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Top 10 Boxing Movies

29 March 18 words: Ashley Carter

Ahead of the release of Paddy Considine's Journeyman, we count down ten of the best boxing flicks ever made... 

There's something about boxing movies that has seen them lifted above other sports film genres, creating some of the most iconic moments in cinema history.  Whether it's the lonely, isolated nature of pugilism, the physical and mental sacrifice needed to succeed or the rich history of the sport itself, boxing has provided the context for some phenomenal films over the years...

10. Fat City (1972)

Sure, when I got my jaw broken and I had to suck liquids through that straw, I started wondering if it was all worthwhile.

Director: John Huston

Starring: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell

Legendary director John Huston directs the story of a washed-up fighter named Tully returning to the ring after spotting the potential in young teenage fighter Eddie during a sparring match.  Both men are fighting their own personal battles outside of the ring, with Tully combatting his past demons (including alcoholism) and Eddie forced into a marriage he doesn't want and early fatherhood.  Fat City is a beautiful story of men being able to shake off their problems outside of the ring in order to focus on the fight in front of them, and of an ageing boxer's fall from grace.  

Did you know? Despite having been a boxer himself, this was the only film John Huston ever made about the sport.

9. The Hurricane (1999)

Director: Norman Jewison

Starring: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger

Whilst this might not be a boxing movie in the traditional sense, the true story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is a remarkable portrayal of a fighter's crushed dreams of winning the middleweight boxing title after his wrongful imprisonment for the murder of three people in a New Jersey bar.  As well as inspiring Bob Dylan's iconic song, Carter provided Denzel Washington with one of his career-best performances.  

Did you know? The picture of Malcolm X in Hurricane's cell is actually a picture of Denzel Washington from the film Malcolm X.

Oh, I'll always be The Hurricane. And The Hurricane is... beautiful.

8. Champion (1949)

This is the only sport in the world where two guys get paid for doing something they'd be arrested for if they got drunk and did it for nothing.

Director: Mark Robson

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Marilyn Maxwell

Kirk Douglas plays Michael "Midge" Kelly, a scrappy young fighter on the run from a shotgun marriage and in need of help to support his disabled brother.  Angling his way into a short-term job as a boxer, he finds himself well-suited to the job, owing to a life of hard knocks, a ferocious temper and a matchless will to win.  Quickly becoming one of the most popular fighters on the circuit, he soon finds himself embroiled in a scheme in which he is instructed to take a dive in a championship bout. 

Did you know? The address, 49 Eagle Street, that Kirk Douglas mentions, was actually the address of where he grew up as a child.

7. The Harder They Fall (1956)

What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed.

Director: Mark Robson

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Rob Steiger, Jan Sterling

Newspaper reporter Eddie Willis is broke and out of work.  After agreeing to work for a corrupt boxing promoter, Nick Benko, to help hype his new fighter, Toro Moreno, Willis soon realises that, despite his size, Moreno has no boxing skill whatsoever, and all of his fights are fixed.  Where Toro gets a shot at the title against prize-fighter Buddy Brannen (played by real-life fighter Max Baer - whose own fight with "Gentleman" Jim Braddock was given the big-screen treatment in Ron Howard's Cinderella Man in 2005), Willis is faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to inform Toro that his career has been a sham and that he's in real danger of getting hurt.  Mark Robson's film is a brilliant exploration of the rampant corruption behind the scenes in boxing, given additional layers of authenticity with the presence of Baer.  

Did you know? The Harder The Fall was Humphrey Bogart’s final film before he passed away from cancer in January, 1957.

6. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

Do you know why I talk so funny? Because I've been hit a million times.

Director: Ralph Nelson

Starring: Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Jack Palance

The plot to Requiem for a Heavyweight (as well as the title itself) treads familiar ground in the sports movie genre, but it's both in its wonderful execution and powerhouse performances from a brilliant cast that the film stands out.  An ageing fighter named Harlan "Mountain" McClintock (Palance) is advised to stop boxing on medical grounds following a brutal career and extensive sparring sessions.  However, his unscrupulous manager, Maish Rennick (Wynn), wants to keep McClintock fighting in order to make money betting against him.  With the help of a caring social worker (Kim Hunter), McClintock attempts to move on to a new life away from the ring.

Did you know? Anthony Quinn did this film when Lawrence of Arabia went on a two-month hiatus between October and December of 1961.  The film was released before Lawrence came out.

