The gruelling sport of boxing has given us a library of true stories revolved around the sweet science. As well as that, the sheer impossibility of such a tough, damaging game has inspired many fictional narratives. This subgenre has always given moviegoers an insight into the laboring, durable lives of blue-collar denizens of pugilism. Consequently, it goes without saying that every Rocky film (bar V) could hold a respectable place in this list.
Rocky II (1979)
Bleed For This (2016)
On The Waterfront (1954)
Rocky Balboa (2006)
#10: Rocky IV (1985)
Starting off the list with a bang; Rocky IV is as famous a sequel as any. With Ivan Drago as the brooding, monosyllabic terminator of the film, it evoked a tangible sense of the Russia vs. America tension. It suffices to say that this is the most innocent in the entire saga as Rocky IV came at a time when Sly was in his sentimental corn-ball phase. Its closing speech from Balboa in the heart of Russia, spewing liberal platitudes of peace was a big closing message. With the franchise’s third sequel and its prominence that continued throughout the years, Rocky is a little more than an intermittent pop culture fad. Furthermore, Rocky IV is a comically cringeworthy entry that’s an all-round blast of a watch.
#9: Ali (2001)
Michael Mann has been known for his somber filmmaking with titles such as Heat, Collateral and The Insider. But that is not the signature tone that would typically be associated with boxing’s brash Louisville Lip. He created a film that presented itself through a majestic prism. In the annals of boxing, it was only a matter of time before a star-studded biopic of Ali emerged. Mann proved to be a worthy director as Ali’s life had many ups and downs. There is plenty of meat in this film and Mann zones in on this icon with great maturity and restraint. Will Smith turning in quite an underrated performance as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and Jamie Foxx boldly playing ‘Bundini’ Brown was a great bolstering of this film. A worthy contender in this list.
#8: Rocky III (1982)
Perhaps the most fun film of the series, Rocky III has a number of outstanding elements to cement it in this list. Mr. T being the charismatic, goofy villain, Clubber Lang, poses a genuine threat. Rocky participates in charity wrestling matches with Hulk Hogan and practically trains in a circus. The bitterness and jealousy of Paulie is a dark side plot that juxtaposes how successful and affluent Rocky has become. With Apollo Creed being a supporting acolyte of Balboa, training him in the slums of Philadelphia, it shows Creed in a more admirable fashion. The narrative highlights this verity that Balboa has lost his mojo and his highfalutin lifestyle is not conducive to the mean brawler he once was. There have been writings that The Dark Knight Rises is almost a beat-for-beat clone of Rocky III, in that it acts as the atypical comeback story. I, jocosely, can’t disagree.
#7: The Boxer (1997)
Perhaps the most inexpensively humble film here, The Boxer is Jim Sheridan’s delicate drama that focuses on love and redemption. It comes as no surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis quite literally becomes a boxer in his known methodical practice in acting. Joe Rogan has stated that this was the single most convincing performance by an actor who portrayed a boxer. Returning to his home in Belfast, Danny Flynn is released from prison and his past of being an IRA member is presumably behind him. The film clinches to an emotional angle and, at its heart, it is primarily a romantic story. Emily Watson playing the love interest, Maggie, and Sheridan’s sensitivity in dealing with this material is a noteworthy effort. This film’s small, diurnal quality is what singes it firmly in this list.
#6: Cinderella Man (2005)
Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man probably shows the proletarian lower-class desperation of the typical starving boxer. Russell Crowe plays James J. Braddock, the 1920s Irish-American slugger fighting to make ends meet for his family. The film shows the arduously unforgiving life of not only being a fighter but simply being alive in this era. Forced to work on the docks during the great depression, the world leaves him no choice but to fight. The rise of Braddock’s career in becoming the heavyweight world champion was beyond brutal hellishness. Incidentally, manhood and family are two central themes to the film that oscillate back and forth. Displaying one of boxing’s greatest upsets with Braddock beating Max Baer to win the belt, shining hope on the dreadfully poor Americans of this age, this true story is actually one of earnest humility.
#5: The Hurricane (1999)
Along with The Boxer, The Hurricane is probably the most ostracized and forgotten film of this list. It entails the boxing career — or lack there of — of Rubin Carter as it documents his life, incarcerated behind bars. Denzel Washington is laser focused in this brilliant depiction and its story predicates itself on the subject of injustice. This tragic true story expresses the squandered potential of talent and the cruel effects of imprisoned inertia. What could have been if things went differently? How prominent and successful could he have? It does take certain creative liberties that are understandable. Still, this tremendously underrated film brilliantly dramatizes how Rubin Carter is a wrongly convicted murderer and legend.
