Mayweather vs Pacquiao was billed as “The Fight of the Century” but, as is the case with most of the boxing matches in the real world, it was largely disappointing. So what keeps film directors revisiting the ring round after round? While scripting a real boxing match can get you in legal trouble, a properly drafted fictional bout can make for one hell of a dramatic story. Just ask directors Robert Rossen, Martin Ritt, Sylvester Stallone, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Ron Howard, and David O. Russell to name a few.
Boxing dramas have long been a metaphor for the struggles of everyday life: a hard-luck amateur’s one shot at glory, a prize fighter disparaged because of the color of his skin, a blue-collar American hero taking on a Soviet icon during the Cold War, or a recovering addict cleaning up his act for a chance to return to form. Whatever the story, fiction is often more rewarding than reality when it comes to pugilism, so we’ve put together a collection of the nine best final rounds in boxing movie history.
Watch the video below, followed by some context for each scene:
(1976) Rocky – This film probably needs the least amount of context, but writer/actor Sylvester Stallone’s plucky, small-time boxer got his start here, going the distance against heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) before going on to numerous sequels.
(1947) Body and Soul – One of the earliest great boxing dramas, Oscar-nominated director Robert Rossen’s fight film stars John Garfield as Charley Davis, an amateur boxer who fights his way up the ranks while resisting the lure of great riches and false promises of the frauds who surround him. In the year of the film’s release, Garfield earned an Oscar nomination for his performance, while Rossen landed a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist leanings.
(1970) The Great White Hope – Director Martin Ritt’s biopic of early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson stars James Earl Jones in the lead role, though he was named Jack Jefferson. The controversial fighter became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion until a 1915 fight against Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. This scene re-enacts that final match.
(1980) Raging Bull – Martin Scorsese’s celebrated boxing drama stars Robert De Niro as the title character, Jake LaMotta, a violent, short-tempered fighter whose rise to stardom paralleled the disintegration of his personal life. This scene is taken from the re-enactment of LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson’s final fight, dubbed the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” which Robinson won, though he never managed to knock the Bull down.
(2004) Million Dollar Baby – A huge departure from the usual boxing dramas, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning film starred Hilary Swank as an amateur boxer with the ambition of becoming a professional fighter. What sounds like a typical plot for one of these films quickly turns to something else entirely, but we kept this scene spoiler-free.
(2005) Cinderella Man – Going back to drawing from the well of actual boxers in history, Ron Howard tells the story of James Braddock (Russell Crowe), a broken-down boxer who fights his way back into the ring during the Great Depression. And while Braddock going up against a champion who has reportedly killed opponents in the ring sounds cliché at this point, at least this time it was based on an actual occurrence, even if the film’s version of Max Baer is more cartoonish.
(2001) Ali – Continuing the trend of adapting real-life boxers for movie dramas, Michael Mann’s biopic stars Will Smith as Cassius Clay, Jr., better known as Muhammad Ali. This scene sees Ali attempting to regain the title from George Foreman in 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century.
(2010) The Fighter – The next round continues with David O’ Russell’s sports drama centering on “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his addict half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale). Despite the Oscar-winning performances, what really sticks out from this film is Russell’s production choices, from filming in Ward’s hometown and in the same workout facilities he actually used, to the final match that recreated HBO’s broadcast of it blow for blow. It’s perhaps the most impressive fight in this list because it’s the closest any of these films have come to imitating the actual sport itself.
(1985) Rocky IV – If Rocky was the pride of Philadelphia, then Rocky IV saw the title character’s rise to stardom on an international level. A small-time, blue-collar American fighter who literally fought his way to the top is challenged by the best boxer the Soviet Union could manufacture in the last years of the Cold War. When Rocky’s friend and competitor Apollo Creed is killed in the ring by the big Russian, Rocky travels to the heart of the USSR for revenge and defense of the American way.