The sweet science and cinema are a dream match-up with several Hollywood heavyweights winning an Academy Award for playing a boxer – from Robert De Niro to Hillary Swank, Christian Bale to Dolph Lungdren.
OK, Dolph didn’t really but that is clearly a horrendous oversight. You’ll find no such missteps here: talkSPORT’s undisputed countdown of the top 10 greatest boxing films of the last 50 years. Ring the bell.
- Rocky III (1982)
The peak of the silly Rocky sequels without going down the full robot-butler madness of Rocky IV. How can you not love a film which features quote-machine Mr T, Hulk Hogan as ‘Thunder Lips’ and one of the great on-screen bromances between Sly Stallone’s slugger and his enemy-turned-coach Apollo Creed? Weep at Mickey’s death, then marvel at the beach scene where Stallone and Carl Weathers frolic in cut-off tops. Masculine.
- Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank both won Oscars for this tearful melodrama about an underdog waitress who fights her way up to the big time. Clint Eastwood directs and stars and the acting is A-grade, including real-life boxing legend Lucia Rijker as a menacing villain. However it’s also mawkish and heavy-handed, especially the climactic fight which might be even more ludicrously over the top than anything you can find in a Rocky movie.
- Bleed For This (2016)
The wild life of the ‘Pazmanian Devil’ is channeled by Miles Teller in this biopic about Vinny Pazienza, who had one of those boxing careers it’s impossible to make up. A car accident left Vinny with a broken neck and doctors telling him he’d never box again – so the world 140lb champion naturally started shadow boxing and lifting weights with a protective Halo still screwed into his skull. Cue the heroic in-ring comeback 13 months later.
- Cinderella Man (2005)
One of the least likely heavyweight champions ever gets the all-star epic treatment with Russell Crowe as James J Braddock, the gentleman journeyman given no chance of upsetting Max Baer in 1935. Despite a few liberties with the truth – Baer was a larger-than -life joker, not the panto villain seen here – the fight scenes are suitably stirring and Crowe commits to the rags-to-riches tale. Still not a patch on Gladiator, but then what is?
- Creed (2015)
Absolutely nobody wanted a spin-off Rocky film 39 years after the original, so what a surprise it’s actually terrifying. Michael B Jordan radiates anger and charisma as the son of a deceased legend; Stallone acts his socks off him as a damaged, Adrian-mourning Rocky; and Tony Bellew… is also there. There’s nothing much original about the story but Ryan Coogler – who’d go on to direct Black Panther – nails the mix of in-ring action and outside the ropes bonding.
- The Hurricane (1999)
Denzel Washington straps the real-life story of middleweight contender Rubin Carter to his back and carries it for 146 absorbing minutes. The fight scenes are actually at a minimum as the film focuses on the fact that Carter was pulled over and wrongly convicted for a triple murder in 1966, then spent 20 years in prison before clearing his name. Washington is magnetic as a man who refuses to give into hate despite the injustice he’s faced.
- The Fighter (2010)
Marky Mark Wahlberg is understated in this biopic of blue-collar boxing icon ‘Irish’ Micky Ward. So the rest of the cast – Christian Bale as his crack-addicted brother, Melissa Leo as his manager / mother – bring the pizazz to this knockout drama. Ward’s attempts to distance himself from his dysfunctional family (we’ve all been there) and rebuild his boxing career is exhilarating. Bale and Leo both won Oscars – deserved for their “Bahston” accents alone.
- Fat City (1972)
No, not the story of Ricky Hatton’s weight-making days: Fat City is a bleak but brilliant fight-flick. A young Jeff Bridges and a less-young Stacy Keach play boxers chasing glory at either end of their careers. A far cry from the glitz of the highest end of the sport – and you know that nobody is knocking out a Russian on Christmas day to give you a fairytale ending – but director John Huston’s film gets under the skin of boxing’s broken dreams.
- Rockies (1976)
“His whole life was a million to one shot” was the tagline and it applied to both Rocky Balboa and to out-of-work actor Sylvester Stallone who wrote this star-making Oscar-winner. The tale of a downtrodden journeyman facing the heavyweight champ is carried by the performances, including screen-hog Carl Weathers as Muhammad Ali clone Apollo Creed. Fight fans – and boxers themselves – constantly reference it, which shows just how deeply it struck a chord.
- Raging Bull (1980)
A car crash that you can’t look away from, Robert De Niro rages inside and outside the ropes in Martin Scorsese’s black-and-white masterpiece. The real-life Jake LaMotta hated it at first and no wonder: it’s an utterly unsympathetic portrait of a boxer who allows his paranoia and violence to ruin the lives of those around him. Worth seeing for the uniquely shot fight scenes alone, but probably not one to curl up and re-watch as an Xmas feelgood classic.
Honorable mentions: Journeyman, Ali, Jawbone, Southpaw, Girlfight, The Greatest