L13FC: Pugilism

A seemingly silly, violent sport is still a popular genre. Why? It ties into why people are attracted to the stories of war. Ordinary people find within themselves the motivation to rise to the surface to victory. That grit and tenacity are virtues, in my book. To live actively with a purpose is a life worth living. That’s why I’m a sucker for a hero story. It’s the most basic narrative since the classical era. I believe hero-worshipping is an intrinsic part of human DNA. 

Welcome back to Cindy’s Lucky 13 Film Club where everyone is encouraged to comment and share their thoughts regarding the monthly topic about the film industry. Today, it’s about the genre of boxing. Why do you love them? After all, can’t we predict the plot elements of the boxer story? 

  1. The protagonist is poor, forgotten, abused, or alone in life. 
  2. The protagonist discovers a mentor who gives him/her hope. 
  3. The decision is made to be a boxer. The training begins. 
  4. The boxer experiences some initial success until a problem occurs. Usually, something from the past revisits. 
  5. The boxer suffers a loss. He considers throwing his career/life away. 
  6. The boxer finds the strength within and fights the big fight. He/She takes a beating, but hangs in there to the finish and wins. 
  7. It was the love and devotion of the partner/mentor that explains why the boxer had the fortitude to carry on.
  8. They live happily ever after. Most of the time. 

That was easy. What makes, then, a better boxing movie than another? The human backstory? The quirky characters and heartfelt comedy? The wisdom of the mentor? The star power of the boxer? The musical score? The director’s choice of filming the fight itself? Do you like your boxing matches where you feel every punch and smell the sweat? 

Looking at the following movie posters to help jiggle your memory, you will probably be drawn to a few and say, “Oh, yeah, that was a good boxing movie. I loved that one.”  My question to you is, why? Why not the others? When comparing the classic boxing films to recent ones of the last twenty years, does technology help? 

109 Comments on “L13FC: Pugilism

  1. Well I’m KO’d, the only one I’ve seen is Rocky and that put me off boxing movies from then on. I am so averse to boxing as a sport, and have no desire to watch movies that glorify knocking the bejeezus out of someone else. Which is of course silly as I’m averse to war as well but do like a good war movie.

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    • Ha. Ha. We are all walking contradictions, Fraggle. I love architecture, but how many backs were broken to make it? How much money gathered in the name of God which was nothing nothing more than a guilt trip to fund the noble class? We humans are a strange breed. Anyway, I always seem to need a bolt of action in my regular, quiet hours of the day. The fight movies that add a level of music or historical context make me happy. For that reason, Cinderella Man (I think you would like it–it’s much more than a boxing movie) is a wonderful, cheezy film that I enjoy. I loved DDLewis in the Irish boxing film…

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  2. Boxing films I remember liking? ‘Champion’ (1949), with Kirk Douglas. ‘The Great White Hope’ (1970) starring James Earl Jones. Best of all for me was ‘Raging Bull’. It gave a complete story without resorting to unrealistic outcomes or being over sentimental. ( Like ‘Rocky’) Then as it was based on the real life of Jake La Motta, I suppose it had to.
    Otherwise, it’s not a genre of films I seek out.
    Best wishes, Pete. x

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    • one thing i disliked about raging bull is that in some scenes the motivation for la mottas actions was removed to make him seem crazy, one example is when he asks his brother to repeatedly hit him in the face. after several punches he says he didnt go down. now his brother was also a boxer and he knocked out joe louism who became a heavy weight champion. now lamotta was a middleweight so he would never have a chance to fight louis, but by proving that his brother, who knocked out joe louis, could not knock him down, which proved to himself that louis would be unable to defeat him by removing the motivation the scene was stronger, but also misleading. lamotta felt cheated by his weight, which is why he overate and got fat.

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        • Hmmm. Frankie? Was there a scene where she talked about her purse? Was he granted “custody” of her money? Somehow I got the impression she gave it to him after she rejected the mother. I don’t recall a scene, but I’m positive she would have wanted him to have it. Besides, he runs away and you see him eating the Lemon Meringue pie, incognito. Was he fed up with life? Did he kill himself with adrenaline that was in the corner’s bag of tricks? It’s an ambiguous ending. Good question. What did happen to the money?

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          • he got the money. do you recall the look on his face when she mentioned it? he seemed awfully happy about it.

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          • i may have misread the movie. i saw the trainer as a parasitical creep who latched onto a million dollar baby, who died as a result of his manipulations and was happily surprised when he receuved more than his anticiapted split of the prize money when she died
            With eastwood in the lead, i think many viewers sentimentalized the character and missed the point. either that or i missed the point.

