Boxing and the cinema have been inseparable from the earliest days of movie-making. The propulsive excitement and fierce elegance of the sport were perfectly suited to the screen, and some of the earliest surviving motion pictures are filmed boxing matches. As the sport grew in popularity throughout the 20th century, so too did the movie genre.
It’s no surprise filmmakers return to it frequently. With the sport’s mythic, violent clashes and long history of social eruption, it can be an allegory for nearly whatever you want it to be. They can be simple fight yarns, but more often they’re other things—explorations of greedy commercial exploitation, poverty, violence, race. They prod at class divisions, and at what it means to be a ‘man’ in the world. But they can also be brooding meditations on what may have been or could never be. They speak of the long dark night of the soul, a damned-if-you-do existentialism where you rise from the gutter only to be chewed up and spat out again by the fierce internal cogs of the sport. Then again, there are light-hearted celebratory biopics and slapstick parodies to choose from, too.
You’ll find all of the above in this list of fifty of cinema’s greatest on the sweet science.
50. The Gordon Sisters Boxing (1901)
Thomas Edison’s brief East Coast monopoly on the movie business allowed him to produce hundreds of minor silent shorts. This very brief burlesque is a rare example of two women, replete in gowns and hats, boxing each other with considerable effort and skill. It’s notable purely because of its unusual subject matter, and the seriousness with which it treats its two “champion lady boxers.”
49. The Joe Louis Story (1953)
This independently made biographical film about the longest-reigning heavyweight in boxing history was well-meaning but somewhat poorly executed. Real Golden Gloves pro Coley Wallace filled the role of the inarticulate but astronomically talented fighter. The legendary 12-year-champ broke down racial barriers and swung his way to greatness as the “Brown Bomber” from 1934 to 1949. That it took so long for his remarkable story to make it to the screen is mostly a testament to the racial animus of the time—but a modern biopic of Louis is long overdue.
48. Sons of Cuba (2009)
The Cuban boxing scene has long been a hotbed of talent, and starting young is key. Filmmaker Andrew Lang unobtrusively films three scrawny pre-teen boys as they train for the National Boxing Championships, but reveals much about their impoverished living conditions in the process. Indoctrinated into proud nationalism in spite of their circumstances, the boys wake at 4am to fit their training around school. But Lang is careful not to make any explicit social or political commentary, instead letting events unfold in a naturalistic and nonetheless compelling way.
47. Battling Butler (1926)
Buster Keaton didn’t seem to have a great deal of regard for the sweet science—or at the very least, he delighted in parodying it. In an attempt to turn himself into a brawny “real man,” a mild-mannered playboy (Keaton) sets out on an adventurous trip into the country. He winds up impersonating a boxer to impress a girl—and having to go toe-to-toe in a real boxing match. His terror as he scrambles and dives around his opponent is hilarious, but it raises the salient point that the most realistic reaction to being punched repeatedly is to run away.
46. Iron Man (1931)
Tod Browning—a director of the 1930s far more legendary for his monster movie creations (Dracula, Freaks)—turned his attention to the boxing ring in this early sound film. Starring two very famous actors of the era—Lew Ayres and Jean Harlow—this film reveals the pitfalls of the successful fighter, grown arrogant and idle with his wealth. While Iron Man is a fairly straightforward and par-for-the-course boxing drama, the talented cast elevates the material—Harlow was the perfect gold-digging moll, and had been a prizefighter’s squeeze in real life.
45. The Kid from Brooklyn (1946)
An oft-forgotten Technicolor confection from Hollywood’s golden age, The Kid From Brooklyn stars a charming young Danny Kaye as a shy milkman who gets into a fistfight with a fighter who’s dating his sister. A sly promoter sees a chance for a sensation and lures Kaye into a whole new profession—as a champion fighter who has no idea all of his victories have been fixed. Combining a sprinkling of musical numbers and relying heavily on Kaye’s “aw-gee-shucks” persona, it’s not the most weighty and philosophical of fight pictures. But a touch of inspired slapstick makes for an unusually lighthearted entry into the genre, particularly in the noir-dominated ’40s.
