When English boxer Bruno Frank said “Boxing is just show business with blood,” he was on to something. Ever since 1937’s Kid Galahad entertained depression era audiences, there has been a steady flow of films set inside the square circle. For generations, audiences have flocked to the intersection of showbiz and blood — the movie theatre — to see films like Gentleman Jim, Million Dollar Baby and, of course, Rocky.
This weekend, Mark Wahlberg adds to that list when he stars as pugilist Micky Ward in The Fighter, joining a long line of actors who have strapped on gloves to play real life boxers.
In Resurrecting the Champ, a sportswriter thinks a homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson) might actually be a down-on-his-luck boxing legend. Loosely based on the story of Bob Satterfield, a fighter ranked in Ring magazine’s list of 100 greatest punchers of all time, it takes some liberties with the real story but makes up for inaccuracies with a great performance from Jackson.
Another flawed boxing movie saved by its performances is The Great White Hope, based on Jack Johnson, a boxer nicknamed the “Galveston Giant.” For some reason the names were changed for the movie, but the story of Johnson’s struggle with racism is brought to vivid life in a towering performance by James Earl Jones, who originated the part on Broadway. A 2005 documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson revisited the story, correcting many of the mistakes of the original film.
Somebody Up There Likes Me stars Paul Newman (replacing James Dean who died before filming) as world middleweight champion 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 love of a good woman.
As mushy as the love story is — it inspired Sylvester Stallone when he was writing the Adrian storyline in Rocky — the fight scenes are brutally authentic.
Probably the greatest boxing bio is Raging Bull, the story of Jake “Come on, hit me. Harder. Harder” LaMotta, which earned Robert De Niro a Best Actor Oscar. But Cinderella Man, the inspiring true story of James J. Braddock and Gentleman Jim (which sees Errol Flynn playing Jim Corbett, the first heavyweight champion of the world under the new Marquis of Queensberry) is also worth a look.