10 of the Greatest boxing films ever

James Oliver

Sink your teeth into our favourite boxing films of all time...

No sport—not football, not tennis, nor even crown green bowls—has inspired as many good movies as boxing; while most sports can muster one or two classics, boxing has a whole hall of fame's worth. Only baseball comes even remotely close (and that doesn't really count since it's basically just rounders).

With Creed 2 about to enter the ring for a crack at the heavyweight box-office title, let's get in the mood with some of the great champions from times past. All of them pack quite a punch, and one or two deliver knock-out blows. So if you're ready, seconds out...

 

Battling Butler

If we're doing this in chronological order then round one must be this comedy, in which the great Buster Keaton takes to the ring to win the affections of a young lady and never once drops his poker face. Keaton's sometime sparring partner Charlie Chaplin was himself not averse to a spot of boxing in his films (most famously in City Lights) but Buster easily outfights him here for a clear first-round knock-out.

 

Body and Soul (1947)

Boxing fans like to call their sport “the sweet science” which is a pretty name for such a violent sport. But if you think what's out-front is brutal, then that's nothing compared to what goes on behind the scenes, what with corruption and abuse and all. Not quite the Queensberry Rules, in other words.

Things like that are why it became so popular with left-wing writers, who knew a good metaphor when they saw it; Body and Soul was written by Abraham Polonsky, later blacklisted as one of the “Hollywood Ten”. It's about boxing, but also about exploitation: the title is what the champ sacrifices on his way to the top.

 

The Set-Up (1949)

While most sport movies celebrate glory, it's a curiosity of boxing movies that they more usually feature its opposite. The Set-Up is a prime example; set in a seedy resort with the horribly ironic name “Paradise City”, it's about “Stoker” Thompson, a fighter on his last legs. The Mob see a chance to make a buck and tell his manager he's to take a dive. But Stoker is a proud man, maybe too proud for his own good.

Director Robert Wise later made The Sound of Music but this is a whole different game. Tough, brutal but ultimately humane, it's helped immeasurably by the greatest performance by one of the greatest film actors; Robert Ryan was never a fully-fledged star but few actors have ever commanded the screen so well as this film demonstrates to perfection. This is the best Boxing film. Fact.

 

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Here's another bout of socially-engaged pugilism, laying bare the sheer venality of the fight game; Humphrey Bogart—in his last film role; he does not look well—plays a sometime journalist hired by a boxing promotor to do PR, obliging him to confront the stench that emanates from the sport he loves.

Boxing has cleaned itself up since then; the corporations elbowed the small-time hoods aside. Say what you will about corporations; they might be rapacious, but at least they're legally rapacious.

 

Fat City (1972)

Before becoming a champion filmmaker, John Huston (he made The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, amongst others) turned his hand to an assortment of trades including—so he said—a spell as a prize fighter.

Maybe that's why this tough drama about no-mark boxers feels as real as it does, like someone who got out looking back at those who didn't; Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges are the leads but almost as soon as we meet them, we know that they're never going to hit the big time. And they have it easier than the poor Mexican schucks who risk what's left of their health for a few bucks and the bottom of the bill.

Huston was very much “Old” Hollywood but Fat City is down-and-dirty as anything the Scorsese generation made, reeking of stale sweat, cheap booze and failure. 

 

Raging Bull (1980)

And talking of Scorsese... Martin Scorsese is not a fan of sport and wasn't sure he was qualified to handle the biography of boxer Jake La Motta. But Scorsese is a fan of movies, and that's where he drew his inspiration from, including many of those listed above.

Now, La Motta was not what we might call a “nice” man. He was a pig, a bully and worse, and the film is tough to watch during those sequences. But when he gets in the ring—oh boy. Scorsese and cameraman Michael Chapman shot the works, forsaking realism for something that tried to capture the feel of what it was like to face down Sugar Ray Robinson.

They are, hands down, the best fights ever put on screen and pretty much every film about boxing since has borrowed from them in ways great and small. Of course, we have already established that The Set Up is the best film about boxing but we can be lenient to those who haven't seen it and say this one is instead: it's not like they're too far wrong.

 

Rocky IV (1986)

The purists will insist that we ought to have picked the first Rocky film and maybe they're right, since it's the best of the series. But this deranged slice of Cold War jingoism offers pleasures of its own as Rocky goes after the Soviet superman who beat his best friend to death in the ring.

Any last vestige of realism was scrubbed from the script before shooting began. This is basically the ultimate expression of 1980s excess, right down to one character's robot butler. (Yes, that's right: a robot butler.) Quite what Sylvester Stallone was thinking when he made it is anyone's guess but the world would be a poorer place without it. That's not an isolated view either: North Korea's diminutive despot Kim Jong-un is a fan. 

 

Ali (2000)
When We Were Kings (1996)

With an attitude like his, Muhammed Ali was ripe for movies; When We Were Kings is a documentary, about the build up to his fight against George Forman in Zaire, the Rumble in the Jungle, as it was called. Ali was pretty much at his peak here, both as fighter and as the most charismatic man on earth, and he's just a joy to watch.

The Rumble in the Jungle forms the climax of Michael Mann's much neglected Ali, a bio-pic about the great man and one of the few examples of the form worth a fig. Will Smith was far from obvious casting as the Louisville Lip but he's better than he's ever been before or since, a taciturn man and fallible man whose bravado is another form of performance.

 

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

As the fantastic Nicola Adams keeps on demonstrating, boxing isn't just for the lads anymore. This film is about female fisticuffs; Hilary Swank approaches a crusty old boxing trainer played by Clint Eastwood to ask for his help. At first, the squinty sexist is having none of it—a woman? In Boxing gloves? Not on his watch! But one swift change of heart later and—wouldn't you know it?—a tight bond develops, until disaster strikes.

It won big at the Oscars (including for Swank) although it's not quite the masterpiece many have claimed. Still, Clint always knows how to put a movie together and, if nothing else, it shows that “fight like a girl” is no longer an insult...