There have been movies about boxing since the start of cinema, as audiences love watching skilled fighters go toe-to-toe in the ring. With that in mind, we’re pitting the best boxing movies against each other to pick the greatest fight films of all time.
The first recorded boxing movie is ‘Leonard-Cushing Fight’ from 1894, wherein boxers Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing fought six rounds under special conditions for the sake of a short film.
The early years of the genre were filled with similarly themed silent shorts, but as the boxing movie fought its way into the 20th Century, so the films became more sophisticated and complex. So biopics of the great pugilists traded blows at the box office with films about the darker side of the fight game.
There have been wild and wacky movies along the way, revolving around everything from a boxing kangaroo (Matilda) and a boxing werewolf (Teen Wolf Too) to boxing robots (Real Steel). While in the space of just four years, the two greatest boxing movies hit via Rocky and Raging Bull; films that are so different in their approach to the sport that it’s impossible to compare them.
So rather than pick an undisputed champion, we’re going to divide the boxing greats up into their own respective weight categories. Meaning we’re picking 10 champions rather than just one.
Best Boxing Biopic: Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull concerns the turbulent life and times of Jake LaMotta, who was world middleweight champion from 1949 to 1951. Writer Mardik Martin initially adapted LaMotta’s memoir, before Paul Schrader cracked the code, telling the tale of a man whose dark demons were ultimately responsible for his downfall.
LaMotta was an animal in the ring – hence the nickname – even defeating the great Sugar Ray Robinson on one occasion (though also losing to him five times). But that rage continued when he wasn’t boxing, with LaMotta’s anger and violent jealousy tearing his family apart.
Directed in stark black-and-white by Martin Scorsese, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Thelma Schoonmaker won for her kinetic editing, while Robert De Niro was also victorious for his grandstanding performance as LaMotta the fighter, as well as LaMotta in his troubled post-boxing years, for which he famously gained 60 lbs.
Best Fictional Story: Rocky (1976)
It’s tough to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the making of Rocky, but if we’re printing the legend, then the story goes that struggling actor Sylvester Stallone – on his 29th birthday, and with just $106 in the bank – sat down and wrote the script by hand in just 3.5 days.
Considering himself an underdog, he created the ultimate underdog story, about a boxer who moonlights as a debt collector until he’s given the ultimate opportunity – a fight against heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.
Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, James Caan and Burt Reynolds were all considered for the role of Rocky Balboa, but Stallone insisted on playing the part, and the rest is history. Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture, spawned hugely successful sequels and spin-offs (see below), and turned Sylvester Stallone into one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Best Documentary: When We Were Kings (1996)
Muhammad Ali was ‘The Greatest’ so it seems only fitting that he’s the subject of the greatest boxing documentary. When We Were Kings tells the story of the 1974 fight between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire; a bout nicknamed ‘The Rumble in the Jungle.’
Ali was the aging has-been whom no one gave a chance, while Foreman was the young pretender with a punch that pulverized everything in his path. But Ali had other ideas, and thanks to a tactic nicknamed the ‘rope-a-dope,’ Ali tired Foreman out, then delivered the definitive blow.
But When We Were Kings is more than a documentary about a great fight. As it’s also something of a character study, focussing on one of the most important figures of the 20th century, during a fascinating period of his life. All of which contributed to the film winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Best Noir: The Set-Up (1949)
Rocky offered a glimpse at boxing’s dark underbelly. The Set-Up remains there for the duration. It’s also the only film on this list that’s based on a poem; one written by Joseph March in the 1930s, and purchased by RKO for $1,000 some 20 years later.
The Set-Up also plays out in real-time, so we witness 72-minutes in the life of boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson as he prepares for a bout, little realizing that his manager has received $50 from a local gangster in exchange for Stoker throwing the fight.
Directed by Robert Wise, The Set-Up featured the most realistic celluloid fight sequences up to that point, while the real-time conceit has you on the edge of your seat until the devastating denouement.
Best Comedy: City Lights (1931)
Charlie Chaplin is considered a bit of an acquired taste these days, but City Lights might just be his masterpiece, and the boxing sequence in the middle of the movie is without doubt one of his funniest.
Playing the ‘Little Tramp’ character, he’s convinced to fight in a fake bout where both boxers will go easy on each other, then split the prize money. But that opponent is then replaced with a serious fighter, who then proceeds to knock the proverbial out of our hero, in spite of his acrobatic efforts to avoid the beat-down.
It’s an acting tour de force from Chaplin, in a film that he also wrote, directed, and produced. While City Life is still considered a classic, and in 2007 was ranked Number 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest American movies.
Best Boxing Movie Not About Boxing: The Hurricane (1999)
The best sports movies are rarely about the sport itself, and many of the boxing movies on this list are filled with metaphor and allegory, with boxing representative of everything from capitalism and masculinity to the death of the American Dream.
That latter subject is examined in The Hurricane, a film about skilled heavyweight boxer Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter. But the story Norman Jewison’s film tells is not about his professional career, but rather of his incarceration following Carter’s wrongful conviction for a triple murder.
It’s a heartbreaking tale of racism, intolerance and injustice, anchored by a powerful performance from Denzel Washington as the title character, who spent nearly 20 years in prison, but who was ultimately exonerated and set free.
Best Tearjerker: The Champ (1931)
The Champ definitely isn’t the best film on this list, but if it doesn’t make you cry, you’re probably made of stone. Wallace Beery plays Andy ‘Champ’ Purcell, while Jackie Cooper is his son Dink.
Champ is a former heavyweight champion who is now washed up due to his alcoholism and gambling addition. Both of which mean he might lose Dink. To put things right, he fights the Mexican champion, though while he wins the bout, the injuries Champ suffers mean he later loses his life. The film ending with Dink crying out “I want the champ.”
It was remade by Franco Zeffirelli in 1979, with Jon Voight as the fighter, and Ricky Schroder as his son; a version that’s just as sentimental, and just as likely to make you cry.
Best Musical: Kid Galahad (1962)
Kid Galahad first hit the screen in non-musical form in 1937, with Edward G. Robinson playing a boxing promoter who convinces a young bellhop to try the fight game.
A musical version his screens in 1962, with Gig Young playing the promoter, and none-other-than Elvis Presley starring as the boxer. Though in this version he’s a mechanic and former soldier.
Presley was trained by light welterweight champion Mushy Callahan for the fight scenes, but most fans watched for the songs, which include “I Got Lucky,” and “Home is Where the Heart Is.”
Best Spin-Off: Creed (2015)
A Rocky sequel/spin-off about the child of Apollo Creed didn’t sound like the most appealing concept when this one was announced, but in the hands of writer-director Ryan Coogler, the resulting film was an absolute knock-out.
Michael B. Jordan lit up the screen as Adonis Creed, who is taken in by Apollo’s widow with one rule – no fighting. But boxing is in his blood, so Adonis travels to Tijuana to compete, before persuading Rocky to train him on Balboa’s stomping ground of Phildelphia.
What follows is an emotionally charged tale of family and legacy, punctuated by some of the most exciting fight sequences ever committed to film. Creed earned Stallone an Oscar-nomination and was followed by an acclaimed sequel, while Johnson makes his directorial debut with Creed III, out later this year.