Intro: You are a boxing fan having a lazy weeknight or have nothing to do over the weekend. You borrow a boxing DVD (or go on YouTube) to alleviate the boredom.
Here is a list of the 5 greatest boxing movies of all time. We also identify which boxing movies fall short of this list.
No. 1 >
Unless you have been living in an isolated island without electricity for the past 30 years, you should be familiar with Rocky.
Sylvester Stallone both starred and wrote this film, which is considered by the American Film Institute (AFI) as one of the top 100 films of all time. A young Stallone was reportedly broke and down on his luck when he shopped the movie script around to several hundred producers and movie studios. Sly reportedly had to sell his dog in order to pay his bills as he showed the script of this movie to anyone who would take a meeting with him.
Rocky would go on to win three Oscars. Not bad for a film with a budget of a little over $1.1 million. Contrast that with today’s advanced CGI-laced cinema. Avatar break-even figures is reportedly around $700 million.
Back to Rocky. The plot showcases a small-time Philadelphia boxer who gets a once in a lifetime opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. Along the process of training, which leads up to the brutal encounter, the bout becomes his chance at self-respect and the opportunity to accomplish his dreams. Balboa is a nobody. A regular Joe from the streets. But he has character, work ethic, and guts.
What Makes This Film Great
Of the world’s most successful people, how many of them were once young ‘Rocky Balboas’? The story of Balboa is a story that is applicable not only to almost every prize fighter pursuing a world title, but also applicable to any person that strives to accomplish his or her goals. It provides a general template of what life is, or should be, about given the constant barrage of challenges that an individual meets, and the requisite effort and courage required to overcome those obstacles.
This movie attains universal acclaim from both critics and moviegoers, which is a rare feat in cinema. Shakespeare, Homer, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust might all too well recognize the familiarity of the plot. But the film’s presentation of Rocky Balboa enables the audience to be immersed and to be swept by the struggle and the journey.
Few works of art begin to elevate themselves to exemplary status. There is a societal and humanist lesson that transcends the brutal sport that is boxing as well as the intricate nuances of film-making. When man crosses the “threshold of Apotheosis,” his consciousness shifts – he begins not only to understand his life’s purpose, but to live its pain and glory with abandon.
Paraphrasing General Douglas MacArthur, a man should not forget how to weep; and he should learn how to face himself when he is afraid. At the end of Rocky, we are left exhausted. We are inspired. We do not necessarily wonder what we were born to do. Rather, we ask ourselves whether or not we have what it takes to do it.
Get up you son of a bitch! ‘Cause Mickey loves you!
The following clip is an excerpt from a sequel, Rocky V, as Balboa reflects on his career.
Rocky is not a work of fiction, per se. It humanizes the traits of heroes – and their colorful lives. It also implies the necessity of a clean character and of being humble, as the foundations of true, self-actualized greatness. The film reveals the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the protagonist, who despite these, faces the awesome task of squaring off against the world heavyweight champion.
No. 2 >
Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull stars Robert De Niro, who profiles one of boxing’s greatest and most flawed characters. The film is about middleweight Jake LaMotta (83-19-4).
LaMotta’s early career was fought at the time of the Second World War, and he faced (and lost to) the immortal Sugar Ray Robinson several times, who is widely considered the greatest boxer in the history of the sport.
It is important to note that LaMotta himself is considered as one of the best who ever laced up the gloves. In 1943, LaMotta beat the then-undefeated Robinson in a unanimous decision win.
Movie critics, including AFI, regard Raging Bull as a better movie than Rocky in the all time list. Now, perhaps that’s “raging bulls***”. Actually, there is a valid argument to make such a claim. However, the vast majority of audiences worldwide have grown much more affectionate towards the Rocky series.
The film peers into the ugly side of prize fighting, disclosing LaMotta’s masochistic rage, sexual jealousy, and dysfunctional character that offended even the sensibilities of peers and the rest of the pugilistic world. Athletes today are much more highly scrutinized with constant hyper-media coverage. In World War II America, dysfunctional personal lives did not attract as much attention when the technology for constant coverage did not yet exist. A fighter could still have a private life – and be less accountable.
