When director Shawn Levy told Hugh Jackman that he would be training with a boxer in preparation for his role as a fighter-turned-robot-boxing-promoter in Real Steel the actor had no idea that he would in fact be sparring with an icon.
Sugar Ray Leonard is one of the most beloved and revered sports heroes of our time. Aside from his palpable charm and grace, Leonard has world titles in five weight divisions, was named “Boxer of the Decade” in the 1980s, and was the first fighter to earn over $100 million in purses. We had the chance to speak with the living legend at the Los Angeles press day for Real Steel about training Hugh Jackman and choreographing the boxing sequences for this most unique sports movie.
When we walked into the room at the Four Seasons where Leonard was giving his interviews the champion was laughing quietly as he said, “That’s the second person that I’ve had to show how to box. That kid that just left here.”
SR: He wanted a little private training?
”He said, ‘can you critique my style or my ability?’ And I didn’t quite hear him, and I looked at him and I thought, ‘he wants me to see if he can box.’
SR: Actually box?
”Yeah. And he was a nervous wreck, he was a mess.”
SR: Well that leads us nicely to my first question—who is a better student, Hugh Jackman or the robots?
“I get better feedback from Hugh, so Hugh’s the better.”
SR: In all seriousness, I know you worked with the real boxers that were in the motion capture suits to choreograph the fights that would eventually become the robot matches, but did you also get a chance to look at the design of the robots and the final effects as they were being created?
“No, no. I mean, that’s not my forte. But you know, I worked with the stunt men and with Hugh, because Shawn Levy wanted authenticity. He wanted it to be real. And when I showed him what I thought would look great, it was pretty cool, you know? I mean, it was exciting. I didn’t quite know how I would fit into this whole world of a big movie, but being there in the ring, being in that atmosphere, which is my world, was really exciting.”
SR: One thing I noticed was that Zeus (the undefeated robot boxing champion in the film) adapts to the fighting style of his opponents. Then I read that you had said that fighting with Wilfred Benítez was like looking in a mirror because he would mimic the style of whoever he was fighting. Did you base any of the fighting styles of the robots on people you had faced in the ring?
”Yeah. I gave him kind of a little bit of Hagler, a little bit of Hearns, a little bit of Benitez. Zeus reminded me of a big man, like a big George Forman, you know? He was just so big. For each one, I took a piece of a certain fighter that I’ve seen, or that I’ve faced, and I just kind of put it out there.”
SR: Which one is most like you? Or which one’s your favorite?
SR: Atom is you?
“Yeah. Because he’s not that big and he’s quick and he has a special relationship with his trainer, with Hugh, like with me with (Angelo) Dundee.”
[MILD REAL STEEL SPOILER AHEAD]
SR: I have to ask if the rules in the film bothered you at all? Because in that fight between Zeus and Atom, it was so fun to watch, but then you’re thinking, ‘Okay, now Zeus knocked Atom down quite a lot, and Atom only got Zeus down once, and yet they’re pretty close in points by the end of the fight.’ Did you talk to them about that at all?
“No. Because you know it’s not real, but at the same time it is real. You think about a favorite—Atom was a favorite. When you watch that movie, right away you feel for him, you want him to win. You know, he almost reminded me of myself because there was always this sympathy, people had this feeling that they want you to win, they feel for you, you know? They connect with you. And it’s the same with Atom. You look at this guy, this robot, and even my wife said the same thing. You feel for him, you get emotional, and you root for him.”
[END OF SPOILERS]
SR: Do you have a favorite boxing movie or sports movie?
“There are couple of boxing movies that I really love. One was “The Champ,” that’s an old movie. One was “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” with Anthony Quinn. “Raging Bull” was another good one. “Million Dollar Baby” was another favorite of mine. “Rocky.”"
“Yes. “Rocky,” I loved “Rocky.” I saw “Rocky” the night before my first professional fight in Baltimore, and although I wasn’t the underdog, that movie was just—it’s inspirational, inspirational, you know?”
SR: It is. Now…in the interest of stirring the pot, I have to tell you that I asked Anthony Mackie what his favorite sports movie was. I said, ‘What’s your favorite sports movie, would this be up there?’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t consider this a sports movie, because I don’t consider boxing a sport, because sports don’t hurt.’ I said, ‘I’m going to ask Sugar Ray what he has to say about that.’ Do you have a rebuttal?
“(Laughing) My rebuttal is that sports do hurt. Oh yeah. I’ll talk to Anthony. I think, I think Anthony was a little tired that day.”
We would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. Pot sufficiently stirred, we return to the matter of giant boxing robots.
SR: How about robots, are you a fan of the sci-fi genre?
“I love this kind of thing, and the technology is kind of amazing. Because I really thought the robots would be a little, kind of boom, boom (he stomps around box like) but the robots have the agility and the reflexes and the movement. I mean they can really just copy one style. It looks real!”
