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Lights, camera, upper cut James Earl Jones played Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight champion in The Great White Hope. In Focus by Richard Crouse IN FOCUS May 08, 2009

Great_White_Hope_TheI’m not a boxing fan but I once paid $25 to watch a pay-per-view Mike Tyson fight. It was the mid 1980s and Iron Mike was one of the most famous and controversial men on the planet; a beast who won 26 of his first 28 matches by knockout — 16 in the first round.

Wondering what all the fuss was about I paid my cover charge and watched as the undisputed champ strut into the ring, sized up his opponent and laid him out, unconscious on the floor in less than thirty seconds.

I know $25 for less than a minute of entertainment may sound pricey, but it was a riveting thirty seconds and even now, more than twenty years later, I can remember the look of devastating determination on his face as he massacred his challenger.

It’s an expression that runs across his (now tattooed) face several times in the fascinating new documentary Tyson. The film is a raw, revealing look at this troubled but fascinating man.

“It’s like a Greek tragedy,” he says of the movie, “only I’m the subject.”

Tyson is just the latest boxer to get the big screen treatment. Audiences can’t seem to get enough of stories about the “sweet science” and the individual struggles of these modern day gladiators.

Everybody knows Rocky, Cinderella Man and Raging Bull but digging a little deeper reveals splendid movies that aren’t as well known.

Somebody Up There Likes Me stars Paul Newman (stepping in for James Dean who died just before filming began) as real life middleweight champion of the world Rocky Graziano. The fighter is portrayed as a tough kid from New York’s “lower East Side where both sides of the tracks were wrong” whose violent and callous ways are changed by the redemptive power of the love of a good woman.

It sounds a like a mushy love story — and in fact, inspired Sylvester Stallone when he was writing the Adrian storyline in Rocky — but the fight scenes are brutal and authentic.

Also worth a rental is The Great White Hope based on Jack Johnson, (played by Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones) the first African-American world heavyweight champ, who ruled the ring from 1908 to 1915. Good fight scenes bolster this powerful look at the racial hostility that plagued Johnson’s career and it’s likely the only boxing movie written in the poetic style of free verse.

There are plenty of others; top of my list are Requiem for A Heavyweight and The Harder They Fall. Both are excellent, and both provide way more than thirty seconds of entertainment for your money.

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