5. The Boxer (1997)

Director: Jim Sheridan

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Daragh Donnelly

Jim Sheridan's tale of a Belfast-born former boxing prodigy recently released from prison after serving 14 years due to his involvement with the IRA is another film that seems a bit routine on paper, but it's the remarkable lead performance from Day-Lewis that sees it soar.  UFC commentator, Joe Rogan, regularly states that the central performance is the most convincing portrayal of a fighter ever committed to film, and it's hard to argue with him.  With a career packed with performances unrivalled by any of his contemporaries, The Boxer is sometimes overlooked in Day-Lewis' masterful back-catalogue, but it genuinely stands along side any of his work before or since.  


Did you know? Daniel Day-Lewis boxed and trained for three years in preparation for this role.

I'm not a killer, Maggie, but this place makes me want to kill.

4. Rocky (1976)

Beethoven was deaf. Helen Keller was blind. I think Rocky's got a good chance.

Director: John G. Avildsen

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young

The film that redefined the boxing movie genre and launched the career of Sylvester Stallone can often be mislabelled as iconic or simply entertaining as opposed to actually being great.  It's the burden that any film that has been parodied and referenced countless times since its release suffers, but Rocky legitimately holds up as a masterpiece of 70s cinema.  What seems to be a fairly routine sports movie quickly turns into a fascinating study of a unique character, a man who talks to his turtles and just oozes likability.  Yes it has that montage, as well as its fair share of goofy dialogue, but if you're looking at the greatest boxing films of all time, few rival Rocky in terms of sheer impact.  

Did you know? Rocky was the first sports film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

3. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

I never should have left the lingerie business. I was the happiest man in women's underwear.

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: Paul Newman, Pier Angeli, Everett Sloane

Another Rocky, this time Barbella (Newman) endures countless abuse at the hands of his father and the law which see him lead a life in and out of detention centres and prisons.  Just when it seems like he has it together, he gets drafted, but soon struggles to adhere to the rules and regulations of military life.  Going AWOL, Barbella turns to boxing to earn a quick buck, quickly discovering he has the potential to make it big in the ring.  Based on the autobiography of Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me is all about the lead performance from Paul Newman, who adroitly brings to life the brutal qualities of a man raised in the slums.  Coupled with director Robert Wise's aggressive, kinetic direction, they create an authentic, tremendously paced portrayal of the rise of one of the greatest knockout artists in boxing history. 

Did you know? James Dean was signed to play Rocky Graziano, but the part was given to Paul Newman after Dean was killed in an automobile accident on 30th September 1955.

2. When We Were Kings (1996)

And you're always talking about, "Muhammad, you're not the same man you were 10 years ago." Well, I asked your wife, and she told me you're not the same man you was two years ago!

Director: Leon Gast

Starring: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King

Not just one of the best boxing movies of all time, but also one of the greatest documentaries ever made.  Whilst the focus is on The Rumble in the Jungle, arguably the biggest fight in history between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974, this is a film that transcends simple sport.  As well as a tribute to two of the greatest fighters in boxing, When We Were Kings is a sublime snapshot of a transformative moment in American history, when Black pride found its platform and encountered its African roots in the most powerful, tangible way possible.  No other film has ever captured the social and political impact that sport can have so perfectly.  

Did you know? Almost all of the footage was shot in 1974.  The film took 23 years to complete because the negatives and rights were caught up in civil suits involving the Liberians who financed it.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Arguably the biggest masterpiece in a career filled with them, Martin Scorsese's savage magnum opus is a bloody ballad of aggression, pride and masculinity.  It's hard to imagine an actor committing themselves to a role as completely as De Niro did in playing Jake LaMotta, at once chiseled out of pure wiry muscle in the ring, the next, bloated, drunken and bombing in front of a half-empty cabaret club.  It's the perfect rise-and-fall story, capturing the absolute essence of what it is to lose yourself to violence, both in and out of the ring, oozing a unique authenticity that has never been matched in the boxing movie genre.  Endlessly compelling and bleakly beautiful, Raging Bull remains one of, if not the, best film of both Scorsese and De Niro's careers.  

Did you know? In preparation for his role, Robert De Niro went through extensive physical training, then entered in three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches and won two of them.

Journeyman is screening at Broadway Cinema from Friday 30th March

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