Boxing! When you break it down it’s a simple sport. Two men get in the ring, put on a pair of big gloves and punch one another senseless until the other is knocked out or beaten into submission. Or at least that’s how it appears to the naked eye, but in reality there’s so much more to boxing than brute force and bloodshed. Boxing lends itself to movies so well because it is the most violent and also the most theatrical of all sports. Boxing is all about the underdog, the comeback, the redemption, the discipline, and the plight of one determined soul, whose tears, blood, and sweat lead to one place and one place only – the ring.
The boxing ring is the most claustrophobic and universal of sporting arenas. There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, everything to lose and everything to gain. It’s all or nothing in a sporting contest where fate is decided upon a throw of the dice or swing of a killer left hook. It’s no wonder boxing makes for great drama. Ding a ling a ling ling. Seconds out. Round one.
Now, we all know that Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is one of the greatest films of all time, with this week’s Creed, a spinoff of the long-running series, proving the lasting appeal of that film. But in case you’re in the mood for more boxing movie goodness, here is Screen Rant’s list of 10 Best Boxing Movies That Have Nothing To Do Rocky.
Note: We’ve decided to focus on movies where the boxing is central to the plot of the movie, which means we’ve that some classic movies about boxers, like On the Waterfront or The Hurricane, didn’t make the cut, though they are well-worth watching.
Raging Bull (1980)
The opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is a cinematic masterclass. Featuring a hooded Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) alone in a fog-filled ring, ducking, diving, and dancing as Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” plays in the background. The striking black and white footage is imbued with a a sense of timelessness and perfectly encapsulates the solitary plight of the fighter, who is boxing to beat both his opponents, his own demons, and an existential despair.
The viewer later learns there’s nothing particularly poetic or beautiful about Jake LaMotta. He’s a man festering with paranoia, crippled with rage, blinded by hatred and consumed by his own animalistic appetites. When this brute of a man steps into the ring, he finds himself and his only release in an whirlwind of unstoppable and devastating violence. LaMotta is not a likable, cheeky chap like Rocky, and Raging Bull is no feel good film, but as a study on the nature of masculinity and boxing, Scorsese’s masterpiece is a visual poem which is second to none.
The Fighter (2010)
By its very nature, boxing has always been associated with broken faces, broken dreams, corruption, missed opportunities, and the sort of damage which leaves an intriguing network of both physical and mental scar tissue. David O. Russell’s The Fighter is all about the bass, in that it focuses on the bottom end of the boxing genre, and is a million miles removed from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas fight nights.
Christian Bale gives an outstanding performance as Dicky Eklund, an “I coulda been a contender” type of guy who once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard, but whose early promise was nipped in the bud by bad discipline and the smokey allure of the crack pipe. Used up, washed out and abused, Dicky ends up living his own boxing dreams through his brother Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), who, after a shaky start, upsets the apple cart and becomes a true champ. If The Fighter has a message, it’s one of how the discipline of boxing has often been the salvation of people born in situations where the odds are often stacked and always unfavorable.
When We Were Kings (1996)
What The Beatles are to music, Muhammad Ali is to boxing. And Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings captures Ali in all his unbounded and untouchable glory. Although it’s a documentary, such is the charisma and complexity of its chief protagonist and the guest appearance of heavyweights such as James Brown and Don King, that it has all the drama of a big-budget Hollywood biopic as it captures Ali in the build up to his famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight fight with George Foreman.
Throughout the film, Ali is quite simply electric. He’s dynamic, articulate and probably the best ever advertisement for the art of pugilism. In contrast, Foreman comes across as a brooding and awkward bruiser who just wants to beat people up and take home a big fat paycheck. As is only fitting for a documentary about boxing, it’s the fight scenes which are most memorable. Using his famous rope-a-dope technique, Ali soaks up the punishment like a sadistic sponge and takes the sort of battering a mortal frame simply could not stand, if not for Ali’s pure and unconquerable will to win. Watching Ali used as a punchbag is painful to watch, but it makes his knockout of an exhausted Foreman’s in the eighth round all the more triumphant for Ali, whose powerhouse performance poignantly proves the old adage “No pain, no gain.”
Risen: The Howard Winstone Story (2010)
For a tiny town in the South Wales valleys, Merthyr Tydfil has produced some big names in the world of boxing, such as the Merthyr Matchstick Johnny Owen, the Merthyr Marvel Eddie Thomas, and the Welsh Wizard, Howard Winstone. Neil Jones’ Risen tells the inspiring tale of Winstone (Stuart Brennan), who overcome severe damage to his hand during an industrial accident to become a world champion and true contender.
Winstone’s story is all about staying strong in the face of adversity and never giving in. He has three shots at the WBC world featherweight title, against the same opponent, Vicente Saldivar, and loses every time. Saldivar retires and Winstone faces Mitsunori Seki for one last shot at the newly vacated title. Ahead of the contest, his coach Eddie Thomas (John Noble) tells Winstone that’ll he never be able to live with himself if he fails once more to lift the belt. So no pressure there then. Fortunately for Winstone and the film’s ending, he delivers the goods in fine style in an low key and understated meditation on the nature of boxing.
