Rank and File

In My Opinion: The Five Greatest Boxing Films of All-Time

We're talking the stuff of legends here folks...

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter
Photo: Paramoun Pictures

One of the top Oscar hopefuls this year is The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. It's the story of Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his stepbrother Dickie Eklund (played by Christian Bale) from Boston, MA. For those of you who don't know, Irish Micky Ward was a light welterweight contender best known for his three exciting bouts with the late great Arturo Gatti. Eklund was a fighter as well and once sent Sugar Ray Leonard to the canvas before succumbing to a serious crack habit that derailed his career. The film is directed by one of my favorite directors David O. Russell (Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster) and along with Wahlberg and Bale, the film also features Amy Adams and the underrated Melissa Leo.

Boxing pics have historically been a tough sell, but I have high hopes for this one. Wahlberg worked his ass off to make The Fighter happen. Mark is a true boxing aficionado and often comes to the Wild Card Gym where I work out at here in Hollywood. Another Bostonian, Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach runs the Wild Card. The gym started out in Mickey Rourke's loft before moving to its present location so there has been a lot of Oscar talk at the gym in recent years.

This year could be a banner year for the Wild Card with Wahlberg in the running for a Best Actor nom along with another good friend of the gym, Robert Duvall. I have not seen The Fighter but the early word is very good. According to some folks I've already talked to, Wahlberg definitely has a shot and Bale is all but a shoo in. So in honor of The Fighter, here are my top five greatest boxing films of all time.

Fat City

One of the last films directed by the late, great John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of Sierra Madre, The African Queen). It stars a young Jeff Bridges and an underrated Stacy Keach, and this film is as real as it gets. Some people are going to argue with this one. I don't care. Fat City is a terrific film.

Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, loved the film and John Huston's direction. He wrote, "This is grim material but Fat City is too full of life to be as truly dire as it sounds. Ernie and Tully, along with Oma (Susan Tyrrell who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film), the sherry-drinking barfly Tully shacks up with for a while, the small-time fight managers, the other boxers and assorted countermen, upholsterers, and lettuce pickers whom the film encounters en route, are presented with such stunning and sometimes comic accuracy that Fat City transcends its own apparent gloom."

Fat City isn't for everyone. But if you ever wondered why so many people rave about the early career of Jeff Bridges this is one of the films you should definitely check out -- along with Bad Company, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Lolly Madonna War and numerous others.

When We Were Kings

The true story of the Foreman-Ali Rumble in the Jungle. This may have been the zenith of boxing as we know it. This is Muhammad Ali in his prime. The most famous and popular athlete of his generation. Not just in the US, but around the world. Fighting the man no one thought could be beat. The best scene in the movie shows Ali walking around the slums of Kinshasa in the immediate aftermath of the fight. Without a single bodyguard. He doesn't need one. He is a real life Superman who fears no one, not the seemingly unbeatable George Foremen or the people inhabiting the most crime ridden neighborhoods in the world.

Leon Gast's feature doc captures every moment of this spectacle and Gast ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary for his efforts. If you haven't seen this film you really should. When We Were Kings shows definitively why Ali is such a transformational figure to this day.

Body and Soul

John Garfield plays Charley Davis. A fighter who needs a little help from some friends to win the title. Body and Soul is very much a picture of its time. An era when the mob ran boxing and every fighter had to play along to get a title fight. The story has been told many times since, but never better. It is often considered the first great boxing picture although the original version of The Champ with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper had already been nominated for Best Picture in 1931.

Garfield got an Oscar nom for his role, Abraham Polonsky was nominated for his script and the film won for best editing. Polonsky later directed the cult classic Force of Evil also with Garfield before being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Body and Soul had one of the best closing lines in film history when Garfield snarls at his former handlers, "Everybody dies." Then the end credits roll.

Rocky

Whatever you say about Sylvester Stallone, and a lot of people do, he wrote one of the greatest scripts of all time. Loosely based on Muhammad Ali's fight with Chuck Wepner, Rocky is pretty much a perfect movie. Stallone was the right choice to play the washed up palooka from Philly and smart enough to insist the studio use him.

