Punch Drunk Love – ten rounds with the best boxing films of all time

As Michael B. Jordan prepares to step into the ring and behind the camera, going toe-to-toe with Jonathan Majors in Creed III, the latest instalment of the Rocky legacy sequel/spinoff franchise, what better time for David Michael Brown to go ten rounds with the best boxing films of all time? Seconds out…

Round 1!

Raging Bull (1980)

One of the greatest films ever made. Martin Scorsese’s fourth collaboration with Robert De Niro and second with scribe Paul Schrader is a stunning knockout. Based on boxer Jake LaMotta’s 1970 memoir Raging Bull: My Story, De Niro portrayed the Italian-American middleweight boxer with animalistic rage both in the ring and out.

No punches are pulled. La Motta is depicted as an abusive, alcoholic, jealous thug. The Taxi Driver star’s intense training regime with LaMotta saw the actor box over 1,000 rounds. His dedication led La Motta to believe that De Niro could have been a contender (that was before the actor put on over 25kgs to portray the boxer in later life).

Stunningly shot in black and white, the brutal bouts, dripping in blood, are a masterclass in editing by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker who put the film together at night in Scorsese’s NYC apartment.

Round 2!

Rocky (1976)

Written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, and directed by future The Karate Kid helmer John G. Avildsen, three-time Oscar winner Rocky is a far grittier affair than the subsequent star-spangled sequels would suggest.

Rocky Balboa is an Italian American journeyman southpaw squandering his boxing skills in small gym fights in his hometown of Philadelphia while making a quick buck on the side as a heavy for a loan shark. That is until Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the reigning world champion, hands picks “the Italian Stallion” as his next opponent in a championship match.

The blood, sweat and tears are soundtracked by Bill Conti’s euphoric score and the talented ensemble including Burgess Meredith as his brash coach Mickey, Burt Young as his brother-in-law Paulie and Talia Shire as Adrian, ensure there isn’t a dry eye in the house during the emotional finale. “Adrian!”

Round 3!

When We Were Kings (1996)

Then unbeaten world heavyweight champion George Foreman and 4–1 underdog Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” is the stuff of legend.

The heavyweight championship boxing match held on October 30, 1974, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire), was a sporting event as spectacle, partly funded by brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and Leon Gast’s hugely entertaining documentary perfectly encapsulates the era. When We Were Kings has a superb mix of live performances by James Brown, B.B. King, and The Spinners at Zaire 74, the “black Woodstock” that preceded the fight, and a host of vintage talking heads including the boxers themselves, promoter extraordinaire Don King and Spike Lee.

A fascinating insight into the corrupt political machinations behind one of the biggest sporting events of “arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century!”

Round 4!

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Starring an Oscar-winning Hilary Swank as waitress and amateur boxer Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald and director Clint Eastwood, in full-on grouch mode, as Frankie Dunn, her cantankerous trainer.

A draining experience that packs a powerful punch, boxing films are always drenched in emotion, but few of them explore the harrowing aftermath of the sport. The exhilaration of Maggie’s rise in the boxing world only makes her downfall harder to take. It’s a testament to Swank’s extraordinary performance. When she *SPOILER ALERT* breaks her neck during a match she is left a quadriplegic.

Frank blames himself and the elation of the earlier scenes is replaced by a sombre treatise on the brutality of the sport, old age and euthanasia.

Round 5!

Creed (2015)

After stepping in the ring with The A-Team’s Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and Dolph Lungren’s herculean Russian Ivan “I break you!” Drago, the Rocky sequels were taking a step away from reality—endless superhuman bouts a million miles from the gritty bloody realism of the first film.

His comeback film Rocky Balboa tried to reign things in with an often-poignant comment on old age but it was the spin-off Creed, steeped as it is in the history of the franchise, that brought Balboa back to his roots.

