This best of boxing movies list features the top boxing movies of all time. In order to be included in this top 10 best boxing movies list boxing must have played a prominent role in a scene. Author discretion is the final criteria used to distinguish these best boxing films.
10. The Great White Hype – Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump) penned this comedic satire of professional prizefighting. Samuel L. Jackson is well cast as a ‘Don King’-like promoter who represents the champ and looks for a big angle to sell the next fight. Damon Waynes plays a comical version of Tyson with a real life problem, there is no competition for the reigning heavyweight champion. So Jackson digs into the past and finds the last man to beat him. An irishman (Peter Berg) who holds a KO victory back in the amateurs; no matter that the fighter has long since retired. Before long he is coaxed back into the ring for what is being sold as Black vs. White. A strong subtext in the script is the racial war that bubbles just below the surface of the sport. The story climaxes with a big fight the public is eager to see; that the main event is such a non-event it’s even more cynical than it sounds. Shelton’s gift as a comedic commentator on the world of boxing promotion is spot on. Jamie Foxx is very funny as is Jeff Goldblum in supporting roles.
9. The Fighter – The screenplay focuses on a six year period in the career and personal life of blue collar boxer ‘Irish’ Mickey Ward, chronicling his vicious battles inside the ring with men much more skilled but lacking his heart and punching power. And his struggles outside the ring with an overbearing mother and a drug addicted brother/trainer. David O. Russell does a great job delivering a straight-forward narrative, sans any over-the-top directorial flourishes. The film is a richer experience for it. Authentic location shooting and casting of actual residents from Lowell, Mass. only add to the working-man like effort. Wahlberg was born to portray a boxer. A hulking presence on-screen he reportedly trained for years in preparation. The film ends without going into detail on the bright side of Ward’s career. He would achieve a world championship title and millions of dollars in a trilogy of bouts against pugilistic legend Arturo Gatti. A close friendship between the two men formed after Ward retired, and he even cornered a few fights for Gatti. The men remained in contact until the mysterious death of Gatti in 2009. A story so compelling it should be brought to the screen as a companion piece to this.
8. The Power of One – Rocky director John G. Avildeson once again uses the sport of boxing to tell a story about an underdog outcast given self-esteem and taught tolerance through his exploits in the ring. Far removed from the streets of Philadelphia The Power of One takes place in Africa before and during World War 2. Stephen Dorff plays the young english teenager abused in a society that harbored hate for any non Afrikaner. Daniel Craig makes quite an impression in one of his first big screen appearances, his character is so villainous that he practically slithers. Set in South Africa during the ’30s and ’40s, the film centers on the life of Peter Philip ‘P.K.’ Kenneth-Keith (Guy Witcher), a young English boy raised during the apartheid era, and his relationship with a German pianist, a black prisoner, and a boxing coach. Directed and edited by John G. Avildsen, the film stars Stephen Dorff, John Gielgud, Morgan Freeman, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Daniel Craig in one of his early roles.
7. Undisputed – Director Walter Hill has been making male-oriented action films since the early 1970’s and Undisputed is another in a career full of gems from one of the cinema’s most underrated craftsman. Hill’s most notable film, 48 Hrs, put Eddie Murphy and (arguably) Nick Nolte on the map to stardom and riches. He is credited with inventing the ‘buddy cop’ genre that dominated movie screens in the 1980’s. Once again Hill and co-writer David Giler have crafted a nifty B-movie; this time derived of genre elements from 1940’s ‘noir’ thrillers and 70’s ‘exploitation’ films. Wesley Snipes is Monroe Hutchen an inmate and underground boxing champion at a maximum security prison in Nevada. As luck would have it the actual reigning heavyweight champ has been convicted of rape and is sent to the same facility for the next eight years. Ving Rhames is ‘Iceman’ Chambers a thinly veiled reference to Mike Tyson, albeit with a deeper tone in his voice. The fact that Snipes and Rhames will eventually fight in a prison grudge match is never in doubt, the style and characters we meet in the process is what makes Undisputed such an enjoyable time killer.
6. Ali – Michael Mann’s biopic of last century’s most popular athlete is a flawed yet fascinating look at one of the most controversial figures to ever emerge from the sport. Will Smith is Ail his full embodiment in the role drew a deserved Oscar nomination and sent Smith to another level as an actor. Rarely have star and subject been so right for a project; I firmly believe that no other actor could have pulled off the role in such a convincing manner. Jamie Foxx (showing up on the list again) is magnificent as Bundidni Brown, Ali’s spiritual hype man and the man with the second loudest mouth in camp. The film was quick to distance itself as yet another ‘boxing’ movie. Mann stated that this is a look at the life of a man and he happens to be an athlete. With that said, the opening 20 minutes are dedicated to Ali’s destruction of Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown. It’s an absolutely meticulously stage and edited sequence that comes as close to any film in showing the emotions of a fighter in the middle of a brawl. Outstanding camera work and effective use of slow-motion propel this film into the ranks of greatness.
