1. Raging Bull (1980): This is Director Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, tracing the career (and post-career) of boxer Jake LaMotta. The cinematography and editing of the boxing scenes is sublime, capturing both the sport and the era. Robert DeNiro trained to make the boxing look as authentic as possible, and it shows.
2. Million Dollar Baby (2004) – This masterpiece directed by and starring Clint Eastwood won him both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. It is impeccably acted by Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, who both also won Oscars. It’s already a great movie about training a boxer when suddenly the plot takes the themes of the movie to a much, much deeper place.
3. Rocky (1976) and Rocky 2 (1979): Rocky also won the Best Picture Oscar, and it’s easy to forget how good it is after years of lousy Stallone movies. The training scenes are brilliant, the music works to enhance the film, and Phillie itself becomes a character in the movie. The first sequel, Rocky 2 (1979), was also very good.
4. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) – Anthony Quinn is Mountain Rivera, a fighter whose career is ended by a ring injury by Cassius Clay (played by the real Muhammed Ali). His manager, Jackie Gleason, continues to exploit him in this heartbreaking drama. There’s no boxing in this clip, but it illustrates the quality of the writing and the acting.
5. The Set-Up (1949): This is one of the great film noirs and one of my 10 Best Boxing Movies. Robert Ryan plays a washed-up boxer that nobody believes can win again, not even his long-suffering wife. His manager doesn’t bother to tell him that he is committed to taking a dive in his next fight. But what if he wins? Director Robert Wise makes use of then innovative real time narrative. In this clip, watch for the verisimilitude of the bar where the deal goes down.
6. Fat City (1972): Stacy Keach plays a boxer on the slide, his skills unraveled by his alcoholism. He inspires a kid (a very young Jeff Bridges), who becomes a boxer on the rise. Keach and Susan Tyrrell give dead-on performances as pathetic sad sack barflies; Tyrrell was nominated for an Oscar.
7: The Great White Hope (1970): This is the real life story of the first African-American heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson. James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander (both Oscar-nominated) lead an excellent cast. The tag line is “He could beat any white man in the world. He just couldn’t beat all of them”.
8. Thriller in Manila (2009): Many consider the 1975 Thrilla in Manila, the heavyweight championship bout between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, to be the greatest boxing match of all time. Ali usually dominates the narrative of 1970s boxing. Thriller in Manila revisits the fight and its aftermath from Frazier’s point of view. In 2009, Frazier was broke and living on the margins of society, still boiling with resentment from the experience.
9. Cinderella Man (2005): Russell Crowe plays the Depression Era champ James Braddock. The arc of Braddock’s story is gripping, and the Depression itself is a central character in the story. Ron Howard directed, and Crowe and Paul Giamatti are excellent.
10. Body and Soul (1947): John Garfield plays a boxer on the rise in this classic noir. As his career progresses, he becomes entangled with sleazier and sleazier characters. Some aspects of the film are dated, but Garfield’s forceful performance still comes through. Nominated for four Oscars.
Other Notable Boxing Movies
When We Were Kings (1996): This is Leon Gast’s exceptional documentary on the Rumble in the Jungle – the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Zaire.
The Boxer (1997): Set in The Troubles of Northern Ireland, Daniel Day-Lewis lays a boxer who is released after a long prison term. To break the cycle of violence, he starts a youth boxing club – and the IRA doesn’t like it.
Tyson (2009): The fearsome former champ Mike Tyson owns a particularly vile and unappealing persona. Director James Toback pointed a lens at Tyson’s face and let Tyson tell his own story, which is surprisingly engaging.
The Harder They Fall (1956): The story is similar to Requiem for a Heavyweight, but its boxer characters are based on the real life Primo Carnero and Max Baer. The fighter’s exploitation becomes too much for even the the cynical newsman turned publicist (Humphrey Bogart) to stomach.
The Knockout (1914): Fatty Arbuckle plays a guy who is hyping his “fight” against an imposter of the champion Cyclone Flynn, but the real Cyclone unexpectedly shows up in town and climbs into the ring. To make matters worse, Fatty is threatened by the gambler who has bet on him when the fight was supposed to be a hoax. The boxing action is slapstick – and the referee is Charlie Chaplin! It’s the boxing movie in which the guy losing the fight resorts to gunfire.
Arbuckle and Chaplin has not yet broken into stardom (Arbuckle was very close), and Chaplin isn’t even credited. The girl who dresses as a boy to see the fight is played by Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s real life wife at the time. The cast sports a LOT of bad stick-on facial hair.