Is it just me, or do boxing movies hit harder than the sport itself?

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky
(Image credit: United Artists/MGM)

Most sporting films can’t hope to match the appeal of the thing itself – football being the most obvious example. But while the best boxing movies are unmissable, it’s increasingly hard to justify the sport’s existence at all. Paying people to hurt each other is unconscionable and watching the process panders to our very worst instincts.

The films, however, are often fabulous, and have done much to elevate the art form. Dating back to 1894 quasi-documentary Leonard-Cushing Fight, the genre played a part in the emergence of full-length features (1897’s 100-odd-minute-long The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight), as well as the coming of sound (1929’s part-talkie The Shakedown), among other landmarks. Imagine a world without the training montage – courtesy of 1976’s Rocky et al – if you can.

While the sport has attracted some shady characters over the years, the films call to world-class directors such as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann, and acting heavyweights such as Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank and Denzel Washington, many of them Oscar-garlanded for their troubles. Then there are supreme documentaries such as 1996’s When We Were Kings and 2008’s Tyson.

The appeal of the boxing film is simple. It’s human drama boiled down to its essentials: two people in a ring, each trying to prove something through the medium of punching. As a character, the boxer, often a fighter who’s really fighting with themselves, is almost mythic: they’re an embodiment of the American dream; an avatar for the dark heart of humankind.

True, Method actors like De Niro and Day-Lewis may bust a gut training to convince viewers they’re the real deal, but choreography and camera tricks take over when the fighting starts. Watching on screen, we get a ringside seat to explore our endless fascination with violence – without anyone getting seriously hurt. Surely that’s a win-win… or is it just me?

Freelance Writer

Matt Glasby is a freelance film and TV journalist. You can find his work on Total Film - in print and online - as well as at publications like the Radio Times, Channel 4, DVD REview, Flicks, GQ, Hotdog, Little White Lies, and SFX, among others. He is also the author of several novels, including The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film and Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting To This Is England.