The line between the criminal underworld and boxing has often been a blurry one. Guy Ritchie’s Snatch crosses that line, takes the gloves off, and doesn’t pull any punches as it shows that for some contenders, boxing, albeit bare-knuckled, really is a matter of life and death. Featuring Brad Pitt having the time of his life as Irish gypsy Mickey O’ Neil, Snatch takes a deep breath and dives deep into the murky underworld of illegal boxing, sadistic gangsters, dodgy geezers, fixed fights and black humor.
Snatch documents a world where boxing is all about the vicarious thrill of watching two men beat one another to a bloody and senseless pulp as others get rich by fixing the outcome of the fight. It’s fighting without the technique, the discipline, the sportsmanship, or the honor of boxing. It’s this sort of fighting that Mickey O’ Neil rebels against as he boxes clever and knocks out the opponent in a fight where he was supposed to take a dive. Like they say, the most dangerous fighter is a fighter with heart.
The Champ (1931)
Without tragedy there would be no triumph and this is no more apparent that within the unforgiving and uncompromising space that exists inside the boxing ring. King Vidor’s Academy Award-winning film is all about the heartache and loss which can happen when any one person who fancies a shot at trying their arm, laces up a pair of boxing gloves and takes a trip into the crazy and unpredictable world which exists on the other side of the ropes.
Andy “Champ” Purcell used to be the heavyweight champion of the world, but the viewer first encounters him as a washed up alcoholic, and compulsive gambler who is forever letting his devoted eight-year-old son Dink down. The champ’s son eventually ends up in his mother’s custody, and finally deciding enough is enough, the champ decides to get fighting fit and make Dink proud of him again as he prepares for a title shot against a Mexican heavyweight.
Despite receiving a crippling amount of punishment, the champ refuses to throw in the towel and eventually goes on to knock his opponent out. It doesn’t end well for the Champ however, he dies in the dressing room from his injuries, leaving his son inconsolable, but before he breathes his last, in true fighting spirit, the champ tells his boy to “Cheer up.” In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1979 remake of The Champ, this scene was exploited for great effect and made a largely tepid film more memorable that it perhaps deserved.
They’re haven’t been all that many films about female boxers, but Karyn Kusama’s is a definite contender for the title. Boxing is largely a male dominated sport, but Girlfight pulls on the gloves, puts in the mouthguard, rings the bell, jumps out of the corner like a particularly deadly cobra, and asks “Why?”
Like a feisty little underdog punching above her weight and succeeding with style, Girlfight revolves around teenager Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez), who shrugs off her father’s disapproval and the scorn of her trainers to prove boxing is not about testosterone, male pride, dominance, or bragging rights. It’s about channeling natural aggression with a discipline and control which can help a person vanquish the negativity in their life, which is threatening to put them on their backs and leave them gasping for breath in a way no punch ever could.
Twenty Four Seven (1997)
When you’re a frustrated kid living in a rundown estate, where crime is rife, drug abuse is rampant, job prospects are zero, expectations are lower still, and hope dares not rear its ugly head, chances are you’re going to feel like punching the nearest wall, window, or face which annoys you. Well don’t! Get a punching bag and start doing a Rocky! That’s the message of Shane Meadows gritty debut Twenty Four Seven.
Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins) is a middle-aged loner, but unlike many of his generation, instead of seeing only the bad in young people he sees the potential and with the help of a dodgy local businessman sets up an amateur boxing gym for local kids to fight inside of the ring instead of hospitalizing one another on the streets. Darcy is a born optimist and never gives up on his unruly charges, even when things go badly. His overriding belief that self-respect and discipline will win the day is inspirational and the seeds he plants amongst the youngsters are often in danger of being washed away by a flood of apathy, anger and despair, fortunately, some of these seeds take root and make it all worthwhile.
Cinderella Man (2005)
Putting the words “Cinderella” and “Man” together is a strange juxtaposition at the best of times, especially when it’s the title of a film about boxing. Yet in hindsight, James J. Braddock’s ode to the underdog which boasts the magic of a fairytale and the punch of a champ couldn’t have been called anything else.
The film is based on the real-life story of depression era heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) and his rags to riches odyssey which earns him the moniker of, you guessed it, “The Cinderella Man.” After breaking his hand and quitting boxing, Braddock tries to earn a living as a manual laborer, but things don’t go to plan. He returns to the ring just to earn some badly needed cash and ends up becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. The Cinderella Man is the story of Rocky, chapter and verse, before Sly Stallone was even born, and proves what a born fighter who carries the hopes and aspirations of the public on their backs can really achieve.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
It’s tough being a boxing trainer. They often feel under appreciated, taken for granted, and left by the roadside. Or they can end their days haunted by the unfulfilled potential of the fighter, who with the right conditioning, could have easily been a champ. Worse still, they end up stuck in the corner as the fighter who promised so much suffers terrible and irreversible damage on their watch. Trainers may feel every blow their fighter takes, and wince at every miscalculated move, but when it really matters, their hands are tied. Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is all about the strangely unique relationship which exists between a boxer and their trainer, and how no man is an island.
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is the boxing trainer’s boxing trainer. Moody, mean and capable only of a love that is tough. He’s a cantankerous son of a bitch, but if you want someone in your corner, this is the man. Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a young hopeful who wants a shot at the big time. The two combine and look set for glory when a terrible accident in the ring leaves Maggie a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic.
So if that little list hasn’t left you punch drunk and reeling. Why not get in the ring and throw a few more ideas our way. But be warned, Queensberry rules apply.
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