10 Best American Boxing Movies
These exciting slug fests are truly classic American films
Along with movies about baseball, boxing movies seem to be the most popular sports movies in America. Some have even won Academy Awards for Best Picture and many have been huge box office hits. There’s nothing like watching a good fight movie to rev up one’s enthusiasm for knocking an opponent clear off his feet and into the seats.
This list covers just about the entire history of American movies, all the way back to the early days of silver screen talkies and up to the present. So please give it a look and then do some shadow boxing, just for the heck of it. And then, by all means, watch these movies, especially if you haven’t seen them before.
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10. The Champ (1931)
Directed by King Vidor, The Champ is a film about a washed-up, alcoholic fighter who tries to clean up his act, at least one more time, for the sake of his son. The legendary Wallace Beery plays Andy “Champ” Purcell, a former heavyweight champion. His eight-year-old son Dink is played by Jackie Cooper, perhaps the greatest child actor in Hollywood during the 1930s. Anyway, seemingly unfit to care for Dink, the authorities try to return Dink to his mother. Hoping to prove his worth as a father, the Champ lands a fight with the Mexican heavyweight champion. This is a brutal fight, which Purcell wins, though afterwards he collapses and dies. As many boxing movies are, this is certainly a tear-jerker, and Wallace Beery won the Academy Award for Best Actor. More recently, John Voight played the Champ in a remake in 1979.
9. When We Were Kings (1996)
When We Were Kings is about the so-called Rumble in the Jungle, a heavyweight championship bout involving Muhammad Ali and George Foreman on October 30, 1974, the location, Zaire in central Africa. At this point, Ali was 33 and many thought he was past his prime. But Foreman was certainly at his peak and knocking out his opponents, including Joe Frazier, who had defeated Ali three years earlier. Using his famous rope-a-dope, Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round. Once again, Ali “shook up the world.” The movie also shows Ali’s hope for African-Americans and contains numerous interviews of celebrities such as Spike Lee, James Brown and Norman Mailer. Often considered the greatest boxing documentary ever, When We Were Kings won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
8. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
Requiem for a Heavyweight is another movie about a washed up fighter. Based on a teleplay for Playhouse 90 written in 1956 by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, the movie version stars Anthony Quinn as Luis “Mountain” Rivera. Jackie Gleason plays Rivera’s manager, Maish Rennick, while Mickey Rooney plays Army. In a cameo appearance, Cassius Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali) fights Rivera in a heavyweight bout. Looking unstoppable, Clay nevertheless loses the fight to Rivera. Later in the story, Rivera discovers that Rennick had bet against Rivera when he fought Clay, and now some thugs want him to pay up or they’ll kill him. In order to pay off this gambling debt, Rivera must fight as a professional wrestler, which he reluctantly agrees to do, battling Haystack Calhoun, a 600-pound grappler from Arkansas.
7. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)
Paul Newman stars in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a biopic about the career of middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano. Graziano has a tough life. His father beats him, so he joins a street gang and becomes a criminal, eventually going to prison. Once out of prison, he joins the Army and then goes AWOL. Then Rocky becomes a professional boxer, winning his first six fights. But the Army finds him and nails him with a dishonorable discharge. Eventually, though, Rocky gets married and rises to the top of the middleweight division. Then he fights the champ Tony Zale, but Zale beats him. Later, a blackmailer tries to get Rocky to throw a fight but he fakes an injury, avoiding the fight altogether. Then, once again, Rocky fights Zale and defeats him. Interestingly, James Dean was supposed to play the part of Rocky until he died in a car crash. Also of note, the movie won two Academy Awards.
6. The Hurricane (1999)
This movie tells the story of African-American boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a top middleweight contender, whom many people considered one of the best professional boxers in the world. Carter, played by Denzel Washington, was also a civil rights activist of note. But in 1966 Carter’s world came crashing down he was convicted of committing a triple homicide in Paterson, New Jersey. Then, eight years later a key witness recanted his testimony and Carter received another trial, yet he was convicted of murder again. Keep in mind, throughout these trials Carter always maintained his innocence. Finally, in 1985, a federal judge released Carter from prison, stating that Carter was convicted because of racism, not evidence. Later, reflecting on his long stay in the big house, Carter said, “Hate got me into this place, love got me out."