I could go on and on about this film. The casting, (Burgess Meredith, Burt Young and Jason Schwartzman's Mom are all wonderful) the gritty way it was filmed, the soundtrack that would have been completely hokey in any film other than the tale of an outlier who finally catches the brass ring. But why go on? It's Rocky. Like my choice for #1, it won the Oscar for Best Picture. And it's the blueprint for almost every sports movie that has been made since it came out. Enough said.

On The Waterfront

One day I asked Freddie and the guys at the gym what their choice was for the greatest boxing movie of all time. I was surprised when they almost unanimously voted for On The Waterfront. Not because it isn't a great movie. It's just I'd never thought of it as a boxing movie. But they were right. It is a boxing film.

In Elia Kazan's classic Marlon Brando plays former middleweight Terry Malloy. Lee J. Cobb plays what I consider to be the greatest villain in cinema history, mob boss "Johnny Friendly". Rod Steiger plays Terry's brother and the unbelievably sexy Eva Marie Saint plays the girl. Directed by the Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg during a period when they could do no wrong. On The Waterfront won the Academy Award for best picture. Deservedly so.

Honorable Mention - Raging Bull, Requiem For A Heavyweight, Hard Times. Great films all. Just not worthy of the top five in my opinion. But I'd love to hear what the audience thinks.

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  • JM

    I'm glad you didn't put "Raging Bull" in your Top 5. Most definitely not worthy.

  • austin

    Raging Bull needs to be up there. One of the greatest films ever.

    • Alex

      1oo% agree

    • John W

      Yes I agree as well.

  • Adriano

    I was hoping to see "Million Dollar Baby" on this top 5. But hey, it's your list.

    • mike

      million dollar baby sucks

  • http://moviesfilmsmotionpictures.wordpress.com The Biggest Joker Fan

    Raging Bull is a masterpiece and not only does it deserve a place on this list, but a place at #1.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I think you mean it deserves a place on "your" list. Do you have four other films you would add to your top five?

      • The Jackal

        @Brad Brevet: ALL critics utilize their own opinion when making lists of the Greatest "whatever" films of all-time. To not include "Raging Bull" on ANY list of the top 5 boxing films is just...well...laughable. On The Waterfront features on of the most poignant and heartfelt performances of ALL-TIME (Marlon Brando) and guess what? - the role is that of a burnt-out ex-fighter...BUT IT IS NOT A BOXING PICTURE.

        Thems the facts

      • Rashad

        Raging Bull has the most laughable boxing scenes in any boxing film. It makes Rocky 1-4 look realistic

  • loxmang

    I disagree with waterfront being 1... idc what people say its not a boxing movie. I dont even recall a boxing scene in the movie but its been awhile. Also, i dont know how others feel but id have Cinerella Man on my list somewhere. Great acting, great boxing scenes, and a pretty awesome story.

  • Sean R

    Well, this is why they call it "in my opinion"

    1. Raging Bull
    2. Million Dollar Baby
    3. Rocky
    4. Ali
    5. Fat City

    • Ben

      Yeah, I'm not saying Brad's opinion isn't valid, but that list right there is mine to a T and what I expected to see here

      • cj

        Ali doesn't belong in the top 100 boxing movies made. Bad cast, horrible script, incomplete story and bad acting

  • Jack

    I'm not sure I would call On the Waterfront a boxing movie to be honest, it was about a former boxer but that's where the connections stop. What, exactly, makes it a boxing movie in your eyes?

    • Zack

      Yeah I agree with that as well, On Te Waterfront is a fantastic movie, and there are certainly are a lot of elements of boxing that influenced that character and story, but it is not technically a boxing movie. It doesn't go in the ring and show it. There are references to old fights and the last fight on the waterfront with Lee J. Cobb and Brando, and thats it. Great film, in my opinion, one of the 5 greatest films of the first half of the first century of filmmaking in america

    • Bill Cody (author)

      It's the original Rocky in my opinion. A burnt out pug takes on the entire mob. The fight scene at the end is every bit as dynamic as anything in Rocky or raging Bull IMHO. And as I said. I was influenced by my boxing pals who definitely consider it a boxing movie. I think they tend to love films about the "other" aspects of being a boxer or former boxer because a film will never capture the magic of a real bout.

