Boxing movies are great, but often they pale in comparison beside the real-life stories of daring and adversity that they draw from. With a sport so naturally dramatic and dangerous, it’s easy to see why documentarians have been drawn to it over and over again. From little-known stories of halting tragedy to behind-the-scenes looks at some of the most famous prizefights in the world, here are five must-watch documentaries on the sweet science.
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 Frida’s slow recovery. Charting the preparation, triumph, and heartbreak of the sport, Edwards’ doc is both saddening and awe-inspiring.
Stanley Kubrick began his career as a teenage photographer in New York City of the fifties, capturing street sweepers, cops on the beat, Broadway dancers, and everyone in between. Long lost mid-century Manhattan comes into focus in his quotidian day-in-the-life documentary short. Clocking in at only 12 minutes, Kubrick follows the activities of Irish-American middleweight Walter Cartier before his big (winning) bout against Bobby James. Kubrick had a long fascination with boxing, and it featured in several of his films—Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, even briefly in Barry Lyndon—over the course of his career.
The Emile Griffith v. Benny Paret fight of 1962 has gone down as one of the most tragic episodes of boxing history. Ring of Fire seeks to explore it in depth, piecing together the events of the evening—and the many intervening decades of anger, loss and guilt. Paret whispered a homophobic epithet to Griffith before their fight began. Griffith, a closeted homosexual, flew into a rage, and by the 12th round, Paret had been KO’d. Paret then collapsed at ringside, fell into a coma, and died 10 days later. Suffering from the trauma of this event years later, Griffith seeks out a meeting with Paret’s son, who offers him forgiveness. It’s a potent cauldron of old-world fears about sexuality, male rage, and the powers of forgiveness.
Ken Burns, one of most recognized American documentarians, decided to undertake a biographical venture in his 2004 film for PBS. After his massive success with historical subjects (The Civil War, The West), he took on a vast canvas for the backdrop of the life of Jack Johnson. Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion in American history, as of 1911. He was widely detested by white audiences, cheerfully flaunting his wealth and interracial romances in the faces of a racist public. Burns takes care to paint a sweeping portrait of turn-of-the-century America, the history of the sport up until that point, and the ways in which Johnson’s triumph inflamed and inspired the American public. It’s a captivating and often shocking trip through an ugly era of the country’s history, and it lays the foundation for one of the most basic tenets of boxing; you can’t leave race and racial strife out of the equation if you ever wish to understand it fully.
Documentaries rarely come alive in quite the way that this classic does; it’s endlessly watchable for diehard boxing fans and casual viewers alike. Gast follows both competitors in the lead-up to the legendary 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” clash—fought in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Amid the clammy heat and the cheering mobs of schoolchildren, the cry of “Ali, boma ye!” was immortalized. Ali, bouncing around with characteristic vim and comic wit, did nothing to discourage this hero-worship. Foreman, more circumspect and increasingly agitated by Ali’s attention-grabbing, was both a younger and a bigger man. In other words, he was a truly formidable opponent. But Ali kept his poker face on. “You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Just wait till I kick George Foreman’s behind!”
Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.