44. Resurrecting the Champ (2007)
Rod Lurie’s 2007 film, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett, is as much an exploration of failed writerly ambitions as it is boxing ones. They are two pursuits which have long been closely linked; covering prizefights has made for storied careers and toothsome prose for journalists. This is the angle that hungry young Denver sportswriter (Hartnett) is pushing for when he meets a homeless man known locally as “Champ” (Jackson). It turns out that the vagrant is none other than Bob Satterfield, a once-famous heavyweight contender.
In his eagerness to tell the champ’s story—a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale perfectly befitting the mythos of boxing history—the sportswriter begins to twist the facts. It’s not an all-time classic, but it’s a very smart film on the pain of the “could-have-been” in both the boxing and the writing worlds.
43. The Boxer (1997)
Jim Sheridan, a regular collaborator with Daniel-Day Lewis, directed this story of an ex-con trying to go straight in the fraught IRA territory of ’90s Belfast. He opens a boxing gym with neutral politics, trying to offer a bastion of sanity and control amidst the chaos and violence raging outside. But he’s not easily forgiven for leaving the IRA, and it’s impossible not to be drawn into the demands of warring factions. Boxing has at least the temporary power for those in the community to channel their anger and fear. With his insistence on a Method approach, Day-Lewis trained with Barry McGuigan for over a year to prep for the role.
42. The Hurricane (1999)
Norman Jewison’s exploration of the life and incarceration of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—the infamous subject of Bob Dylan’s song of the same name—came with a lot of baggage and social uproar. Carter was an up-and-coming middleweight bruiser in the ’60s, when his career was cut short by a racially motivated arrest and false imprisonment for a robbery/homicide. By 1999, when the film was made, he had been acquitted after serving nearly 20 years in prison, and vast ongoing protests had been organized in his name for years. In spite of a dramatic story seemingly ready-made for cinema, Jewison renders the material strangely inert; he bookends it with too much exposition and unnecessarily complicates things with extended flashback sequences. Nonetheless, the film goes a long way on the charisma of Denzel Washington in the lead role.
41. Cinderella Man (2005)
Ron Howard’s depiction of real heavyweight fighter James Braddock is a mawkish, if well-meaning, saga of ’30s America. Braddock was a round-faced sweetheart who was forced to take all kinds of poor-paying work as a manual laborer to feed his family during the Great Depression. His nickname, “Cinderella Man,” was borne from his incredible comeback victory against champion Max Baer in 1935. Baer was a formidable fighter, but the film loses historical accuracy in its slanted depiction of him as a simplistic villain. Because Baer had killed a man in the ring—something which haunted him—he was known as a vicious opponent, but hardly with the sort of intentional spite presented in Howard’s film.
40. Chuck (2016)
Last year’s festival release about the life and career of Chuck Wepner went surprisingly underseen and un-released, in spite of a middling-to-positive critical response. Wepner, for the unfamiliar, was the part-time liquor salesman and all-around bum who got the chance to fight Muhammad Ali, going 15 rounds with the champ. This experience was Sylvester Stallone’s basis for Rocky. Liev Schreiber inhabits Wepner with a slouching physicality, deadset on taking nearly any amount of injury to put on a good show. Director Phillippe Falardeau dedicates a good bit of attention to Wepner’s blue-collar and sometimes strained family life, where his 15 minutes of fame have clearly gone to head. Chuck is an intelligently acted and thought out drama, where the most interesting developments occur after any boxing-related fame has faded.
39. Knuckle (2011)
A markedly different form of pugilism is the subject for this UK documentary, focusing on the pockets of fearsome bare-knuckle fights still (illegally) going on all over. The documentary was made over the course of twelve years, spent with several families from Ireland’s deeply private Irish traveller/gypsy community. The gypsy community place stock in one-on-one bare knuckle fights as a means of resolving personal arguments and family feuds, and this doc is on hand for many of them. This brutal and traditionalist manner of settling problems recalls 19th century attitudes in a 21st century context. One reassuring thought? It’s actually been postulated that the boxing glove makes a punch more dangerous—bare knuckles might look bloodier, but they’re far less likely to inflict deadly damage.