#4: The Fighter (2010)
David O. Russell’s fun and dynamic proclivity for ensemble pieces brought us The Fighter. The film places you well inside the erratic family structure of the Wards. In particular, Micky Ward’s (Wahlberg) efforts in stepping out of the shadow of his more accomplished and celebrated older brother, Dicky Eklund (Bale). This is, of course, the film in which Christian Bale took home his Oscar for portraying the emaciated burnout who dropped Sugar Ray. It has a certain ebullient and playful quality which could be argued to be a rare commodity among boxing films. The difficulties surrounding Micky Ward are all commitments that stymie his fight progress. It’s a boxing film that, once again, teaches us the importance of family, regardless of however problematic it is to be forever intertwined with very flawed, but special, individuals.
#3: Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Snatching the bronze is Clint Eastwood‘s Million Dollar Baby. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is an unwanted, worn trainer that is tormented by his past inabilities. All until he’s spiritually revived by the gamely Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank). In a fiery blaze of determination, she is obstinately yearning for the chance at becoming a legit professional. The dichotomy between fighter and trainer in this film is at the epicenter and its eventual impact is famously disastrous. Having a female protagonist in a boxing film is another aspect of the narrative that caters to the underdog feel. Dunn often shuns her, despite the irrepressible eagerness she glows. It’s a father and daughter relationship at its core that’s pounded on a boxing canvas. Morgan Freeman won best supporting actor, Hilary Swank earned best actress and nabbed Best Picture — a belated triumph for a boxing movie.
#2: Rocky (1976)
It was never a question of if this classic would make the list, but where. To this day, Rocky undeniably holds up. Accompanied by its Oscar nominated soundtrack, naming another piece of cinema that builds you up full of testosterone, motivating you in taking on the world is unthinkable. Rocky was the film that made montages a thing and the name “Adrian” is forever synonymous with an ugly, battered bruiser yelping for his timid romantic partner to comfort him. Being branded a “bum,” a “creep” and a “loser” by the people in his life, Rocky Balboa is a pathetic, pitiful character that is so sympathetically likeable. But his headstrong ability to take the thudding blows of life is what redeems him as honorable.
Sylvester Stallone may be notorious for his hilariously mumbling, stroke-like acting style but his performance here is his absolute pitch perfect tour de force. Even though Balboa ultimately loses to Apollo Creed via razor close split decision, he finds the universal respect that has been absent the entire movie. Perhaps the greatest underdog story (certainly within this list), Sylvester Stallone’s defining role and screenplay has stood the test of time and although it isn’t marked as the single greatest boxing film ever made, it is certainly the most inspirational.
#1: Raging Bull (1980)
The film that made Quentin Tarantino lose interest in directing a future boxing film because it was just too damn perfect, Raging Bull is arguably Martin Scorsese’s greatest film and Robert De Niro’s finest performance. The film acted as a lifesaver to Scorsese. While recovering in hospital from a drug addiction, De Niro convinced Scorsese to make it. The film is such a masterful crescendo of glory, rage and ultimately failure. Documenting the life of tremendous lightweight, Jake LaMotta, the film glues itself to his denigrating, destructive relationships with his wife and brother. De Niro’s work in this film is among the greatest acting performances in many people’s books. Legend says that he fought in four professional boxing bouts (3-1) while LaMotta admitted to his prospective talent. Also, gaining 60 pounds of fat for the latter end of the film is one drastic act of preparation he underwent.
The film acted as a catalyst for the future Scorsese template. Goodfellas showing the rise and fall in the mob underworld; The Wolf of Wall Street achieving that dynamic with millionaire Jordan Belfort; Boogie Nights (although from PTA) mirroring that narrative. The utter sadness of this true story captures how success can ironically ruin you and it’s even something that occurs to rich athletes today. This ark shows us how abusive relationships can destroy us and how hedonistic male dominance can be a self-destructive paradox. It highlights how your own nature can be both friend and foe. It’s a masterpiece and although it’s a toss-up between Rocky and this, on a given day, my filmy hemisphere must side with Raging Bull. Finally, it not only perfected this breed of film, but also gave birth to influential narrative tooling for others. It is the greatest sport/boxing film of all time.
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