In one corner, we've got the eleven-time five-division professional boxing world champion, with 49 wins and zero losses, Floyd Mayweather! In the other corner, it's UFC champion, mega-star, and pro boxing underdog, Conor McGregor. It's been called "The Money Fight" and with good reason. First of all, it will be a huge payday for both fighters. But furthermore, while boxing pundits and experts (including Mike Tyson) insist Conor has no chance against Floyd, McGregor has the support of his massive fanbase, many of whom have laid out large sums of cash, literally betting against the odds and hoping for a surprise upset, like in the movies!
Great boxing movies are all about heart, persistence, determination, and skill. They're about the battles fighters face outside of the ring. But perhaps most of all, the movies that have gone down as cinema classics tend to focus on the underdog. Today, we look at some of those movies. And while none shines brighter than the rest, they're all get you hyped up as we head into this historic sports weekend.
First up is Rocky. Let's just get this one out of the way, shall we? Considering this film kicked off a franchise comprised of no less than a half a dozen movies and two spinoffs, it's easy to forget that before the action figures, the James Brown dance number, the Weird Al parody of the James Brown dance number, and the real-life statue on the steps in Philadelphia, Rocky was a passion project made for just $1 million dollars. Sylvester Stallone wrote the 1976 sleeper hit, which earned an astounding ten nominations at the 49th Annual Academy Awards, taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Director. The late John G. Avildsen went on to direct another underdog story, The Karate Kid. Sly became a huge movie star, but even after four Rambo movies, Rocky remains his major legacy.
Rocky wasn't the only boxing movie to earn a place among the sports genre's greats to be released in the 1970s. 1972's Fat City stars Stacy Keach as a washed up fighter making another go of it after getting inspired by a teenager played by Jeff Bridges. Fat City was directed by film giant John Huston, who was responsible for The Maltese Falcon. Huston also directed Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, not to be confused with the celebrated horror punk band who nicked their name from it.
Speaking of hardcore punk, Hard Times isn't just the name of a song from the classic debut album from The Cro-Mags. It's also a 1975 boxing movie set during the Great Depression, starring Charles Bronson, just a year after Death Wish. There's gambling and criminals in the movie. It's also the directorial debut of Walter Hill, who blessed us with The Warriors, The Driver, and 48 Hours. In 2002, Hill returned to the boxing genre, writing and directing Undisputed, with Wesley Snipes as Monroe "Undisputed" Hutchens and Ving Rhames as George "Iceman" Chambers.
Martin Scorsese blesses pretty much any genre he comes in contact with and his greatest movies tend to star one of his two biggest cinematic collaborators: Leonardo DiCaprio, in the modern era, and Robert DeNiro back in the day. Marty's first major muse won an Oscar for his portrayal of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, adapted from the real life fighter's memoir, Raging Bull: My Story. DeNiro famously gained 60 pounds to play the Italian American pugilist in his later years. Raging Bull, co-starring Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci, was the first movie to enter the National Film Register in its first year of eligibility. So in other words, it's great.
Like DeNiro, Will Smith committed to playing a real life boxer by getting beefy with it, 'though in his case, the extra pounds were lean muscle mass. Accepting the title role of Muhammad Ali for director Michael Mann, the rapper turned actor bravely endeavored to play arguably the most famous boxer of all time, spending a year getting into the boxing legend's headspace. He spent hours per day studying boxing and dialect, while immersing himself in all aspects of Ali's life. All of the hard work paid off: Will Smith was rewarded with a Best Actor nomination. Ali's family asked Smith to be one of the pallbearers at Muhammad Ali's memorial service in 2016.
Writer, director, and producer Karyn Kusama made her feature length film debut with Girlfight, a small budget movie that blew the doors down at the Sundance Film Festival and made a star out of its lead, Michelle Rodriguez. Girlfight was the first movie Rodriguez auditioned for and she beat out 350 other girls for the job. It was a groundbreaking film on many levels, not the least of which was its authentic portrayal of the struggles and triumphs of the many women who enter the sport.
Million Dollar Baby
Without Girlfight, we probably wouldn't be talking about Million Dollar Baby, the Hillary Swank vehicle directed, co-produced, and scored by her costar, Clint Eastwood. Million Dollar Baby took the young upstart and grizzled mentor boxing movie trope and perfected it, with Eastwood's steady and specific filmmaking style bringing laser like focus to the heart of the story. Million Dollar Baby won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while elevating the cultural conversation about "spoilers" in critical and movie fan circles thanks to a significant plot twist.
What could help us prepare to watch trash-talking Irish hero Conor McGregor enter the ring against his most formidable opponent in unfamiliar circumstances than watching this adaptation of the true story of Irish American boxer Micky Ward? Huge boxing fan Mark Wahlberg co-produced and stars in The Fighter. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both earned Oscars for playing Ward's half-brother and mother, respectively. The Fighter earned seven Academy Award nominations in total, including Best Picture and Best Director. Wahlberg trained like crazy for the movie, a regimen that included work alongside Freddie Roach and Manny Pacquiao.
Creed works as both spinoff and sequel to the Rocky movies, with Sylvester Stallone's character shifting to the aging mentor role in service of a new contender, Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, who just so happens to be the little known son of Rocky's late adversary turned friend, Apollo Creed. Fresh off his acclaimed turn in Fruitvale Station, Michael B. Jordan wowed audiences and critics in the title role, with the role of Erik Killmonger in Marvel's Black Panther not far behind, which reunites him with Creed director and cowriter Ryan Cooglar. There's a Creed sequel in the works, too.
The Harder They Fall
There's a slew of worthy boxing movies to get your blood pumping from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, including among them Body and Soul (1947), Champion (1949), and Requiem for a Heavy Weight (1962), which was written by Rod Serling, host and mastermind of The Twilight Zone. We also highly recommend 1970's The Great White Hope, starring the voice of Darth Vader and Mufasa himself, James Earl Jones. The Harder They Fall is especially notable for a number of reasons, from its film noir motifs, the appearance of several real life boxers, and for marking the final appearance of film legend Humphrey Bogart. While ostensibly fictitious, The Harder They Fall is a "ripped from the headlines" style riff on a real life boxing scandal involving the World Heavyweight Champion of 1933 and 1934, Primo Carnera, aka the Ambling Alp, who sued Columbia Pictures for a million bucks over this movie.
A special shout-out to Gavin O'Connor's 2011 mixed martial arts movie Warrior, starring Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte. Sure, McGregor will fight Mayweather under professional boxing rules rather than the shins, elbows, and knees he's accustomed to in the UFC, but Warrior is worth watching as it's one of the only truly great MMA themed films we've gotten thus far. It's got the David and Goliath thing going for it, plus intense family drama. Nick Nolte was nominated for an Academy Award for Warrior, but if unapologetically low brow martial arts fare tickles your fancy (and why shouldn't it?), we recommend another look at Jean Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport (1988). There are of course many, many other great boxing movies to behold: Cinderella Man (2005), The Hurricane (1999), The Boxer (1997). We could go on forever. There are also several great documentaries, like When We Were Kings (1996).