38. The Ring (1927)
With his complex thrillers and frequently patrician characters, Alfred Hitchcock is not the first director you might think of when it comes to boxing films, but back in the silent era, the 28-year-old director was cutting his teeth at Britain’s Elstree Studios and made this sports drama. The film is notable because it was the one and only screenplay Hitchcock himself actually wrote, as a frequenter and fan of boxing matches. The story is of a fairground fighter, Jack, who falls in love with the heavyweight champ’s wife—so the two men decide to settle their differences in the ring. In spite of the relatively simple narrative, it’s stylish and visually striking, taking care to capture the lightning-quick movements of both men.
37. Gentleman Jim (1942)
Rangy and mustachioed, Errol Flynn makes an elegant “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in this war-time Warner Brothers fare. Tracing turn-of-the-century’s boxing’s transition from bare-knuckle to the Marquess of Queensberry rules—and Corbett’s rise the top—the film serves as an entertaining and rather educational viewing experience. Corbett and his family have the light comic tendency to easily fall into full-scale brawls, so the scrapping is hardly restricted to the ring. Corbett tries to usurp the throne of bare-knuckle battler John L. Sullivan and bring boxing into the 20th century. Meanwhile, Raoul Walsh directs with a strong sense of forward momentum and clever framing, making for an old-fashioned film that stands up very well.
36. Golden Girl (2016)
Swedish documentarian Susanna Edwards set out to make what she called a “female Rocky” story when she began following Frida Wallberg around in 2010. Wallberg was the WBC featherweight champ, and pound-for-pound likely the best female boxer in the world. As Wallberg prepares for several big fights, her tenacity is remarkable; she groans in pain, seemingly unable to stop training until she’s in physical distress. But her single-minded hard work usually paid off in time for the fight. Unfortunately, her career came to an abrupt halt when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in the ring in a 2013 fight against Diana Prazak—and the documentarian was on hand for the whole awful event, as well as for Frida’s slow recovery. Charting the preparation, triumph and heartbreak of the sport, Edwards’ doc is both saddening and awe-inspiring.
35. The Champ (1931)
King Vidor, critically beloved director of silent and early sound Hollywood, had a critical and commercial success on his hands with this Academy Award-winning film. Penned by well-respected female screenwriter Frances Marion, The Champ is an archetypal tale of a floundering has-been fighter (the legendary Wallace Beery) stuck in the bottom of a bottle. In an attempt to live up to the devotion of his young son (Jackie Cooper), who is on the verge of being taken away by his estranged mother, the broken-down Beery fights one last battle to prove his worth. A poignant film on the father-son bond and the powers of forgiveness, The Champ went on to inspire a whole series of similar redemption narratives in ’30s Hollywood.
34. Golden Boy (1939)
Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’ stage play is a slightly creaky old boxing yarn, with a premise bordering on silliness and yet manifestly compelling. The story centers around poor Italian-American boy Joe (a young, shockingly wooden William Holden)—a gifted violinist who also has a chance at making real money as a fighter. Torn between art and love or money and violence, the story is framed as a moral quandary. Although rather badly dated (see Lee J. Cobb as Joe’s father with an absurd Italian accent), the concept of the film has served as inspiration for countless other protagonists tempted into similar Faustian pacts.
33. The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940)
Oscar Michaux was a prolific director of what were once known as “race films”—a sort of segregation-oriented entertainment made for all-black audiences and featuring all-black casts. Michaux had been working in independent film since the 1910s and is now widely regarded as the first (and most successful) major African-American film director. Elinor Lee (Gladys Williams) is a Harlem-based gangster’s moll who signs a contract with a fighter and then gleefully bets against him when the chips are down. This sinfully tricky woman holding a contract over a prizefighter’s head was an unusual thing to see, as much now as it was in 1940.