With a star-making turn from charismatic Michael B. Jordan as Apollo Creed’s estranged son Adonis Johnson and Sly taking a back seat as his coach and mentor, the emotion-drenched plot sees the Italian Stallion fighting for his life while Creed tries to live up to his father’s name.

Round 6!

Ali (2001)

Michael Mann’s epic biopic combined the director’s penchant for gritty crime flicks with an uplifting sports biopic to great effect. An Oscar-nominated Will Smith, who piled on the pounds for the role, showed he could make a good fist of it long before his slap-happy Academy Award antics, and as Ali, he plays the charismatic boxing legend with the necessary swaggering arrogance.

Covering a decade of his career from 1964 to 1974, the film highlights the requisite blockbuster moments. From Ali’s heavyweight title fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle fight in Zaire and his banishment from boxing after he refused to be drafted and fight in the Vietnam War to his conversion to Islam, his friendship with Malcolm X and his lifelong allegiance with sportscaster Howard Cosell (an unrecognisable Jon Voight.)

Mann’s sporting epic isn’t afraid to show the flawed human being behind the Ali shuffle and the trash-talking. You’ll believe a man can fly… like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Round 7!

The Fighter (2010)

Featuring a typically impressive David O. Russell ensemble headlined by Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and a sinewy Oscar-winning turn by Christian Bale, The Fighter tells the rags to riches true story of Boston native and wannabe boxer Micky Ward and his dysfunctional blue-collar family who help and hinder his pugilistic career.

With an Academy Award-winning Melissa Leo as his domineering mother and trainer, fellow Oscar-winner Bale, who dramatically lost weight for the role, as his older half-brother, drug addict and boxing mentor and Amy Adams as his girlfriend and inspiration, The Fighter excels because of the willingness of the cast to deep dive into their characters.

Despite the authenticity of the story, there is a comfortable predictability to proceedings but the acting talent on display wins the day.

Round 8!

Cinderella Man (2005)

Russell Crowe had already shown off his muscular acting chops in Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (1992) and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), so when he stepped into the ring for Ron Howard in Cinderella Man, a lean mean Rusty was always going to look the part.

Set in a depression-era New Jersey and inspired by the fairytale true-life story of world heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock, the underdog story—a regular trope in boxing films—sees the washed-up prizefighter challenging for the heavyweight championship of the world as he desperately tries to put food on the table for his family.

With an ensemble that boasts Renée Zellweger as Braddock’s wife and Paul Giamatti as the man always in his corner and Ron Howard at the helm, this handsomely mounted period sporting drama mixes sees the director trade in his trademark schmaltz for surprisingly visceral fight scenes.

Round 9!

The Boxer (1997)

The third collaboration between Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Sheridan after My Left Foot (1989) and In the Name of The Father (1993) sees the multiple Oscar winner take on the role of Danny Flynn, a boxer and Provisional IRA member who has just served 14 years in prison and now wants to “go straight”.

He returns to his hometown, a Belfast ripped apart by religious hatred and the bombings that took so many lives, and reopens his neighbourhood gym. His arrival enflames passion with an old flame (Emily Watson) and anger from the sectarian organisation.

Ever the method-acting professional, the always brilliant Day-Lewis spent an impressive three years in training including 18 months with former featherweight world champion Barry McGuigan, whose life and boxing career had inspired the film, to ensure the fights sweated bloody authenticity.

Round 10!

The Hurricane (1999)

Part gritty boxing drama, part tense courtroom thriller, The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison (Moonstruck), tells the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongly imprisoned for 19 years for three murder charges.

As played by an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington, Carter takes on an almost mythical folk hero status, no doubt aided by the use of Bob Dylan’s 1976 protest song “Hurricane” about the racially charged miscarriage of justice.

The bouts are beautifully captured in black and white and while they cannot match Raging Bull for Scorsese’s camera trickery and bloody brutality, they certainly deliver the intended emotional wallop. Despite accusations that the film liberally plays with the truth, the ever-reliable Washington is sensational in the role.