Boxing Movies That Defined The Genre

Some of the best boxing movies aren't really about the sport, they're about the human condition
Boxing Movies That Defined The Genre

Over the course of decades, we've had countless boxing sport dramas that have provided us with awe-inspiring motivational stories. From 1926's black-and-white silent comedy Battling Butler to some recent entries like Southpaw (2015), these movies have always followed somewhat similar story beats. This year, after months of delays due to the pandemic, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's new film, Toofan starring Farhan Akhtar finally hit the streaming service. But when one thinks of a boxing film which has now, in a way, cemented its place in pop culture as a genre of its own, there are a few that stand out. And that is because some of the best boxing movies aren't really about the sport. They're about the human condition and what it means to come out from the other side of the road and achieve everything big. Here's a look at some of the films that defined the genre.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

Considered the film that went on to inspire Rocky, this Robert Wise-directed film sparked Paul Newman's prolific screen career. Playing a fringe deadbeat boxer with a quirky accent, he falls in love with a shy woman. A biopic on Rocky Graziano, the film also follows the man's journey to win the World Middleweight Championship title win at age 28 in 1947. The script by Ernest Lehman has a perfect blend of well-balanced realism and lyrical undertones. That's precisely why the boxing shown transcends to reach the vast realm of the human condition.

Fat City (1972)

This John Huston-directed classic is probably the most unconventional boxing film out on the list. Featuring heartwarming performances by Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrrell, the film is peppered with authentic experiences of the blue-collared and the unemployed. This isn't a film you would get perfectly well-realized character arcs from. It's something you need to passively experience, as it takes you onto an insightful journey of this bountiful world. Alike most of his films, Huston, who was a professional boxer himself for a while (though not a very good one) defines a genre while telling the story of the underbelly of American society. Ultimately, it is one of the bleakest, most real character studies American cinema has to offer.

Hard Times (1975)

Walter Hill directed this Depression Era-based fighting drama, starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn. His incredible directorial debut is purely character-driven, giving us an insight into what it's like living in a time where good work and affordable income are scarce. The film captures the zeitgeist and humanity of its characters, with otherwise no real back story, in a way that mythologized these icons. The bare-knuckled fights held in warehouses work because the characters we root for have certain nobility about them.

Rocky (1976)

Rocky is one of those movies and characters that have become a pillar of pop culture. Everyone has at least heard of this highly uplifting film that made Sylvester Stallone a household name. With a striking resemblance to young Marlon Brando, Stallone wrote the script and peddled it around Hollywood for years before he could sell it. The film has, what arguably may be, the greatest training montage sequence of all time as we see the shredded young man run up the steps of Philadelphia's art museum and leap into the air. The entire movie could be summed up just with that scene, as this classic is ultimately about the ode to the human spirit.

Ranging Bull (1980)


There's nothing about this classic masterpiece that hasn't been said already. Raging Bull is a biopic of Jake La Motta, who was raised in the Bronx in an immigrant Italian family and became the middleweight champion of the world in 1949, losing his title two years later and then losing his zest for the sport. The direction by Scorsese, editing by Schoonmaker and the brilliant script by Shrader and Mardik is bolstered by what may be Robert De Niro's career-best performance. After going through an immense weight transformation, De Niro channels extreme rage into the performance in all the right ways, without ever going overboard. The way Scorsese shot the fighting sequences in the ring, with glints of smoke, shimmering images and the groaning effect, reinforced the underlying themes of the film perfectly. In the climax of the film, Jake is in an unlit cell, representing not only his isolation as a human with his own distinct emotion but also the darkness of his inability to see that out of all the men he faced in the ring, he has always been his worst enemy. The film has a classic flashback framework opening sequence and other traits that would later become the director's trademark. Scorsese isn't interested in glamorizing the violence by emphasizing the fight sequences. He wants us to take notice of the storm that's brewing within his protagonist rather than the one that's unleashed. Raging Bull has the perfect blend of austerity, abstraction and physicality that doesn't just make it one of the benchmark films in the boxing genre, but it changed cinema for the better.