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          • Oh my heavens. No, they loved each other very much. It was reciprocal. She the daughter. He the father. Freeman’s role was the mother. They were a family.

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          • For me the idea is he lives on. Forever haunted. He loved her so much, he granted her wish knowing he would never forgive himself. The point of the film wasn’t to justify euthanasia
            either. I don’t like to think I’d make the same decisions in their circumstances but I felt I understood them and why they would. That’s good storytelling and a great movie.

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          • I thought they were a family. Yes, for me, he was haunted and checked out of life. I read someone making an argument that Frankie killed himself. He maintained that there was more than one bottle of adreniline clinking in his boxing bag. His last line “Now I can die and go to heaven” suggests his disappearance was because he killed himself. Not to justify euthanasia. Maybe, but it did bring to light the instances when it would be merciful to do so.

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  3. My favorite is Someone Up There Likes Me. I had read the book before I saw the movie and was surprised that the movie was as good as the book. It was the movie that I realized Newman was more than a TV actor.
    Requiem was the vehicle that cemented Rod Serling as a writer. I was so impressed when I saw the Playhouse 90 production back in the day of live TV. I am not sure which I liked the best, the TV with Jack Palance or the movie with Anthony Quinn.
    Raging Bull is one of those movies I am glad I saw I saw it but too depressing to ever watch it again.
    Boxing movies for the most turn me off and I avoid them.

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    • I just watched Paul Newman in that the other night! It was one I hadn’t seen before (I ♥ Paul). That’s what gave me the idea for today’s topic. I heard it was the film that pushed his budding career forward. I loved that Steve McQueen had a bit part! Saul Mineo–I wasn’t expecting him, either. It was a lot of fun. A good movie. Now, I confess I have yet to see Requiem with Anthony Quinn in its entirety. Just a few scenes. I’d like to watch it. What I saw of it, I liked the Mafia mother and Jackie Gleason. Anthony with his puffy mug of a face was perfect for the role. Well, if you want a “fluffy” boxing movie that will lift your spirits (you like the time frame), I bet you’d like Cinderella Man.

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  4. Oh I really like the topic of this months’ Lucky 13!! You know Im a sports guy 😉 (Boxing ironically is rather low on my list of events to watch, but when I had a roommate we often watched several matches on HBO.)

    I’ll be honest that most of what goes into my explanation as to why I think Cinderella Man stands tall, taller than Rocky in my opinion, is that it goes beyond the sport to embrace the social and financial strife of the Great Depression. That was truly a unique setting and the desperate circumstances elevated the drama, and of course, the matches themselves. Add to that the fact I absolutely love Ron Howard’s films, and that’s probably up there with my favorite sports movies period. Rocky is a classic of course, but it’s also a cliche to pick it! 😀

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    • Welcome Tom! When it’s done well, I enjoy boxing movie. Probably because it ironically embraces family and love. I like that out of something violent, good is found. Ron Howard will never be ranked as one of the best, and there are some over-the-top cheesy movies. But, I admit, he’s a guilty pleasure. He has made some very good films, and Cinderella Man is one of the best. (I like how he handled In the Heart of the Sea and Backdraft and A Beautiful Mind.) What I love about Ron is he’s just what everyone needs! He can’t escape the beautiful simplicity of his childhood persona in films and television. He’s carried that goodness, spilling it into his films. He’s had a helluva career, and I admire him. I’m tired of ruthless realism. Maybe I’m getting old, but I want to watch Andy Griffith and see Cocoon and Splash…Oops. Back to Cinderella Man. Yes, yes to the historical climate. It matches everything I love about telling a story and placing it in history. I have posted about the film. It’s my favorite boxing film. Although, I watched Paul Newman in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and was enamored. The first Rocky was pristine. Forget the rest. Did you like Million Dollar Baby?

