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Emerald Recommends: The best boxing movies

The upcoming release of Bleed For This tells the tale of Italian-American boxer Vinny Pazienza and his journey back to the ring after breaking his neck in a violent car accident. Emerald writers Zach Price and Dana Alston decided to take this opportunity to count down their favorite boxing movies, as well as some that they didn’t enjoy quite as much.

Zach’s picks: 

Despite it not being a full-length feature film, directors Leon Gast & Taylor Hackford’s 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings, takes on the epic heavyweight championship duel between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in a way that is better than any script could be. With Ali recently coming off of a 3-year suspension for not enlisting in the draft, he challenged reigning world champ Foreman in a fight that was sponsored by the King of Zaire. Using a combination of interviews from people who saw the match live and hundreds of retro video clips, this film does a fantastic job of capturing the intensity of the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Next on the list, Antoine Fuqua’s 2015 film Southpaw. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays boxing champion Billy Hope, who — after his wife (Rachel McAdams) dies from a stray bullet fired during a post-match altercation with rival fighter Jordan Mains (Curtis Jackson) — loses his daughter to child services. There are plenty of cheesy parts to this movie, but when it comes down to one fight that can earn his daughter’s love back and gain respect in the boxing community, it’s impossible to not get caught up in the drama.

Topping my list is the 2010 film The Fighter, which sets Mark Wahlberg opposite Christian Bale in the tale of a boxing family from Southie, Boston. Director David O. Russell tells the true story of struggling fighter Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) and his brother Dicky Eklund (Bale), whose fall from promising up and comer to crack addict is filmed by an HBO documentary crew throughout the movie.

Like most boxing flicks, this one deals with issues far outside the ring, but it separates itself from the others by tackling the complex layers of deep-seeded family issues that the characters face. Along with the classic struggle and triumph of a sports movie, it presents the most accurate depiction of life in the slums of Southie since Good Will Hunting.

It wouldn’t be a top list if there wasn’t at least one dishonorable mention. So without further ado, I give you Real Steel (2011). The movie takes place in a future where robot droids have replaced humans as the top fighting entertainment. Hugh Jackman plays former boxer Charlie Kenton, who tries to win the love of his family back by turning an old sparring bot into a fighter. It’s flat out insulting that they marketed this as a boxing movie, when in fact, it’s two hours of mechanics trying to turn a piece of junk robot into a championship fighting machine.

In an effort to cover up the uninteresting backstory and plot, the film relies far too heavily on CGI and animation. If it weren’t for director Shawn Levy’s ability to create a driving plot out of thin air, this movie might have gone in the “unwatchables” category.

Dana’s picks:

Boxing films are usually a mixed bag. For every triumph, there’s a mediocre story that struggles to shake off the tropes of the genre. That’s not the case with Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). Less about the sport of boxing and more concerned with the violence of its participants, Scorsese’s portrait of fighter Jake LaMotta is at once visceral and heartbreaking. It helps that Robert De Niro’s performance is one of the greatest in cinematic history. This film is simply a masterpiece.

Ryan Coogler’s Creed doesn’t quite fall under the same umbrella, but it still deserves a spot on my list simply for its entertainment value. Starring Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky Balboa’s former nemesis-turned-friend, Creed is a worthy continuation of the Rocky franchise. It’s worth watching for the fight sequences alone. Coogler stages both with opposing sensibilities, opting for an expertly choreographed long take for one and rapid-fire cross cutting for another. It’s a triumphant film that proves that the boxing genre still has plenty of life.

Of course, any discussion of said genre would be incomplete without including the original Rocky (1976). Sylvester Stallone’s story of a working class fighter overcoming hardship in his native Philadelphia is universally loved. It’s easy to understand why. Watching our titular hero will himself to victory (or his definition of victory) is simply exhilarating. When he finally reaches the top of the staircase in the film’s most famous scene, it’s impossible not to cheer, and his joyful cries of “Adrian!” at the film’s end still produce plenty of tears.

It’s a shame that not every boxing movie can achieve the same level of quality. For every Rocky and Raging Bull, there are disasters like 2013’s Grudge Match. De Niro and Stallone star as two retired rival fighters whose bad blood leads to the organization of a final grudge match (hence the title). Watching two actors known for previously playing boxers fight in the same movie (an idea similarly explored in monstrosities like King Kong vs. Godzilla) belongs on a fan fiction forum. How it made its way to the big screen is worth being investigated, if only to bring those responsible to trial for crimes against humanity. Overkill? Hardly. Grudge Match is that boring, that stupid, and that bad.

Watch the trailer for Bleed For This, out Friday, below:

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]