      But as I said at the end. Give me your opinion. I'm all ears.

  • Zack

    No Brad it deserves a place on your list, because your nat saying your 5 favorite boxing movies, your saying the 5 greatest boxing movies. Hence, if Raging Bull isn't on their, then u have been smoking crack because Raging Bull is one of the finest films ever made, and purely captures a truth about controlled raw aggression in boxing and the destructiveness of that once it cant be controlled anymore(This movie foreshadows tyson very well). It's a biopic about a boxer that not too many people remembered vividly in 1980, so scorsese, de niro, and schraeder were able to make it very personal. They had a responsibility, but a freedom of expression as well. Simon Beufoy and Aaron Sorkin were just talking about this on the THR report u posted. Raging Bull one of the most rich, poetic, and grizzly films I have ever seen. Probably the best film Scorsese ever did which is saying something

    • Rashad

      God forbid his opinion on greatest differs from yours.

      Raging Bull tries too hard to poetic. Just look at the ridiculous dramatization of the Robinson fight. Scorsese should be ashamed

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Just so you know, this isn't my list... it's Bill's.

      • Zack

        My bad, haha, well whoever this list may be from

  • http://www.rogers.com villedeville

    Nobody has seen "Somebody Up There Likes Me", the true story of boxer Rocky Graciano starring Paul Newman and directed by Robert Wise. Paul Newman was excellent in the movie. This should be at least in the top 3 boxing movies.

    • Bill Cody (author)

      great movie - I should have listed it on my honorable mention list - my mistake

  • aj

    this is all one's own opinion, but i agree with Brad "on the waterfront" is a boxing film. If more a boxing film after the ring and what goes on then.

  • pinstripedjon

    No Raging Bull. No bueno.

  • maja

    This is quite a surprising list....I would definately have put Raging Bull, Cinderella Man and Million Dollar on there.

    And i'm not quite sure I would agree with classifying On the Waterfront as a boxing film.

    But either way, I've never heard of Fat City before so thanks for the recommendation on that - will check it out.

  • Jeff

    On The Waterfront isn't even a boxing movie. Sure it makes mention of it, but when someone asks yout o name good boxing movies, i'm sure On The Waterfront doesn't jump to mind.

    Leaving out Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby discredits the list.

    • Bill Cody (author)

      I put raging Bull as honorable mention. As for Million Dollar Baby, I dare you to go into a boxing gym and talk about that film. Simply the most hated film in the history of cinema for true boxing fans. I would put the Three Stooges film where Curly wins after hearing "Three Blind Mice" played on a potato flute over Million Dollar Baby. And I love Clint and Lucia Ryker is a former gym mate. Complete rubbish.

      • aj

        Why exactly. I know it throws it's knowledge of the sport off. But why?
        Also despite it was a tad inaccurate cinderella man, the movie still gave people the inspiration of max baer's story and that right there deserves an honorable mention

      • Bill Cody (author)

        @ AJ

        The problem for me with Million Dollar Bay is twofold. I never believed the gym scenes. Especially the treatment of the kid played by Jay Baruchel. That would never happen in a real gym. Boxing gyms are the original land of misfit toys and they are very protective of anyone who just wants to be there. Boxers are much more apt to pick on the strong than the weak. Also, considering when it came out the depiction of women in the gym was also very off base. Boxers love when women come to the gym and step in the ring. It is a very open environment. This wasn't always true but it has been the case for at least 20 to 25 years. Unlike, say football where women are still a tough sell in the locker room, women are a big part of the scene at most boxing gyms today. James "Lights Out" Toney used to spar with Lucia just to work on his timing when he was fighting at Cruiserweight years before she appeared in MDB and "killed" Hillary Swank. Boxers are part of a true brotherhood and anyone, I mean anyone, who is willing to step in the ring is treated with respect. That's why Million Dollar Baby didn't ring true in any way, shape or form.

        As for Cinderella Man. I liked the movie. But not enough to put it in the top five.

