One of the great elements of the script for Rocky, as more than a few admirers have noted, is that the Italian Stallion, played by writer-producer Sylvester Stallone, loses his fight with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). The subsequent Rocky films, unfortunately, never even come close to this sort of shaggy humbleness, infuriatingly reiterating for five sequels that Balboa is unquestionably the best fighter, and best man, that America has to offer. Which is to say that he’s the best fighter and man in the world. The fact that we never quite get that same melancholic timbre, that sense of personal triumph despite (temporary) professional failure, in the other Rocky movies suggests that monetary success and fame does, in fact, corrupt even the most seemingly honest, simple, and noble of characters, whether it be Balboa or Stallone.
Great boxing movies, of which Rocky is merely one of a few dozen, are often about the greatness of the body, which often hides a brash, complex, and even dangerous fury of thought, aimed at politics, race, social constructs, sexuality, and anxious morality. Like great horror films and great comedies, these films are centralized between the life of the body and the life of the mind, both of which sustain tremendous amount of damage. At the same time, seeing as boxing has often viewed as a “low” sport, films like Raging Bull, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Set-Up are intrinsically about matters of class, tales of young and old men with little money and a rather incredible threshold for physical pain and decimation.
And yet, like any sub-genre, there are no exact rules to what these films express. As new masterworks about fighters continue to be produced, from David O. Russell’s The Fighter to Frederick Wiseman’s hypnotic Boxing Gym, the bounds of what the stories of boxers, both fictional and all-too real, can or should be continue to move or simply disintegrate. What’s intoxicating about this specific subject matter, however, has rarely changed: the brutal, romantic view of athleticism, the ghastly yet unrelenting seductiveness of violence, and the undeniable pleasure and effectiveness of a rags-to-riches story, amongst other things. Where these films often fail, when they do, is when they only focus on the last of that triptych, seeing only the hope that drives these men, while only feigning interest in the ferocious anger, haunted pasts, greed, hunger, bigotry, and other unpleasant desires and hang-ups that inform men who like to fight.
Here are the ten best boxing movies that avoid that pitfall and, as a result, have become major or minor classics.