Hollywood and boxing are the perfect match. They’re both dramatic, unpredictable and totally enthralling. Boxing movies are made all the time in Hollywood, and they’re nearly always Oscar bait. Actors see a boxing film as an opportunity to train like an animal and be completely immerse in a character’s world when they have to play a boxer. There’s nothing quite like the sweet science when it comes to being dramatic on screen.
The set-up for a boxing movie has almost become a cliché now, because they usually follow a formula that was put in place by the Rocky franchise. A working class guy becomes a hero by overcoming the odds in the boxing ring, with the entire film leading up the final fight. It’s worked so well in the Rocky movies that Sylvester Stallone was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame due to the far-reaching appeal of the films. Just as many people turned to boxing as a result of those films as people became filmmakers because of it. Boxing appeals to so many people, and a great boxing film can do the same.
We’re going to take a look at some of Hollywood’s greatest boxing matches, from the real deal to the make believe. Get ready to duck!
Apollo Creed vs Rocky Balboa in Rocky II (1979)
The first Rocky film was an Oscar winning affair, and is truly one of the most inspiring films of all time. But the most dramatic fight in the entire Rocky series is the rematch between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. After narrowly losing to Creed in the first fight, Rocky is goaded into a rematch by the champion after he fails to adapt back into his life as a poor journeyman after a taste of success and adulation.
The film – like all of the Rocky films – leads up to the epic finale of the big fight, and Rocky takes a ferocious beating at the hands of the champion. This time though, Rocky fights through the pain and starts to hurt Creed to the body, before the exhausted pair both fall to the canvas in round 9. The two men trying to rise from the double knockdown in ultra-slow motion is one of the most dramatic scenes in movie history, and when Rocky beats Creed to his feet, he is declared Heavyweight Champion of the World. It’s virtually impossible for anyone with a beating heart not to cheer when Bill Conti’s epic score kicks in as Rocky is held aloft as champ. Check the fight out here.
Jake LaMotta vs Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull (1980)
If Rocky shows all that is great of the sweet science, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is definitely the flip-side to that coin. Dark and moody in black and white, Raging Bull shows just how corrupt and crazy the sport of boxing was in the 1950’s, when it was arguably the biggest sport in the world. Back when the great Sugar Ray Robinson was middleweight king, a fighter could be in the ring four times a month. These days a fighter is lucky to have four fights a year.
When Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro in one of his greatest ever screen performances) meets Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951 for the world middleweight title, it is their sixth meeting. They had met five times between 1942-45, with LaMotta winning one meeting and Robinson winning the rest. They had all been points decisions.
This fight became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as a result of the tremendous beating that LaMotta took in the later rounds, and when Robinson beats a defenseless LaMotta mercilessly on the ropes in round 13, the referee pulls the champion away from a bloodied and dazed LaMotta.
What happens next is in boxing and movie folklore forever. LaMotta stumbles across the ring, barely able to see through the blood on his face, and taunts Robinson for not being able to put him down. “You never put me down, Ray” is one of the greatest lines of dialogue in cinema history, and the fact that its true just shows how far the rivalry between the two fighters had gone, and just how crazy Jake LaMotta could be. Watch the scene from the movie here.
Mike Tyson v Trevor Berbick in Tyson (2009)
‘Iron’ Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion of all time when he knocked out Trevor Berbick – the man who ended Muhammad Ali’s career – in two rounds on 22nd November 1986. He was expected to become the greatest fighter of all time, but never fully achieved his potential, becoming a sideshow by the end of his career and these days is better known for public speaking and making cameo appearances in films like The Hangover than his boxing career. From 1986-1990, he was the baddest man on the planet.
The Berbick fight is shown during the credits for James Toback’s documentary, and shows Tyson at his most ferocious and brutal. It really sets you up for the rest of the film, and highlights just how far Tyson fell from his incredible peak. The film comes highly recommended as an insight into a fighter’s psyche, and the man behind one of the most effective fighting machines of all time. Watch the clip here.
Buddy Brannen vs Toro Moreno in The Harder They Fall (1956)
In his final screen performance before his death, Humphrey Bogart is fantastic in this great boxing movie that shows the ugly and corrupt side of boxing. Watching the film, you can see how much it influenced Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull, and the brutality of the final fight is as brutal as it is tragic. Just watch how the slaughter inside the ring then cuts to Bogart’s haunted face at ringside, as his character Eddie Willis – a sports writer – is powerless to stop a fight he knows shouldn’t be happening.
The film was loosely based on real-life heavyweight contender Primo Carnera, an Italian giant of a heavyweight who was fed stiffs and mob-influenced wins in order to get a shot at the heavyweight title and make his paymasters a lot of money. In his fight with Max Baer, Carnera was knocked down 11 times in 11 rounds, in one of the most brutally one-sided fights in the history of the sport. The Harder They Fall show how terrible the sport can be, and the fight at the end is tough to watch. Watch it here and see for yourselves.