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      • Yes, Million Dollar Baby is tremendous as well. Probably could have mentioned that. Honestly, I don’t know which one I like more. The heartbreak of MDB makes it more unique. But the general feel-good nature of Ron Howard’s storytelling I have a. hard time resisting. 🙂

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  5. I guess I’ve been weaned off fighting movies. Seen so many of them bussing around Korea. Usually it gets almost to the end and the trip comes to a halt as we reached the destination without a conclusion. So I’ll give these movies a pass. LOL

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  6. Rocky is something special. Hard to put into words, it feels like lightning in a bottle, something intangible that makes it special. In a review of the film, film critic Roger Ebert describing it makes it sound like a cliche but it is not, not one little bit. I tend to agree with him. The fight scenes are a little dated and feminists can rightfully critique the first kissing scene but the rest holds up and is beyond. It is about little people framed mythically in deserted run down 70s Philly. It speaks to a belief that we all just want to be a little better, that taking our shot and not quitting can be enough to feel you’ve lived a life. In the romance that somebody can be out there for you and make you feel worthwhile. Rocky was never about boxing, Rocky is about life. Sentimental, heartfelt, inspirational…I just call it the best.

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    • I like the boxing films that make the distinct connection between films and life. There is a lot of truth in the fight of life and what one makes of it. Sparring. Fighting back. Falling. Laying down. Getting back up. The entity that stops us. The fear. I like the wisdom in fight movies.

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      • Stallone for all his flaws actually knows storytelling. He seems studied in philosophy and myth. Apparently wanted to make an Edgar Allan Poe bio for years. He understood the appeal of that underdog character having toiled in obscurity for years. When he goes it’s Rocky he will first and foremost be remembered for. Rambo second. He’s also a really good comic actor and when directed well he’s pretty good dramatically. I would have loved it if he had won for Creed.

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      • Exactly Cindy, you’ve got it. It’s also why we’re with Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Like you said, it’s a metaphor for the struggles of life. Most of us have never boxed in our life, but we’ve dreamed and hopefully we believed and toiled just like Frankie or we’re inspired to by her or sit back in admiration. It’s also why the first Rocky resonates, it don’t matter if you win, just to have tried, just to have given it your all. My God to have done that. Then you know…you weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.

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  7. Now Creed is Rocky for a whole new generation, love story is about the woman’s personal ambitions too and the fight scenes are better. There is something about the dignity of the character that Stallone was able to tap into with Rocky Balboa.

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  8. Million Dollar Baby was sold as a boxing film but is about something else and I love it. I’m still haunted by that image of him visiting her in hospit ask at night. One of Eastwoods best.

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    • I agree wholeheartedly. Even though the redneck family was over-the-top stereotypical, especially the acting on part of Margo Martingale, the crazy mom who didn’t love her. (I say over-the-top, and yet, gosh, I’m embarrassed how many people I have known who were like that!) I thought it was the gentlest love story–awesome that that gentle beauty is encircled around the violent sport.

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      • All the best stories are about one thing on the surface and really about something else underneath. Boxing films no different. Imagine Spielberg doing a boxing film., probably Real Steel which he greenliy at DreamWorks gives us an idea.

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  9. Now it may not be a boxing movie but i highly recommend Warrior with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. Two estranged brothers end up fighting in a MMA contest and you both want to win. Possibly the greatest sports movie of the past decade.

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      • I saw one with celebrity talking heads telling his whole story and then a great one with all his opponents years later telling their stories. Fascinating seeing where these older calmer men were in life having such brash fighters. But When We Were Kings back in the day solidified Ali’s resurgence in culture and confirmed he was a national treasure. I think Jordan is doing the same thing with The Last Dance but there is only one Ali.

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  10. Boxing is not a silly violent sport. It is the sweet science, an art that has devolved into a sport that favors knock outs over points. for many kids, the civilized ring was a gloves on alternative to bare fisted slaughter in the alley, far more intelligent than the duels fought with guns in the past or the genocidal massacres of modern warfare. now onto the films. the early ones were a subgenre of the gangster film, many were excellent, most were generic. the best ones are not about boxing at all. The unsurpassed Raging Bull, based on the stormy relatonship between Scorsese and musician Robbie Robertson when they were housemates, is about the relationship between two brothers. On the Waterfront, which has no boxing scenes per se, is informed by the shady business side of it, and tells us more about boxing than the fantastical Rocky, which wallows in bloodiness and masochism. One of the best recent boxing fiilm us Southpaw , a character study that is lifted above its script by a masterful performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.

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    • Howdy, Bill! I love your take on the art of boxing and it’s social ramifications. I’m glad you approved of Southpaw. I thought Jake (as usual) was outstanding. I watched the scene again in Raging Bull where Deniro does the On the Waterfront bit in the mirror. Yes, I think there’s a generic predictability to boxing films. The ones I like the best are the ones that go outside that predictability and as you say, the character study. Did you like The Fighter? I thought that was well acted.