32. Kid Galahad (1937)
This is fairly run-of-the-mill Warner Brothers fare of the Depression era, right down to the spinning newspaper headline montages and cigar-chomping promoters. Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) directs the story of a good-looking, cornfed fighter whose career is taken on by a well-heeled manager (Edward G. Robinson) and his sympathetic girlfriend (Bette Davis), but through his wholesomeness, eventually appeals to his manager’s better nature. It may be a touch predictable, but it’s hard not to like any film starring Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart—snarling at each other in smoky rooms and chomping on cigars in rough old gyms.
31. Don King: Only in America (1997)
This HBO biopic was not ever meant for the Big Screen, but it’s an absolutely scathing portrait of one of the most powerful promoters in modern boxing. Reportedly, Don King was so upset by his portrayal that he stopped doing business with the channel over it. Played by a ruthless Ving Rhames at his very best, King’s series of cutthroat business dealings and manipulations are played out with little attempt at salvaging his reputation. Following his infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” deal with the dictator of Zaire and his even more infamous shakedown of Mike Tyson, the film is mainly focused on his professional rather than his personal life. Still, Rhames gives the man a sheen of almost pathological ambition and drive—just enough to get the audience to eke out some begrudging respect for him.
30. Undisputed (2002)
Walter Hill’s prison drama is an amusingly literal “what if” scenario, that imagines a menacing heavyweight champion played by Ving Rhames, a man on top of his game who is abruptly sent to prison. (Mike Tyson, anyone?) Inside, though, he may no longer be the “undisputed” champ. A series of highly organized and totally improbable fight nights are arranged in the prison by bored guards, with another inmate (Wesley Snipes) notorious for his vicious onslaughts in the ring—and his zero-loss record. A conflict between them is inevitable, with the champ unwilling to believe that this prison fighter could possibly have a patch on him. The film lurches toward this central showdown with slick actioner style—a pure boxing movie, as Walter Hill said, “actually about boxing and not a metaphor.”
29. Boxeadora (2015)
This small indie doc was made a few years ago by filmmaker Meg Smaker, who travelled clandestinely to Cuba to make her 15-minute short about a young woman, Namibia, who’s training in defiance of Fidel Castro’s ban on women’s boxing. Although men’s boxing has won Cuba more Olympic gold medals than any other nation on Earth, it’s illegal for women to do the same—and so, this beautifully shot short charts the struggles faced by a woman whose talent is unwanted in her native country, and whose dream is to compete in the Olympics.
28. Night and the City (1992)
This remake of the classic 1950 film noir starring Richard Widmark in war-ravaged London takes serious liberties with the original plot. It switches the location to New York and the central sport from pro wrestling to boxing. Robert De Niro is hustling lawyer Harry Fabian, trying to beg, steal and borrow his way into a boxing promoter’s license and startup cash. As Harry gets continually tied up with the seedy underside of the business, he is thrown in with loan sharks and gangsters. The result is a fatalistic mishmash of old noir conventions and modern violence, but firm in the knowledge that boxing is as crooked as it’s ever been.
27. The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)
The light romantic comedy stylings of this film are livened up by the star appearances of several celebrity prizefighters of the period. Myrna Loy plays a fashionable nightclub singer and gangster’s moll toying with the heart of Max Baer, the real life heavyweight champion. With the legendary Jack Dempsey as a referee and Baer’s real opponent Primo Carnera in the ring, it’s difficult not to play a game of “spot the celebrity” as you’re watching. In spite of the fact that at one point, Baer attempts to do some singing, this is a thoroughly entertaining, if patchy, old Hollywood movie.
26. Bleed for This (2016)
Miles Teller bulks up for his role as Vinny Pazienza, a blue-collar Italian-American kid from Rhode Island who struggled against overwhelming adversity to fight again after a debilitating car accident. The champ had won two world title fights before a head-on collision left him with a spine injury and a halo, with concern as to whether he would be able to walk again—never mind fight. With all signs pointing to a finished career, the “Pazmanian Devil” showed almost superhuman strength in returning to the gym to train. Aaron Eckhart supports Teller as his terse, boozed-up trainer Kevin Rooney, while his smothering but loving parents provide a believable family background for the fighter. The concluding moments, where Pazienza is questioned by a reporter, are a memorable conclusion to a genuinely inspiring story.