‘Rocky,’ ‘Ali’ and beyond: Boxing has a rich history in the movies

Will “Hands of Stone” and “Bleed for This” be in the same weight class as these beloved boxing movies?

Cinema has long been fixated on the sweet science.

As far back as 1931’s “City Lights,” in which Charlie Chaplin took a beating in the ring on his quest to win the heart of a blind woman, the brutal sport of boxing has repeatedly taken center stage on the silver screen. Biopics like “Gentleman Jim” (1942) and “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) depicted the rise of legends James J. Corbett and Rocky Graziano, respectively, while fixed fights and corrupt managers became staples of film noir titles such as “Body and Soul” (1947), “The Set-Up” (1949), “The Harder They Fall” (1956), and others.

Muhammad Ali’s reign as the “Greatest of All Time” inspired a new wave of boxing films in the ‘70s, culminating in the best picture-winning “Rocky,” which was followed by countless sequels and imitators.

Recent notable forays have included “Girlfight” (2000), “Cinderella Man” (2005), “The Fighter” (2010) and “Southpaw” (2015).

"Hands of Stone" stars Edgar Ramrez as Roberto Duran, Robert De Niro as Ray Arcel and Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.

This year will bring the stories of two more real-life boxers to theaters. First, in August’s “Hands of Stone,” Édgar Ramírez will lace up as Panamanian pro Roberto Durán, the great lightweight who shocked his fans when he abruptly retired during a title fight. And in this corner, Miles Teller will portray Vinny Paz (formerly Pazienza), a title fighter who overcame a potentially crippling car accident in order to return to the ring, in November’s “Bleed For This.”

Miles Teller, Katey Sagal and Aaron Eckhart star in "Bleed For This."

Will these new contenders knock out the competition? Here are some past films in the boxing movie hall of fame, three fictional and three based on real-life pugilists:

"Champion," 1949

Kirk Douglas, right, as Midge Kelly, with Arthur Kennedy, in
Kirk Douglas, right, as Midge Kelly, with Arthur Kennedy, in "Champion." (United Artists)

Key bout: Midge Kelly vs. Johnny Dunne

A young Kirk Douglas battles outsize opponents — and his own inner demons — in this downbeat drama centered on fictional boxer Midge Kelly, a manipulator and misogynist who’s a glutton for punishment once he steps inside the ring, pushing himself to win even if it means paying the ultimate price. The film earned Douglas his first Academy Award nomination.

"Rocky," 1976, and "Creed," 2015

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson Creed in
Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson Creed in "Creed." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Key bouts: Rocky vs. Apollo Creed; Adonis Creed vs. "Pretty" Ricky Conlan

Sylvester Stallone jumpstarted his acting career in the film that has become synonymous with big-screen boxing. Rocky is the ultimate underdog, who proves that a big heart and refusal to back down can go as far as a strong uppercut in his final fight with the heavily favored Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). A best picture Oscar followed. Nearly 40 years — and five inferior sequels — later, Rocky returned to train Creed’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) in the 2015 spinoff “Creed,” which recaptured the energy and underdog exuberance of the original. When Creed faces off with UK brawler “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the audience cheers along with Stallone’s Rocky, who earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination in the process.

"Million Dollar Baby," 2004

Clint Eastwood as Frankie and Hilary Swank as Maggie in
Clint Eastwood as Frankie and Hilary Swank as Maggie in "Million Dollar Baby." (Merie W. Wallace / Warner Bros. )

Key bout: Maggie Fitzgerald vs. Billie "The Blue Bear" Osterman

In his long career as a director, Clint Eastwood often trains his eye on such traditionally masculine figures as cowboys, cops, criminals and soldiers, but when he turned to boxing, Eastwood chose to tell the story of female fighter Maggie Fitzgerald’s (Hilary Swank) against-all-odds ascension to a pro career. After winning a key match, an ill-timed sucker punch from her underhanded opponent paralyzes Maggie, when her real fight begins. 

"Raging Bull," 1980

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in
Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull." (United Artists)

Key bout: Jake LaMotta vs. Sugar Ray Robinson

Robert De Niro famously packed on pounds of muscle, and then let it all turn to flab, in his Oscar-winning turn depicting the rise and fall of the brutal brawler Jake LaMotta, whose self-destructive narcissism was as viciously disabling as anything dished out by his opponents, who including Sugar Ray Robinson. Their 1951 fight sets the scene for the film’s most intense sequence, in which LaMotta loses his title. Director Martin Scorsese captured each bloody fight in haunting black and white, with a camera that bobbed and weaved as much as any fleet-footed fighter.

"The Hurricane," 1999

Denzel Washington in
Denzel Washington in "The Hurricane." (George Kraychyk)

Key bout: Rubin Carter vs. Injustice

Denzel Washington suited up as middleweight contender Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter, who would become known more as a casualty of injustice than as a boxer. Well on his way to boxing immortality, Carter was falsely accused of a triple homicide and spent nearly two decades in prison before the verdict was finally overturned. Although the Norman Jewison-directed drama features Carter’s early bouts, its main focus is on Carter’s dogged fight against a crooked, racist criminal justice system. 

"Ali," 2001

Will Smith, center, as Muhammad Ali in
Will Smith, center, as Muhammad Ali in "Ali." (Howard Bingham / Columbia Pictures)

Key bout: Ali vs. Foreman, a.k.a. the Rumble in the Jungle

Under the direction of Michael Mann, Will Smith was transformed into the G.O.A.T., Muhammad Ali, for a film that focused as much on boxing as Ali's activities outside the ring as an outspoken activist and eventual cultural icon. The famous 1974 Zaire-set championship match pitting Ali against George Foreman was touted as “the Rumble in the Jungle,” and provides the film with its climactic moments. The fight was also chronicled in the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings.”


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