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      • there are several references to on the waterfront in raging bull. when he sees the girl through the fence is one. The whole movie is a deeper exploration of the relationship between charley and stanley from On the waterfront..I did like the Fighter, but the one movie you pictured that hasnt been discussed is Fat City, perhaps the best boxing movie of the 1970s,

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        • Ah!! I was hoping someone would point out that gem. There’s great cinematography, there. You really sensed the aura of the California town. Felt like something Steinbeck would have liked.

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          • I hope to see Fat City one day. Of that age where it ain’t found on Netflix every month. I’d be interested to see James Earl Jones in the great White Hope too.

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  11. Strangely, the most popular Boxing movies of all time, The Rocky series … i couldn’t stand them. Couldn’t watch even one of them all the way through. Was shocked when that thing won the Oscar. But most of the other Boxing movies, I’ve enjoyed. Found them to be good stuff. Mostly the films that portray the lives of real Boxers – what made them great – what they went through – though they were hardly perfect Human Beings. But became Champions.
    “Heroes”? Campbell got it right. We are all Heroes. On our own Epic journey. Fighting our way back … a fight that seems long, bloody, difficult, and steep. Yet the Lovers and the very real Mentors do exist. Love. We have many Triumphs – and many Falls – along the way. But we will prevail.
    That’s my sermon for this week. Amen.

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        • There are three theories to the ending. 1. They filled the hole of father and daughter and what he did was like putting down his best dog, it was merciful. 2. He took the $ and ran away. 3. He killed himself because he was tired of living and he had another bottle of adreneline in his boxing bag.
          Do you have an opinion?

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          • Well it seems to me that he went and opened a small diner – which he had referred to earlier in the movie. And it shows it at the end. A movie I must watch again.
            O he loved as his child and didn’t want her to just exist in a comatose state. I believe he felt it would be her wish. imo.

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  12. Interesting article and comments as always Cindy. I grew up watching boxing, and agree with Bill’s evaluation of the sport as a sweet science. When it comes to the movies I love The Set-Up with Robert Ryan, Kubrick’s Killers Kiss, On the Waterfront, Fat City and Raging Bull. I actually met Jake la Motta at a signing before he died, age certainly hadn’t mellowed him, although he was good enough to sign a photograph for me. One boxer who would make for a fascinating film is Sony Liston. Nobody knows the day he was born or when he died, but his life in between was fascinating.

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    • I never got into watching live boxing. It’s just the boxing movies that I like. That’s great you actually met Jake la Motta! Fat City. Glad you liked that one, too.

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  13. Don Siegels 1949 boxing film was the source for the infamous Bob Dylan line “to live outside the law you must be honest” Dylans uncle owned a movie theatre and te young songwriter stole many of his best lines from movies.

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    • And got away from it. Proof that life is nothing more than themes and variations. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes

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  14. The boxing movies that work for me are always the ones that deal heavily in the human element more than the sports side. One the the things I have liked about the Creed films is the humanity at their core. There stories are truly about the people. Of course being a Bogart fan “The Harder They Fall” instantly comes to mind although it isn’t a typical ‘boxing movie’.

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    • This is peculiar, but whenever I think of Bogart and his films, I think of you! I don’t know a live human being who appreciates him as much as you do.
      I believe if you focus on the humanity of a story, especially the universal themes, you can tap into the emotional level of the viewer and your story will be memorable. For me, it’s the tragedy and loss that makes me feel, not so much the joy and easiness of life. Boxing stories usually have that. Overcoming obstacles. They’re the winners.

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      • HaHa. That’s cool to hear. I may be a little weird with my love for his films (I even like most of his bad ones), but I have been a fan since my last year of high school. What can I say? 🙂

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  15. Funny, I’m not a sports fan but LOVE sports movies. I enjoy boxing movies because you really don’t need to know anything about the rules to be able to enjoy them (football or tennis movies confuse me because I don’t understand the game!). I hate to be boring and predictable, but Rocky is still my favorite boxing movie. The film’s message is irresistible: it isn’t about winning, but about surviving and going the distance. That’s, in a nutshell, what life is about.

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    • Hi Eric, thanks for sharing your thoughts! There’s nothing wrong with love a classic. I think Rocky is charming. There’s a movie for you where the score elevates the film a few notches. You don’t have that in the other examples.

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  16. Great post 🙂 For my money, Raging Bull ranks as one of the great ones even though it is about more than boxing. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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  17. There are so many great boxing movies, but if I had to pick, I’d say that ROCKY is the gold standard in this category for sheer emotion. It’s powerful.

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