5. Champion (1949)
Kirk Douglas plays Michael “Midge” Kelly, a man from humble beginnings who climbs to the top of the boxing game by beating opponents, cheating and double-crossing friends and breaking the hearts of pretty women. It’s just about impossible to like Midge, but his double-dealing and heartlessness makes him fascinating to watch. At the climax of the film, Kelly fights top contender Johnny Dunne in the sports event of the year. Kelly knocks down Dunne in the first round, but Dunne later rallies and threatens to knock out Kelly. But Kelly, as he lies on the canvas, hears a radio announcer tell the world what a terrible person he has become. Then Kelley jumps to his feet before the count of ten and pummels Dunne, winning the fight. Unfortunately, Kelly, now grievously injured, soon dies of a cerebral hemorrhage.
4. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
This film is about a woman who wants to become a professional boxer. Hillary Swank plays Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald, who ventures to a gym in Los Angeles and seeks out Frankie Dunn, an elderly boxing trainer played by Clint Eastwood. Reluctantly, Dunn agrees to train Fitzgerald and become her manager. Both Dunn and Fitzgerald have troubled personal lives. Dunn’s daughter won’t speak to him and Maggie’s family is trailer trash. These problems unite them, though. Fitzgerald finally gets a million-dollar bout for the welterweight championship. Maggie seems on the verge of victory until her opponent sucker punches her and knocks her into a stool Dunn's assistant (Morgan Freeman) had just taken into the ring between rounds. Maggie breaks her neck and become a quadriplegic. But Dunn eventually ends her misery in the hospital by giving her a lethal injection.
3. Cinderella Man (2005)
In a film directed by Ron Howard, Russell Crowe plays heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock, who lives a rags to riches life during the Great Depression. Early in his boxing career Braddock does well, but when he breaks his right hand he’s forced to retire to a life working as a day laborer and collecting unemployment checks. Eventually, though Braddock learns to box relying more on his left hand. Inspiring working class folks during those dark times in the 1930s, sportswriter Damon Runyon dubs him the “Cinderella Man.” Then, in June 1935, Braddock boxes the arrogant – and apparently invincible - Max Baer, who has killed two men in the ring, terrifying Braddock’s wife. A 10 to one underdog, Braddock somehow prevails, winning the heavyweight championship.
2. Rocky (1976)
Rocky is a cinematic slug fest about a fighter who, now in his thirties, may be washed up but dreams about fighting for the heavyweight championship. The movie stars Sylvester Stallone, who also wrote the screenplay. Stallone plays Rocky Balboa, a club fighter and muscle man for a loan shark who, as luck would have it, gets a shot at tangling with Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion. When the bout happens, it seems one sided, because Creed is a much better boxer, but Rocky has trained hard and has heart (and a bone-crushing body punch.) At any rate, Rocky loses the fight but goes the distance with the champ, the main goal he had in mind. The movie wins the Academy Award for Best Picture and spawns five sequels. Stallone also won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and soon became a mega movie star.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
The best boxing movies tend to be directed by the best directors and Martin Scorsese definitely fits the bill. This flicker is another biopic. Done in black and white, it’s based on the memoirs of Jake LaMotta, whose inner demons ruin his family life, though he still becomes one of the greatest middleweight boxers of all time during the 1940s and ’50s, one time defeating the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. Robert De Nero plays LaMotta in a boxing film that's about as gritty and realistic as any boxing movie ever made. Moreover, to play an aging Jake LaMotta, De Nero gains 50 pounds, showing LaMotta doing a comedy routine in the 1960s, and then the rest of the movie is done in flashbacks. Interestingly, Raging Bull is sometimes considered one of the greatest American movies ever made, and Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert proclaimed it the best movie of the 1980s. This is truly an American boxing classic!
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© 2014 Kelley Marks