5. Cinderella Man – The quintessential depression era comeback story. James Braddock shook up the world by wining the heavyweight title despite being on the breadlines himself just a few months earlier. This somewhat melodramatic drama is never corny but the glowing antics of Braddock do come off as self-righteous in some instances. However Ron Howard (an odd choice to helm a sports film) directs with a passion not seen since his early work. The events leading up to the big fight against Max Baer are pulse pounding, the old-school training methods are depicted with a level of accuracy not seen in most films of the genre. While the final fight may seem like Hollywood myth, it’s surprisingly historically accurate. Braddock’s victory over a man deemed unbeatable served as a reminder to a broken nation that willpower can turn any situation in your favor. If that’s not an adapt metaphor for boxing nothing is.
4. The Hurricane – Denzel Washington’s detractors will always point out the over aggressive ‘theatrics’ of his performances but the quite subtle portrayal of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter is perhaps his finest work. The film tells the story of Carter’s false imprisonment for a Paterson, New Jersey triple murder that was set aside after he had spent almost 20 years in prison. It’s a heartbreaking and uplifting tale without being too preachy or cliched. Based on a true story that influenced a folk song by Bob Dylan and Carter’s own autobiography which fell into Lazures’s hands, a young man that persuaded a team of lawyers to reopen Carter’s case. Works as both a sports film and a human interest story. Fantastic direction from Norman Jewison and an Oscar nominated performance from the always reliable Washington really send this one home.
3. The Set-up – One of the all time great films, sports related or not. This gripping tale told over the course of real time (88 minutes) is an absolutely fantastic film noir from the 1940’s. Starring Robert Ryan, best known as the dad in The Shaggy Dog pictures, and directed with gusto by the cinematic virtuosi Robert Wise (West Side Story, Star Trek) this groundbreaking movie is required viewing for cinephiles or those looking for a surprisingly modern tale of corruption, greed and love all converging one fateful night in the boxing ring. Film schools have long studied the fluid camera moments and uninterrupted takes employed by Wise and later stolen by Scorsese (a champion for the film and voice on the running commentary DVD edition). The story of a man fighting against mafia forces that turn his one last great fight into a fix, was later used as inspiration for the Bruce Willis character of Butch in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. In fact the beginning of Willis’ segment has him jumping out a side window after refusing to take a dive. Picking up almost exactly where The Set-up leaves off. It’s as if Tarantino wrote a semi-sequel that ends with its own ironic twist.
2. Raging Bull – Director Martin Scorsese’s hard-hitting, high voltage characterization of middleweight champ Jake La Motta is a brilliant study of the brutality and torment in and out of the ring. DeNiro, in the title role having transformed himself physically, stunningly portrays the Bronx Bull in a grim, unsentimental performance. Aided by outstanding supporting work from Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty in their first major roles. The brief, supercharged fight scenes shot in a beautiful black and white are amongst the most brutal and perhaps best scenes ever filmed. These sequences are enhanced greatly by the Oscar winning editing of Thelma Schoonmaker. One of the greatest portraits of an athlete’s forceful exterior protecting a frail psyche. DeNiro won an Oscar for his portrayal yet the film was overlooked in the best picture category.
1. Rocky – Not only the best boxing film ever made but one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, period. Is there anyone else but Stallone that could have made us believe that a man-child pugilist turned low level hood could be so endearing? An exceptionally moving and perceptive film about seizing the greatest opportunity of your life and making something out of it. By turning Rocky into an underdog both as a character and film (it won the Oscar over far more prestigious movies) the average person could align themselves with the struggles of this slow talking pug from Philly. Stallone’s underrated performance is the glue to the picture, perfectly counterbalanced to the loud brash antics of Carl Weather’s Apollo Creed. The film that invented the workout montage, something that was successfully inserted into almost every sport themed movie since. Anyone not moved to tears by the end or inspired to workout by the theme music might be absent a pulse. The entire series is an exceptional display of compelling characters, great fight sequences and truths about the sport in the given era. Even after 35 years Rocky is a winner and still champion of the genre.