“This is the only one of its kind, you know? And with the story this is not just boxing. This is obstacles being overcome and robots just happen to be a part of the backdrop, and boxing happens to be a part of the stage. That’s why women look at this and they get teary eyed, and even guys—they won’t admit it, but some guys get teary eyed.”
SR: Oh, my friend’s dad was crying.
“Was he really?”
SR: Crying. He’s 68.
“That’s so good, you know? Because he could put his guards down. He can—and I can do it too, I feel, I feel. And that’s what I told Hugh, I said, ‘You gotta let it go, man, it has to be real, surrender, put your guards down, and it will happen by itself.’ And it did.”
SR: Did you get teary eyed?
“Oh yes, for sure. For sure.”
SR: When you spoke to Hugh about capturing the look of the killer, of a winner, what did you say that you were thinking about when you got that look in your eye as a fighter? What was in your head?
“It’s conviction, it’s commitment. When the fighter’s at his best, he thinks of one thing. Punching. Of getting to you. He doesn’t think about consequences, because there are none. There are some, but there aren’t any in your mind. So, for that to come across on the screen, he has to show he’s into it. And I told him that even when he throws his uppercut, there’s a look, there’s a certain expression, and he captured it.
SR: Did you talk to him about being a retired fighter, and is it bittersweet to watch other people ringside?
“No, because now the shoe has changed. Now you’re living vicariously through that robot. Now, you want him to win, even more so, because that resonates with you. That means that’s you. He wins, you win. The coach wins, the trainer wins. And that’s why there’s such emotion that comes across. You start feeling for the robot, by looking through his eyes. ‘Can you hear what I’m saying, can you feel what I’m saying?’ That’s what it is.”
SR: There was an interview with you and Hugh together where he was kind of lamenting that he didn’t have his fame and fortune when he was younger and single. And you said, ‘Oh, well you shouldn’t have it then.’ So I want to follow up with you on that and see why you feel that way? That the fame and the fortune is not good to have when you’re young.
“Oh no, because it takes you totally out of perspective. There’s so much that it encompasses — fame and fortune — all these things you get caught up in if you don’t have perspective. It’s hard to maintain perspective with success at such a young age. I go home now and I go in my gym, and I look and see Sports Illustrated covers all around—I can smell the roses, I can smell the flowers. It’s so different now. It’s really so different. And I think that it’s hard to maintain both the training and keep the winning attitude, with all the success, and all the money. It—this generation of kids are different. These kids, they’re doing more, they’re learning more, because of technology. I can’t even do my kid’s homework.”
SR: What about the world of boxing? That’s also changed quite a bit.
“It has changed.”
SR: Can you talk about that and the rise of MMA? Did the movie remind you of that at all? The idea that people keep wanting more and more intense experiences?
“Well, yeah, because they pay for it, they deserve to see action and these highly anticipated match-ups. They want to see drama, they want to see—they want to see it all. Boxing and UFC can co-exist, but I think that right now, UFC has been so hugely successful because it’s entertainment, it’s drama, and it’s destruction.”
SR: You had also mentioned that UFC has the personalities.
“And personalities, yes. People want to know who you are. If people don’t know you, they won’t follow you.”
SR: I have to ask about another boxing movie that you appeared in last year –The Fighter.
SR: So did you slip, or–?
“I tripped. I tripped. (Laughing) But the thing about that movie, you know, I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I mean, 1978. And I remember that guy, Dicky Eklund, crazy, good too, but crazy as hell. And I tripped and he walked right over me, he just stepped over me, you know? I was so pissed, I was so mad. Because I mean, to walk over somebody, it was like he was saying (makes exhaling sound effects) trash, you know? And I looked at him, I said, ‘Son of a bitch.’ But that movie, that was something though, because it was about ten years ago that I was playing golf with Mark Wahlberg and he says, ‘Ray, I’m doing a boxing movie, I want you to consider doing a cameo.’ I said sure. And nothing ever happened for years, and then he contacted me again and said, ‘Can you do that cameo?’ I said sure. And when I saw what the movie was about, when I got to Boston…I remember that like it was yesterday, the guy, the family. I remember the family, I remember being in the hallway, remember him saying, ‘they’re going to do a documentary on me.’ I said, ‘about what?’ And he said, ‘on me.’ I remember him talking like that, just, poor guy.”
SR: I know. And that was the seminal moment of his life.
“Yeah. He knocked me down. So it depends on who you ask.”
SR: Does that affect you, what does that make you feel like, that that was the seminal moment of his life?
“Well, God bless him, you know. God bless him. No, it doesn’t bother me. At all.”
You can see the results of Sugar Ray Leonard’s efforts when Real Steel opens in theaters this Friday, October 7th. In the interim take a look at the featurette below to get a feel for the work that this master of his craft did for the film.
Shawn Levy directs a cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis and James Rebhorn with Steven Spielberg producing.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc.