Boxing films have proved to be enormously popular throughout cinema history, with a brilliant addition to the genre coming out seemingly each decade. This is partly due to the popularity of underdog stories, as many of the entries rely on a character working hard work to overcome an obstacle at the end (the big fight). This is a classic storytelling formula, and boxing lends itself well to cinema as it is so dramatic. Here are 10 of the greatest boxing films of all time, all of which are sure to get you pumped up and ready for anything.
10. The Boxer (1997)
Jim Sheridan’s 1997 film The Boxer stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson, and follows the life of Danny Flynn, who is a boxer and former Provisional IRA volunteer. The film starts with a once promising boxer, Flynn, being released from prison after 14 years, and his attempts to start a normal life. Overcoming his sectarian hatred, Flynn opens a gym with his former training partner for aspiring boxers of all religions and tries to restart his own boxing career. Soon politics get in the way, however, and the boxing becomes a metaphor for the political battle that is occurring at this time. This makes it a powerful and intriguing movie, as well as an entertaining boxing film. Daniel Day-Lewis excels in the role and reportedly spent three years training to play Danny Flynn, and it is also the third collaboration between the Irish director and Daniel Day-Lewis.
9. Ali (2001)
It is a daunting task to play Muhammad Ali, but Will Smith puts in a powerful and assured performance which helps to make this an excellent biographical film about the boxing legend. The film follows his career from 1964 to 1974, including crucial aspects such as winning the heavyweight title, converting to Islam, criticizing the Vietnam War, being banished from boxing and returning against Joe Frazier, and culminating in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in 1974 against George Foreman. It is not just a terrific insight into the fascinating life and career of Ali, however, as it also explores the social and political situation in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Whilst it may disappoint some Ali films, it gives a good insight into this key period and introduced a younger audience to Ali’s amazing story.
8. Fat City (1972)
Legendary director, and former boxer himself, John Huston released Fat City in 1972, a neo-noir boxing film based on the 1969 novel of the same name. It stars Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrrell (who picked up an Academy Award nomination), and tells a classic story of a boxer past his prime, Billy, who spars with a talented youngster, Ernie. Unlike many other boxing films, however, there is a bleakness to Huston’s film, as it is clear that they are both on the same path but at different stages. Billy’s wife has left him, he drinks too much and can’t hold a job down, and due to the lifestyle and surroundings, it seems that this is a fate that Ernie is destined for. It is an honest and fascinating film, aided by some excellent performances, with many believing it to be one of Huston’s finest movies.
7. The Hurricane (1999)
A biographical film starring Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former middleweight boxer, who becomes wrongfully convicted for a triple homicide in New Jersey in the mid ’60s. The film unfolds with dual story lines, enabling the audience to see the fierce and aggressive young fighter, as well as the mature pacifist that he becomes. It also follows a young Brooklyn teenager who becomes interested in Carter’s life, and consequently helped to get his case re-examined, eventually seeing him released from prison in 1985. Whilst the film has been criticized for some inaccuracies, including the recreation of the 1964 title match, director Norman Jewison did a fantastic job in creating an absorbing, emotional and powerful film which is aided massively by Washington turning in one of his best performances to date (earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor). An important story about institutionalized racism.
6. Cinderella Man (2005)
Directed by Ron Howard, 2005’s Cinderella Man is inspired by the life story of heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock, and stars Russell Crowe, Renee Zellwegger and Paul Giamatti. Set back in the 1930s, the film follows Braddock (Crowe), who is a Irish-American boxer that is enjoying success, which is then stripped from him due to the Great Depression and a broken hand that he suffers. He is forced to quit boxing and takes a job on the docks, but is later given the opportunity of a lifetime by his manager, who offers him the chance to fill in for a fight against the number two contender in the world. Astonishingly, he wins with a third round knockout, and a legend is born. He continues to fight and comes to represent the hopes and aspirations of the public struggling with the Depression, earning him the nickname “Cinderella Man.”
5. When We Were Kings (1996)
This documentary film, directed by Leon Gast, is about the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, perhaps the most famous fight of all time. Taking place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), not only was this an enormous boxing event, but it was a huge political and global event in a period of social tension. In the film, we see Ali talk about his beliefs regarding Africans and African-Americans and his hopes for the future. His love for the locals, which goes both ways, contrasts with that of Foreman, as he is much quieter and struggled to boost his popularity. The film is packed with interviews and numerous musical guests, and the fight is legendary, with Ali’s “rope-a-dope” style which saw him earn an eighth round knockout to reclaim the title taken from him after refusing to be drafted into the army.
4. The Fighter (2010)
2010’s The Fighter is a biographical drama telling the life of former professional boxer Micky Ward, who is brilliantly played by Mark Wahlberg (who was a friend of Ward’s), and it also stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. It is a film about family as much as it is about boxing, as Micky is a struggling boxer who is managed by his mother, and trained by his half-brother, Dicky (Bale), who is a former boxer whose life has fallen apart due to his drug addiction. They are being filmed by an HBO documentary team for what Dicky believes is his comeback, but is actually to expose his drug addiction. Whilst somewhat predictable, it is extremely powerful and entertaining with all three actors putting in captivating performances, and the complex family situation away from the ring give this an added and intriguing dimension.
3. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Clint Eastwood’s 2004 drama film Million Dollar Baby may sound like an all too familiar boxing film of a trainer with past regrets helping an underdog to reach the top, but it is much more than this. The film, which won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, stars Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, and it is a dark, powerful and moving film which shocked audiences for its grim ending upon its release. Gruff and weathered trainer Frankie (Eastwood) initially turns down the opportunity to train aspiring boxer Maggie (Swank), but she soon wins him over and the two bond, which sees him become the father she never had, and for him the daughter that he lost. Without giving too much away, it is a beautifully crafted and shot film, and it soon becomes apparent that this is not your ordinary boxing film and instead something much deeper.
2. Rocky (1976)
The first film that will spring to mind when discussing boxing films, Rocky is one of the most popular and inspirational films of all time (and also perhaps the most parodied). Starring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, it is a classic rags-to-riches story of an uneducated working class Italian-American boxer, who gets a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship. It is a definitive boxing film which has inspired dozens of other films, boxing and otherwise, and there is no denying that it is a moving and powerful movie (albeit a little corny). It is a heroic tale about making the most of opportunity and never giving up, and this arrived at a time where the American public needed this positive and uplifting message after the Vietnam War. It boasts one of the most iconic montages and soundtracks in all of film, and launched a very successful film series.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull is a biographical drama following Italian-American middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, with Robert De Niro putting in a stunning performance as the lead. The film follows LaMotta, who is self-destructive, volatile and full of rage. This makes him a good boxer, but it ultimately destroys his relationship with his family and his wife. It is brutal, violent, testosterone-fuelled and terrifying at times, and expertly told by Scorsese, with De Niro also making this a shocking yet entirely absorbing watch. Many believe it to be one of the great American films and Scorsese’s finest work, and it is a fascinating exploration of male rage and what is and what is not socially acceptable violence. It provides plenty of food for thought, with LaMotta celebrated in the ring as a champion, but outside he is a wife beater who is driven by primal instincts.