The film follows LaMotta’s life after his glory days are over, which include a jail sentence. His behavior alienates and ultimately destroys his relationship with his family and wife.
The lesson? A person may reach the heights in his own profession. But success in one’s personal life is a whole different matter. Additionally, without the right values, there is no guarantee that professional success is permanent. A person can be his own worst enemy, and begin to self-destruct, and to sabotage what he has built up.
No. 3 >
When We Were Kings (1997)
When We Were Kings is a historical, close-up documentary released in 1997. Written by Oscar Gast, the film won an Oscar for profiling one of the greatest fights that ever took place in the sport: Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman for the heavyweight championship in 1974. The fight, dubbed “Rumble in the Jungle,” took place in Zaire.
Then-unknown promoter Don King secured $5 million in guaranteed purse for each fighter, with the funds coming from Mobuto Sese Suko, the dictator of Zaire. Foreman came into the bout sporting a 40-0 record. The Texas native had been destroying his opponents. Thus, the Houston-based boxer was favored to win against the elder Ali.
Ali, on the other hand, exuded contagious brashness:
I’m bad! Been chopping trees. I done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator. That’s right. I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That’s bad! Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!
No. 4 >
Cinderella Man (2005)
Cinderella Man stars Russell Crowe (and Renee Zellweger), and the film was written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Ron Howard directed this movie about the true story of boxer James Braddock. Braddock was an Irish-American light heavyweight contender from New Jersey who breaks his hand, and who loses everything during the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression in the early 1930s.
His manager, played by Paul Giamatti, offers Braddock a chance to return to the ring – representing an opportunity for the fallen protagonist to convert from regular laborer back into the visible lights as boxing icon. The return to the ring was initially supposed to be for one night, for some purse.
A heavy underdog, he would defeat the number two contender in the world with a third round KO, stunning the boxing world. Braddock continues to win, until he gets a shot at heavyweight champion Max Baer. Braddock’s rags-to-riches story gets him labeled as “The Cinderella Man.”
Braddock entered the title fight with Baer as a 10-to-1 underdog. Baer, the champ, has reportedly killed at least two men in the ring. The fearless Braddock emerged victorious on June 13, 1935 in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, and becomes heavyweight champion of the world. During the bleak times of the Depression, Braddock became a symbol of hope and perseverance to a nation that badly needed it. Fortune goes to the bold . . .
No. 5 >
Number five in Tyson is probably a more controversial pick. After all, we are talking five boxing films in the all-time list. Thus, we give homage to two other very good films: The Hurricane (starring Denzel Washington) and Million Dollar Baby (directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman).
Sure, Million Dollar Baby won four Oscars, and some critics mentioned this film as the best boxing movie since Raging Bull. We select Tyson in the top five all time because “Iron” Mike Tyson is one of the most interesting characters in the history of the sport. That he belongs in ESPN.com’s top 50 greatest boxers of all time list is a bonus.
Three boxers in the modern era have generated intense public interest or scrutiny: Muhammad Ali, Manny Pacquiao, and Mike Tyson. The latter was involved in a jail sentence stemming from rape allegations. He infamously bit off a portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear. He was involved in numerous scuffles and tirades at press conferences. He fought fans who heckled him on the streets. His marriage, and eventual divorce, to Robin Givens was well publicized. Tyson’s lifelong earnings approached half a billion dollars. In less than 20 years on the spotlight, he declared financial bankruptcy.
Secondly, this documentary / biopic unleashes the raw honesty and convoluted, yet powerful, personality of the former undisputed heavyweight champion. Tyson is a tale of the destructive force of nature. He destroyed his opponents in the ring. He destroyed his personal life. His inner circle destroyed him. And the more the world became fascinated with him. Tyson shows glimpses of his desire for renewal and change, attempting to leave behind the life that brought enormous notoriety to himself and his sport.
Other Boxing Movies >
- The Hurricane
- Million Dollar Baby
- On the Waterfront
- Pacquiao: The Movie
- Rocky Marciano
- Snake Eyes
- Resurrecting the Champ
- Somebody Up There Likes Me
- Joe and Max
- The Harder They Fall
- The Great White Hype
- The Great White Hope
- The Hammer
- The Champ
- The Boxer