10 Greatest Boxing Films of All Time: Will 'The Fighter' Make the List?
Oscar season has officially begun here in La-La Land and this year one of the top Oscar hopefuls is The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. It's the story of Mickey Ward and his step brother Dickie Eklund from Boston, MA. For those of you who don't know, Irish Mickey Ward was a light welterweight contender best known for his three exciting bouts with the late great Arturo Gatti. Eklund was a fighter as well and once sent Sugar Ray Leonard to the canvas before succumbing to a serious crack habit that derailed his career.
The film is directed by one of my favorite directors David O. Russell (Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster) and stars Wahlberg as Mickey and Bale as Dickie along with the wonderful Amy Adams (Enchanted, Julie and Julia) and Melissa Leo. Boxing pics have historically been a tough sell, but I have high hopes for this one. Wahlberg worked very hard to get this one off the ground.
In honor of Oscar season and in honor of The Fighter, here is my current top ten greatest boxing films of all time with trailers and clips from each.
Number 10: Homeboy
This one is a guilty pleasure. Freddie Roach once told me it was one of his favorite boxing movies. Not a good movie. Just one of his favorites. He and I both know it's not a great movie.
Mickey Rourke play the down and out fighter Johnny Walker and if you want to know where he came up with the character he plays in The Wrestler you should start here. The similarities to both films is very strong. Both in story (or lack thereof) and tone. The Eric Clapton soundtrack is incredible and Christopher Walken is well, Christopher Walken.
Number 9: Hard Times
Not a classic boxing film but one of the best films you may not have seen. This Walter Hill film takes place in the illegal bare knuckle boxing world that was a staple of the depression era.
The great Charles Bronson plays the fighter and James Coburn is his manager. Need I say more? I'd watch an endless loop of Waiting For Godot if the main players were Bronson and Coburn.
A true hidden gem.
Number 8: Requiem For A Heavyweight
This classic film is a remake of a television play from what is widely known as "The Golden Age of Television". The teleplay was written by Rod Serling and the Heavyweight in question was played by Jack Palance.
In the feature film version Louis "Moutain" Rivera was played by Anthony Quinn and his manager by the great Jackie Gleason with Andy Rooney as Rivera's corner-man.
The feature version is a treasure trove of boxing cameos for any boxing fan. The opening fight features a spectacular turn a young Muhammad Ali (billed as Cassius Clay). Jack Dempsey, Barney Ross and Willie Pep also appear as themselves.
Number 7: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Ken Burns is one of the best documentary filmmakers of all time. Hands down. And Unforgivable Blackness is one of his greatest accomplishments. From the amazing archival footage to the way he keeps the viewer riveted on Johnson's incredible and very American story this documentary is flawless.
So why is it only number 7? Probably because it was a made for TV doc and therefore I think the other films may have packed a little bit more of a wallop. But if you haven't seen it I suggest you run out to the remaining video store in your neighborhood, put it in your Netflix cue or buy it from PBS. It is a must see for any boxing fan or history buff.
Number 6: Raging Bull
Scorsese, DeNiro, and Pesci at the top of their games.
Raging Bull is the story of Jake LaMotta as penned by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and filmed the great Michael Chapman (Jaws, The Last Detail). After receiving mixed initial reviews (and criticism due to its violent content), it went on to garner a high critical reputation and is now widely regarded among the greatest films ever made. The film can be a difficult watch because of the very realistic scenes of violence and brutality. Inside and outside the ring. But there is no doubt about the films power.
Oh, and DeNiro gained 70 pounds to film the later scenes in the movie. He hasn't looked the same since.
Number 5: Fat City
One of the last films directed by the great John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of Sierra Madre, The African Queen). It stars a young Jeff Bridges and and underrated Stacy Keach this film is as real as it gets. Some people are going to argue with this one. I don't care. Fat City is a terrific film.
Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, liked the film and John Huston's direction. He wrote, "This is grim material but Fat City is too full of life to be as truly dire as it sounds. Ernie and Tully, along with Oma (Susan Tyrrell), the sherry-drinking barfly Tully shacks up with for a while, the small-time fight managers, the other boxers and assorted countermen, upholsterers, and lettuce pickers whom the film encounters en route, are presented with such stunning and sometimes comic accuracy that Fat City transcends its own apparent gloom."
Tyrell was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film.
Number 4: When We Were Kings
The true story of the Foreman-Ali Rumble In The Jungle.
This may have been the zenith of boxing as we know it. Ali in his prime. The most famous and popular athlete of his generation. Not just in the US, but around the world. Fighting the man no one thought could be beat.
The best scene in the movie is watching Ali walk around the slums of Kinshasha, Zaire in the immediate aftermath of the fight. Without a single bodyguard. He doesn't need one. He is Ali. A real life Superman. We may never see another one like him.
Leon Gast's feature doc captures every moment of this spectacle and ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary for his efforts.
Number 3: Body and Soul
John Garfield plays Charley Davis. A fighter who needs a little help to win the title. Body and Soul is very much of it's time. When the mob ran boxing and a fighter had to play along to get a title fight. The story has been told many times since, but never better. It is often considered the first great boxing picture.
Garfield got an Oscar nom for his role, Abraham Polonsky was nominated for his script and the film won for best editing. Polonsky later directed the the cult classic Force of Evil also with Garfield before being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Body and Soul closes with one of the greatest lines in film history when Garfield snarls at his former handlers, "Everybody dies."
Number 2: Rocky
Whatever you say about Sly Stallone, and a lot of people do, he wrote one of the greatest scripts of all time. Loosely based on Muhammad Ali's fight with Chuck Wepner, Rocky is pretty much a perfect movie. Stallone was perfect for the role and smart enough to insist the studio use him.
I could go on and on about this film. The casting, (Burgess Meredith, Talia Shire and Burt Young are wonderful) the gritty way it was filmed, the soundtrack. But why? It's Rocky. Enough said.
Number 1: On The Waterfront
One day I was at my gym and I asked the guys about the greatest boxing movie ever and I was surprised when they almost unanimously said it was On The Waterfront hands down. Not that it isn't a great movie. It's just that I'd never thought of it as a boxing movie. But it is.
Marlon Brando plays former boxer Terry Malloy. He takes on the mob who control the New York docks and just like Rocky, he gets the crap kicked out of him yet ends up winning in the end.
Lee J. Cobb plays the biggest villain in the history of cinema with maybe the most perfect name ever, "Johnny Friendly". Rod Steiger play Terry's brother, the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint plays the girl and Karl Malden plays the local priest. All are perfectly cast. Directed by the Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg when they could do no wrong.
Like Rocky, On The Waterfront won the Academy Award for best picture. Deservedly so.