      • Adriano

        Bill, thanks for your thoughts on Million Dollar Baby. Since I know nothing about boxing (and boxing gyms), I didn't know about those things you said. It doesn't make me enjoy the movie any less, but it's always good to know the opinion of someone with more knowledge on a certain subject.

  • darkknightfan12

    Cinderella Man anyone?

    • Bill Cody (author)

      I thought it was okay. But the unfair, simplistic and inaccurate depiction of the great Max Baer made the film a tough sale for a boxing fan like myself.

      • Rashad

        What about Raging Bull, where they had Ray Robinson throw up a Panther fist before he finished Lamotta? lol

    • ckybltz

      I agree. Cinderella Man is actually one of my all time favorites. One of those movies I can just throw in and enjoy it every time.

    • Mark

      No way should Cinderella Man be even considered. It's one thing for films to take a little license with the truth, in this film's case they've detoured so far away from it it needs a space shuttle to get back there. Max Baer's totally unjustified (and equally inaccurate) character assassination completely spoiled the film. It was top of the list of the things they got wrong. (Not forgetting of course the deal Braddock's management made with Louis for future fight income, Baer not being remorseful over Frankie Campbell's death, Baer being even vaguely fit for the title fight, etc. etc.)

      Also can't believe The Harder They Fall hasn't been mentioned more. Great movie.

  • West Chester Mike

    10. Streets of Gold
    9. Rocky III (Pain)
    8. Cinderella Man
    7. Fat City
    6. The Hurricane
    5. The Champ
    4. The Great White Hope
    3. Requiem for a Heavyweight
    2. Raging Bull
    1. Rocky (I'm From Philly)

    HM: Nails & the rest of the Rocky Franchise (Again, I'm from Philly )
    Somebody Up There Likes Me, Champion, The Power of One, Gladiator. Split Decisions

    • cj

      Worst list EVER!!!! the GReat white hope is this supposed to be a joke

    • Gerbs

      West chester ohio???

  • Tony Davis

    Brando in On the Waterfront was more believable as a boxer even though he never got in the ring. Marky Mark is not believable in my view. Most boxers don't weight train that much and carry that kind of bulk on a small frame. Mary is about 5/8", five nine or ten with the lift type shoes he wears. I agree that Waterfront is a great "boxing" movie. No scenes in the ring, but the soul of a boxer in Brando's performance. All this Oscar talk is coming from the people who made the film. Wait until it gets out in the real world.

  • YoEydrean

    I think the fact that you said Raging Bull was not "worthy" of your top five is what got you in trouble with the people on the boards.

  • Carson Dyle

    Yeah, Fat City's great. I would have put that one closer to the top. On the Waterfront is a great, (kinda) left-field choice, and a worthy #1.

    Some others I would have thrown into the mix: James Toback's Tyson, Bob Wise's Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Set-Up, and Robson's The Harder They Fall. Perhaps Curtiz' Kid Galahad, since it was one of the earlier prototypes for the boxing film. Apparently Robson's Champion is pretty good too.

  • Hirsch

    Here are my top five

    5) Somebody Up There Likes Me
    4) Requiem for a Heavyweight
    3) Raging Bull
    2) On the Waterfront
    1) Rocky.

  • pinstripedjon

    Million Dollar Baby's exclusion - Acceptable
    Cinderella Man's exclusion - Acceptable
    Raging Bull's exclusion - NOT Acceptable

    • Bill Cody (author)

      I made it a strong number 6 - but I understand your point - I DO think it's a great movie.

  • Lewis

    Raging Bull not even on the list! Wrong. It's not only the BEST boxing film, but also the BEST film from the 1980s.

  • markymark

    My list: Rocky 1-4 plus Ali. I obviously have not seen many boxing movies, hopefully 'The Fighter' is good cause most arent very interesting. ADRIAN!!!!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/article/author/kevinblumeyer Kevin Blumeyer

    I'd definitely include Raging Bull and The Great White Hope in my list, but I admittedly haven't seen 3/5 of your list.

  • red zorro

    5. Rocky II.
    4. Cinderella Man.
    3. Rocky Balboa.
    2. When We Were Kings.
    1. Rocky.

    Raging Bull? Stories in which the protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable cannot be great. They can make their political or philosophical points, with the characters as puppets, and they can have artistic, even beautiful scenes, and that's a lot - but enough. A great story connects on deeper levels.

