Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s exquisite Raging Bull, shot in masterly monochrome, is the greatest boxing movie ever made. A searing and brutal autobiography of Italian American middleweight boxer-turned-stand-up comedian Jake LaMotta, the boxing scenes play like an intoxicating ballet of bruising bouts.
LaMotta, played by a never better Robert De Niro, is battling his inner demons, as well as his opponents. Seething with self-loathing, petty jealously and raging anger, he is on a path of self-destruction in and out of the ring.
The actor gained a huge 27kg to play LaMotta in later years, and after the intense boxing training sessions, a taut and lean De Niro was good enough to turn professional. Never have the pugilistic pressures of boxing been so perfectly portrayed.
It’s hard to look back past the bouffant hairdos, James Brown dance routines, talking robots and Mr T wisecracks of the latter sequels, but the first Rocky was the remarkably affecting story of a down-on-his-luck loner fighting for his chance in the ring. In a movie written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, the Italian Stallion gives a subtle and nuanced performance a million miles from the cartoon character Balboa became in the later films.
In Rocky, the boxer is hungry for victory and will punch every hunk of meat in his way to get there. As Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” soars over the soundtrack and Balboa climbs the 72 stone steps before the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you’ll be punching the air. “Adrian!”
When We Were Kings (1996)
Leon Cast’s punchy documentary covers the legendary 1974 heavyweight championship bout known as "The Rumble in the Jungle" between undefeated world champion George Foreman and a certain underdog challenger named Muhammad Ali. The film follows the build-up to the fight in Zaire as a passionate Ali talks to the African people, discussing their and his beliefs, while promoter extraordinaire Don King negotiates, and James Brown and BB King perform at the Black Woodstock music festival as part of festivities.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into such a huge event - there were 60,000 boxing fans to witness Ali knocking Foreman out in the eighth. For a dramatic version of events, check out Michael Mann’s Ali, starring Will Smith as the boxing great:
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby features the grizzled legend as Frankie Dunn, a grouchy boxing coach who begrudgingly trains female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). She dreams of becoming a professional and constantly pushes Dunn for a title fight.
The fight ends in tragedy when Fitzgerald breaks her neck and is left a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic - a tragic about-turn in events that shatters. It’s a rare thing for a boxing movie to show the aftermath of a fight that goes horribly wrong. Swank justly took home the Best Actress Oscar, one of four gongs the film received.
Thrilla in Manilla (2008)
Another doco about a huge sporting event, the HBO TV film examines the war of words and epic bout between Joe Frasier and Muhammad Ali that is consistently ranked as one of the best in the sport's history. Set against the hotbed of racial turmoil of the States in the '70s, the personal rivalry of the two fighters reached a head with Ali winning two out of their three contests.
The name of the fight came from a much-publicised jibe from the ever-quotable Ali: "Killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila." The match was the first major event of any kind to be fully broadcast via satellite and changed the face of sport on TV forever.
The Hurricane (1999)
Taking cues from the Bob Dylan track of the same name and based on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s autobiography, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender To 45472, director Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane focuses on the middleweight boxer who never escaped his criminal past and ended up in prison, wrongly accused of a triple murder.
The Hurricane’s vicious history may be whitewashed and more time is spent in the courtroom than boxing, but Denzel Washington gives a dynamic muscular performance, both in and out of the ring. Dylan’s song is a musical plea for Carter’s innocence and Jewison’s film does the same, pointing its finger at a racist society determined to imprison a lone black fighter.
One of the most successful heavyweight boxers of all time reflects on his turbulent career in James Toback’s excellent documentary Tyson. From over 30 hours of interviews, Iron Mike gives voice to the demons that have haunted him since he achieved worldwide stardom at the age of 20.
From biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear to his rape conviction, the controversy Mike Tyson has courted has overshadowed his career. He was a terrifying and ferocious presence in the ring but on camera he reveals a gentler fragile side, especially when he discusses losing his first professional trainer and the only father figure in his life.
I’m Your Man is an interactive documentary about winning and losing in Australian boxing. Enter this immersive experience as both spectator and contestant, where you will fight alongside the boxers and you will shape the story. I’m Your Man explores the diverse history of some of Australia’s best-known boxing legends including Jeff Fenech, Lionel Rose, Les Darcy, Johnny Famechon, and Billy Dib.
Ready? Enter the ring at sbs.com.au/imyourman.
Then head over to SBS On Demand for more boxing drama...