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The Best Boxing Films: Our Favourite Movies That Pack a Punch

30 September 21 words: LeftLion Screen Team

After our interview with record-breaking Mansfield-based boxer Steve Ward in issue 139 of the mag, we decided to discuss our favourite boxing films of all time... 

Ashley Carter (Editor) - City Lights (1931)

It's almost impossible to name a 'best' Chaplin film when you're choosing from an unparalleled career that redefined cinema as an art-form but, if pushed, City Lights does the best job of showcasing the multi-faceted elements of his genius. The silent film, made three years into the era of sound, balances his pathos, humour, slapstick, delicacy and, in this scene, sublime physicality. Our Little Tramp has taken it upon himself to help with the Flower Girl's financial woes but, after being fired, the only way he can make money is by stepping into the ring as the mark in a fixed fight. What follows is a delicate, sumptuously precise ballet of comedy that matches anything Chaplin ever put on film. 

George White (Screen Co-Editor) - Rocky (1976) 

Yeah, I know. How original - a Rocky film. I could have gone for something more obscure like Raging Bull, sure, but it’s just a fact that the first of the seemingly endless stream of Balboa releases is genuinely phenomenal, even 45 years later. 

With the Rocky series getting progressively more insane, more spectacular, it’s easy to forget just how good this film is. With witty dialogue, expertly performed by a young, fresh Stallone, a simple yet powerful underdog story that has influenced countless movies since, and charming supporting performances from the likes of Carl Weathers and Talia Shire, the original Rocky really has it all. Plus, there is that original training montage, culminating in that iconic scene on the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with that banging tune from Survivor blaring in the background. Quality.

Jamie Morris (Screen Co-Editor) - Kids Return (1996)

Part sports movie, part yakuza thriller, Takeshi Kitano’s Kids Return is a story of two teenage delinquents who grow apart and lose their way. Masaru, the more fiery of the pair, turns to boxing after losing a street scrap, but it’s his quieter companion Shinji that ultimately takes to the sport and pursues a professional career. 

Masaru’s hot-headedness instead leads him down a dark path of organised crime, as he joins the yakuza with a view to become a gang leader – but Shinji’s side of the story is equally cautionary, depicting how a lack of self-care can be a boxer’s undoing. Swayed by an alcoholic trainer, he develops a nasty purging habit that puts his health at risk in the ring. 

While not quite autobiographical, the story comes from a personal place for Kitano, with nods to his time as part of comedy duo The Two Beats. It’s sincere and optimistic – despite the heavy subject matter – and one of the best films to use sport as a narrative vehicle.

Katie Green - Rocky II (1979)

The Rocky franchise is an all time favourite of mine; I have loved these films since I was nine years old. But it is Rocky II that stands out most to me, as it provides a big victory, amazing music and even a hint of romance - which I am a sucker for. The plot follows Rocky as he is recovering from his first professional fight against World Champion Apollo Creed. Battered and bruised, Apollo wants a rematch (a big mistake) as he did not think he got a deserved win. In the background, Rocky gets married to his beloved girlfriend Adrian and they later have their first baby together. The best thing about this film is, of course, Rocky’s triumphant victory over Apollo, as it is the stepping stone to him becoming the boxer he was born to be. With the romance and his love for Adrian intertwined with the fighting, this is definitely the film of the franchise that will always be my favourite.

Daniela Loffreda - Rocky IV (1985)

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking, this is the last mention of the Rocky franchise - we promise. But there’s something seriously special about the fourth instalment of Stallone's most successful creation. Set in the midst of the Cold War, this 1985 release is more than a superficial boxing film; in fact, it's a representation of the building tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Here, the two superpowers go head-to-head in the ring, with Balboa tasked with defeating the ‘evil’ Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago. 

Not only is Rocky IV highly entertaining, packed with great montages, a catchy soundtrack and a stunning Lamborghini Jalpa, but it reminds us that perseverance really can overcome all.

Aaron Roe - Fat City (1972)

John Huston’s Fat City is one of those underrated Seventies gems about dusty Americana’s drifters and bums. Up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) meets down-and-outer (Stacey Keach), their stories intersecting through opposing trajectories of their lives - both part of the same sedimentation of the American Dream. 

Fat City is an understated portrait of bare life that never subscribes to fairy tales. There is no underdog story, no title bout and no name in flashing lights; there are only vacuums dive bars, dead end gyms and making ends meet. Rather than some mythical battleground, the boxing scenes are sloppy and cumbersome - the ring is but an extension of ones battle with oneself. Lines between hard-fought victories and crippling defeats are always blurred. Huston’s late career masterpiece is a quietly existential edition to the genre which operates comfortably within that cliché that life itself is the ring that we all have to step into.

Jake Leonard - Journeyman (2017)

Paddy Considine writes, directs, and stars in this moving and frank drama about how much boxing is about what happens outside the ring as well as in it. Middleweight champion Matty Burton (Considine) is reaching the tail-end of his career and is pitched against young upstart Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh) to defend his title. After taking several rough blows to the head, Matty wins the match, but suddenly collapses at home. It’s discovered that Matty has severe brain trauma and will need near-constant supervision and support for what may be the rest of his life. His wife Emma (an outstanding Jodie Whittaker) struggles to cope with Matty’s increasingly violent outbursts and erratic behaviour, as he becomes a danger to them both - as well as their young daughter Mia. 
Made with Considine's typical care and attention to detail, Journeyman is a solid and emotional film about the physical and mental toll of the sport for both the fighters and their families, bolstered by terrific performances from a stellar cast.

Roshan Chandy - Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro gained sixty pounds to play violent heavyweight boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s brutal and brilliant Raging Bull. It’s as much a sports movie as it is a Shakespeare-tinged tragedy and a study of testosterone-fuelled aggression. Packs one hell of a punch in and out of the ring.

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