Boxing and combat sports movies have a lasting appeal for audiences, and have always managed to attract viewers beyond sports fans. Whether it’s an inspirational underdog story or a stirring drama that pushes its central character to their physical and emotional limits, there’s nothing quite like watching a protagonist step inside the ring to go another round.
The genre is held up by all-time classics like Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, Killer’s Kiss, Fat City, and The Quiet Man, but new favorites continue to reinvent these age-old stories for the next generation. Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised follows a former mix-martial arts prodigy stepping into an underground tournament, all while struggling to care for her six-year-old daughter. The emotional character study hits Netflix and select theaters this week.
While recent films like Creed, Warrior, and The Fighter have launched to critical and awards success, many of the best combat sport movies remain cinematic underdogs. Here are five worth checking out.
Creed continued the chronology of the Rocky universe with its focus on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), but the 2016 biographical drama Chuck explored a much different side of the iconic Italian heavyweight champ’s legacy. The film centers around the true story of boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Shcreiber), a down-on-his-luck local fighter who gets a shot at Muhammad Ali. The match turned the mild-mannered Wepner into a brief, yet rousing media sensation.
The story was so unexpected that it inspired Sylvester Stallone to write his original Rocky script; the actual Stallone has a prominent role in Chuck thanks to a striking impersonation by Morgan Spector. Schreiber is a little bit rougher around the edges, but he possesses the same social aloofness that gave Rocky such lasting appeal. It’s a fascinating unknown story, and well worth a watch from Rocky fans eagerly awaiting Creed III next year.
Bleed for This
One of the joys of the combat sport genre is watching the actors you’d least expect to bulk up commit to the physical rigors that their roles require. Few would’ve expected a physical transformation from the slim Miles Teller, best known for his sardonic, charismatic characters. However, Teller delivered one of the best performances of his career as Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza in the criminally underseen biopic Bleed for This.
Pazienza had only just earned the WBA World Light Middleweight championship title when a devastating car accident left him with a fractured spine. Initially told he would never be able to walk again, Pazienza fought against the odds to regain his strength and do the unthinkable: return to the dangerous sport he was forced to leave behind. It’s an unbelievable comeback story, and outside of Teller’s great work features a strong supporting performance from Aaron Eckhart as Pazienza’s longtime trainer Kevin Rooney.
Hands of Stone
The real Pazienza from Bleed for This actually won his 1990 comeback match against Roberto Duran, who got his own biopic in 2016’s Hands of Stone. The Panamanian prize fighter grew up in poverty before immigrating to the United States to win world championships in the lightweight, welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight categories. Edgar Ramirez stars as the icon in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s film, which also features Ana de Armas as Duran’s fictionalized first wife and Robert De Niro as legendary trainer Ray Arcel.
Hands of Stone is more than just a “rags to riches” narrative, as it explores the excess that led to Duran’s later downward spiral. The film certainly sympathizes with his challenging youthful experiences, but it’s also unafraid to depict Duran as a temperamental, and often unlikeable character. Ramirez captures the charisma of his public persona while committing to the physical demands. It’s also fun to see De Niro return to the genre he’d mastered with Raging Bull, and he delivers one of his stronger late stage performances.
Jake Gyllenhaal continues to prove he’s one of the best actors of his generation with an eclectic run of performances, and he’s one of the rare performers who can elevate even the most familiar of material. Case in point: Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama Southpaw. Southpaw certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel with its story of a self-destructive boxer putting his life back together; it’s a film that sticks so closely to convention that its main character is literally named “Billy Hope.”
So why is Southpaw so electrifying? It has to be Gyllenhaal, who captures Hope’s torment and self-hatred following an unexpected tragedy that separates him from his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Even though the material isn’t fresh, Fuqua remarkably dedicates as much time to Hope’s emotional realignment and therapy as he does the physical training. There’s also an intimate brutality to the matches that helps to highlight each of Hope’s beat downs.
Watching a fighter face demanding physical challenges is often even more emotional when their family is forced to watch them from the sidelines. The sadly underseen drama Jungleland explores a brotherly bond that’s tested amidst and outside the ring, and features stand out work from two of the generation’s most promising young actors. Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam were both floated as potential blockbuster stars, but they’ve done much more interesting work on the indie level.
Jungleland is far from a traditional inspirational boxing movie. The brothers Walter (O’Connell) and Stanley (Hunnam) work menial jobs and live on the run, relying on Walter’s participation in illicit off-the-grid boxing matches. While Walter is the one fighting, it’s Stanley who faces the repercussions of their lifestyle. An ex-con who managed to avoid authorities and provide for Walter, Stanley wants to provide for a future knowing he may not be around much longer.