    • X

      I must vehemently disagree with you. I think you're confusing "unlikeable" and "unrelatable"- a great protagonist does not necessarily have to be likeable but to arouse some powerful emotion from the audience. Though very unlikeable, Raging Bull Jake LaMotta is not a character anyone (that I know of) can remain apathetic to; he may be pitied, he may be loathed, he may be be found repulsive... he may be all of those things simultaneously. Indeed, films like Raging Bull- ones that do not rely on the immediacy of "likeability"- may achieve greatness and depth that films like Rocky cannot match, by establishing a more complex and challenging relationship with the audience.

      Aside from that, making a philosophical statement is more superficial or less great than establishing an emotional connection (if anything, it's the other way around).

    • david mikula

      cinderella man!!!

  • Jack

    Everyone is complaining about no Raging Bull and although it'd be top of my list, it's his personal opinion guys. Don't flame him for it.

    To Bill, what did you think of Ali? Not even worth an honourable mention?

    • Bill Cody (author)

      I actually thought Ali was a bit of a disappointment. I thought Will Smith was quite good but I would have focused the film on the first Ali Frazier fight because that was of more cultrural significance than the Ali-Foremen fight. Also, the Ali-Foreman fight was so well documented by When We Were Kings that I felt it was a bit unfair to have actors try and recreate that period of Ali's career on film.

      Same with Hurricane in my opinion. Denzel was amazing in that film. But the film itself wasn't that good IMHO. It's funny though. For a grnre that doesn't always get respect there certainly are a lot of good suggestion here. The Harder They Come is great as others have said. Somebody Up There Likes Me. All terrific films or at the least great acting performances.

  • Juan

    Play It To The Bone has to have an honorable mention. That is one of my all time favorite movies.

  • Joe C

    How can you NOT have

    Requiem for a Heavyweight! One of the all time best fight movies ever!

    The Harder They Fall! Again one of the best fight movies of all time.

    They BOTH take a look at the bad side of the boxing game!

    "Kings" is a documentary & Waterfront is not a boxing movie.

    Requiem is on TMC soon and Harder is also on there from time to time! Anthony Quinn & Mickey Rooney & Jackie Gleason give some of the best performances of their careers.

    And Humphrey Bogart & Rod Steiger are at the top of their game as well in The Harder They Fall!

  • David

    Raging Bull is number two behind On The Waterfront; not including it is a shame. I was however, glad to see Fat City and other golden oldies included.

  • able conley

    your list. but i just wanted to throw out if you havent seen them check out Power of one-last movie i cried at- and just for fun Diggstown.

    • able conley

      oh and not a top five but Gladiatorfrom 92.

  • Henchoz

    My Top Five : !, Rocky
    2, Raging Bull
    3, On The Waterfront
    4, Gladiator (1992)
    5, The Champ

    and I too agree that everyone should have their own lists and not just follow the crowd, alot of people perhaps didnt rate Gladiator with Cuba Gooding Jr but it's something I watched with my dad as a kid and it will always be dear to me.

  • david mikula

    what about cinderella man!?!

  • Tom

    Raging Bull is not just the greatest boxing movie ever. It is one of the very best movies ever made. That is, of course, a matter of judgment, not a scientific finding. Although I think surveys of film critics have agreed with the judgment. By the way, anybody else notice the similarities -- with of course some differences -- regarding the relationships between the brothers in Raging Bull and The Fighter (the latter movie having some fine qualities also)?

  • ajsmith

    On the Waterfront...a boxing movie. Why not throw Pulp Fiction in there while you're at it? Also, although at this point its almost unnecessary to state but this list is completely invalid because of three simple words...no raging bull.

  • Central Ohio

    Looks like I'm a little late on this one.

    But I can't believe all the crap you were getting for leaving 'Raging Bull' off your list. So what? As great as it is (I've watched it probably 20 times) I understand it's not for everybody.

    I was going to bust your balls more for leaving out 'Cinderella Man' but you probably won't even read this.