quinn plays Mountain Rivera, a washed up boxer who attempts to break free of crooked promoters to build a new life. Rivera is a giant man of stature but underneath lies a compassionate, loyal man of great dignity who’s up against the crooked and greedy side of the fight game. Two of the most memorable lines in the film are the well-known “I coulda been a contenda” (previously coined by Brando in “On the Waterfront”) and “I never took a dive in a 101 fights.” The movie does an excellent job of exploring boxing’s sometime seedier side of greedy managers and promoters as well as the physical toll the sport can ultimately take on fighters.
3. Cinderella Man
The film is the true story of former heavyweight champion James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) takes place during the Great Depression (Braddock held the title from 1935-1937). Braddock was forced to quit boxing after he broke his hand in a fight. To put food on the table for his family Braddock gets a job on the docks with dreams of one day returning to boxing. A few years go by when Braddock’s manager gets him a fight as a last minute substitute against a top ranked contender for the title. Braddock is a hungry fighter and surprises everybody by winning and then goes on a winning streak all the way to a championship. Braddock’s incredible comeback earned him the nickname “Cinderella Man”. As the underdog, Braddock became the champion of the downtrodden masses. Crowe gives an outstanding, convincing performance as the honorable James J. Braddock.
You do not necessarily have to be a boxing fan to love this inspiring 1976 film. It’s one of the best written and well acted films ever produced. The story revolves around the theme of rooting for the underdog – a blue collar guy looking for self-respect and love by going the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) lives in Philadelphia and gets a once in a lifetime chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). The fight’s scheduled to take place on Americas 200th birthday. In training for the fight, Rocky aka “The Italian Stallion” engages in some unorthodox training methods including drinking raw eggs and using large pieces of raw meat hanging in meat freezers as heavy bags. The championship fight is called a draw, but nevertheless Rocky’s display of heart, will, and determination make him a national hero. This is the first movie of five more sequels and is considered by many critics as one of the best all-time boxing movies ever made. It was made for less than one million dollars and won three Oscars including one for “Best Picture”.
1. Raging bull
My top pick and in my opinion the best boxing film ever made is the 1980 classic Raging Bull. Raging Bull is an incredibly powerful film that features some of the best directing by Martin Scorsese, best black and white cinematography, and best acting in one motion picture. The story of follows the rise and fall of one boxing’s great middleweights Jake LaMotta (aka “The Raging Bull”). The former middleweight champion’s success inside the ring was overshadowed by a troubled personal life that was full of jealousy and mistrust of those closest to him including his wife and his manager/brother. Jake’s personal demons would eventually leave him a lonely and destitute man searching for redemption. The raging bull was no angel neglecting his wife and family and he doesn’t get much sympathy in the movie. But what makes this film great is the brutal honesty of the characters and the sport of boxing itself. Robert Deniro’s legendary portrayal of Jake LaMotta won him the Oscar for Best Actor. It’s a powerful script with a moving musical score and shot in black and white that captures the grittiness of the sweet science. DeNiro gained 60 pounds to shoot the early post-boxing years. All-in-all, this is a great film because all the production components of this film come together flawlessly and it’s primarily due to the direction of the great Martin Scorsese.
Honorable Mention: Shadowboxers, When We Were Kings, The Fighter