The films that define the boxing genre
Sports films are not the easiest to make. Many sports are not readily transferable to the big screen and those that are, don’t often work. However, with the upcoming release of Creed II, boxing films keep proving to be the anomaly in all of this, churning out entries year upon year that entertain and motivate in equal measure.
The reason for this is simple. Audiences are drawn to the story of an underdog achieving something spectacular and no other sport seems to fit the story as perfectly as boxing. It inhabits the struggles of one individual and, if done right, becomes a fascinating in-depth character study. Rocky helped to establish this, as Sylvester Stallone’s first screenplay introduced Rocky Balboa, an everyday Philadelphia worker who valiantly challenges the world champion Apollo Creed.
Rocky has been returning to our screens since he first arrived in 1976, precisely because he is the ultimate boxing underdog. When we first meet him, Rocky has no money and a little-known boxing career. Yet at the end he has become infamous and a representation of Philadelphian spirit.
In his more recent appearances in Creed, Rocky has been outside the ring, acting as the trainer of Adonis Johnson (Apollo Creed’s son). His more muted role as a mentor has been key in developing a crucial aspect of the boxing genre, the relationship between boxer and trainer. In the best boxing flicks, the trainer transforms into an almost parental figure, evidenced in Creed whereby Rocky slowly fills the gulf left by Adonis’s deceased father.
Likewise, in Million Dollar Baby, the old and snarly Frankie, initially resistant to coaching a girl, becoming increasingly protective over Hillary Swank’s Maggie. When Maggie gets paralysed in her final bout, the pain in Frankie’s eyes is heartbreakingly clear. Frankie’s lifeforce has been drained and he refuses to return to a gym from that point on.
On other occasions a trainer can be more of a friend or, as is the case in of The Fighter, a brother. Based on a true story, the film traces the tribulations of Micky Ward, who’s relationship with his delinquent, ex-boxer brother Dicky Eklund becomes increasingly strained. Family remains at the forefront of the film and drives Micky’s push for success as he seeks to escape the traumas of his familial disfunction.
As Micky trains, we get to experience the eponymous boxing montage, a centrepiece of the genre. It was originally initiated in Rocky where we see the fighter punching hanging cuts of meat and running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, now known as the “Rocky Steps”.
The montage aims to show the extent of preparation the fighter is enduring for their big fight. But, when the fight comes around, there must be an equally viable opponent. In Creed, Adonis’s opponent Ricky Conlan is played by Tony Bellew, a professional heavyweight boxer (who recently retired this year) which brilliantly makes the skill and threat of Conlan more overt.
However, in Raging Bull, arguably the greatest boxing film of all time, Jake LaMotta’s main rival isn’t Sugar Ray Robinson, with whom he fought 6 times, but rather himself. Jake’s temper assists his rise to world middleweight champion but also fractures his family life and drives the eventual freefall of his career and personal life.
Raging Bull perfects the craft that Rocky established. Each boxing bout is shot mesmerisingly, with intimate close ups inside the ring capturing every drop of blood on the faces of the fighters and the ropes around the ring. The film is shot in black and white which elevates the cinematic beauty of Scorsese’s masterpiece.
You don’t have to be an obsessive boxing fan to enjoy boxing films. While the Rocky series continues to deliver stories of the everyday man there are other films which touch on different themes, the most brilliant of which is Raging Bull. It’s opening of Jake LaMotta hopping around the ring in slow motion, punching the air as camera flashes break through the misty gloom, prepares the audience for a movie that is an intense look at a flawed man. It is not just a great boxing film, it’s simply a great film.