Ali (2001)

Michael Mann followed up what still remains the best film of his career, The Insider, with a highly anticipated biopic of the most famous boxer our world has known: Muhammad Ali. We see his conversion to Islam, criticism of the Vietnam War, and banishment from boxing. Although the film ultimately failed to truly grasp the unparalleled persona of the man, it gave us an account of the political uprising and the rather unsettling times of the US history that it was set in. Then, there's the stunning opening sequence set to Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me," one of the best things Mann's ever shot.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

In 1996, Katie Dallam became the first female professional boxer seriously injured in the ring. What happened to her that night would not only inspire her art but it's believed to be the basis for a short story that later became this blockbuster, Oscar-winning film, Million Dollar Baby. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring the man himself along with a brilliant Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman as a supporting actor and the narrator, this film had Oscar written all over it. The movie isn't about boxing. It's about the absolution and perseverance of an aging man coming to terms with his guilt. The film seamlessly cuts between the drama and training montages, making a highly engrossing and impacting piece of cinema.

Cinderella Man (2005)

After A Beautiful Mind, director Ron Howard and acting legend Russell Crowe teamed up yet again to deliver an extremely riveting biopic. This time around, Crowe plays an ex-boxer James J. Braddock, who works as a day labourer until his former manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) offers him a one-time slot against a rising young contender. The film is set during the Great Depression era and had some great production design along with a pitch-perfect background score. The visual strategy and the story beats the film follows are the usual, but they depend not so much on the technical depiction of boxing as on the development of the emotional duel going on in the ring. The film had everything going for it, yet it ended up getting a horrendous beating at the box office.

The Fighter (2010)

With bookend pseudo-documentary interviews, this David O. Russell film opens on an HBO crew shooting footage of ex-fighter Dicky Eklund, played by a waif-thin Christian Bale along with other great actors like Mark Wahlberg. Russell's penchant for directing actors to critical glory is cemented in this one. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who later went on to work on films like Interstellar, finds a gritty, grainy style that gives the overall experience a realistic feel. The intense, almost biblical relationship shared between brothers is a tradition in movie boxing that is old as time itself. The film is far from perfect, but is a fairly entertaining watch.

Warrior (2011)

This film took everything that made The Fighter feel bogged down and improved it. A powerhouse of intense emotions that has excellent performances from its talented leads, Warrior is a rousing action drama that's ingeniously crafted. The story concerns two estranged brothers having a struggling relationship with each other as well as with their father. The film isn't strictly about boxing per se (it's about MMA), but how could we not include this? The film also went on to inspire a Bollywood remake directed by Karan Malhotra, and starring Akshay Kumar and Sidharth Malhotra. But let's just not talk about that here.

Mary Kom (2014)


Over the years, we've seen Bollywood struggle to make impactful biopics while also trying to nurture the essence of its true meaning. And then, this Omung Kumar-directed film set a benchmark in the standards of the genre. Born in Manipur, the film follows the rise of the famous Indian boxer, Mary Kom, fighting her way through dogmas and patriarchy. The physical transformation Priyanka Chopra underwent for this role, truly reflected in her dazzling performance. The underdog tale whose success emulated its very own story, Mary Kom is about never forgetting your basics. It's since been used as a template for making biopics in the country, but has never truly been equalled by any other sports drama.

Creed (2015)

The sequel to one of the most memorable and famous film series had everything resting on its shoulders that could've gone wrong. The audience had plenty of unfortunate chances to see sequels and prequels of such blockbusters, in the name of 'reinvigorating' the franchise, fail to do so. Directed by Ryan Coogler, Creed, like its protagonist, has the heart of a champion. Coogler, who also wrote the screenplay, adroitly merges the old and new together into one moving populist spectacle. He shoots the fight scenes exquisitely, which are accentuated by the lead actors' terrific performances. The peril to slip into mawkishness and schmaltzy nostalgia is there, but never overshadows the film's overall vision. Creed is not only the best sequel to a sports drama we've had but one of the best sequels to come out in decades.

Related Stories

No stories found.