Out of all sports, boxing has perhaps the best representation at the movies. For all the talk about how boxing is dead, the boxing movie is still very much alive; 2016 had three major Hollywood releases about guys who punch stuff for a living, though major studios may have learned their lesson on that one and seem to be holding off on pugilism pictures for the time being. With such a deep pool of material, we thought it’d be fun to go back and list all the best ones (as we’re prone to do).
28. Rocky V (1990)
Every list has to start somewhere. And hey—there are a lot of boxing movies. Compared to Real Steel and Play It To The Bone, Rocky’s kid and his bouncing earring aren’t that annoying after all.
27. Southpaw (2016)
Like Mr. Gyllenhaal’s diamond-hard physique, this movie appears to be chiseled from a giant marble block of boxing movie clichés. Is there anything wrong with it? Not really—it just seems like we’ve all seen this one before.
26. Bleed for This (2016)
In 2016 Hollywood released more boxing movies than there were prominent fights in the sport itself. The best of that year’s crop was the Vinny Pazienza biopic Bleed For This, which suffered from market saturation and for being based on a real-life story that’s even more clichéd than fiction.
25. The Hurricane (1999)
Like Bob Dylan’s song of the same name (which also chronicles the Ruben Carter saga), this movie is pretty good. It’s the kind of movie you might find yourself watching hung over on a Sunday and not being too disappointed when it’s over. Which in itself is a disappointment, considering the fascinating subject matter.
24. Ali (2001)
The sheer ambitiousness of this movie was its downfall. At times heavy-handed and plodding, and a failure when it comes to depicting the charisma of the most popular person of the 20th century, Ali gets extra points for having some of the best cinematography and boxing scenes of any fight film.
23. The Great White Hope (1970)
There’s a lot more to boxing movies than training montages and great fight scenes; there’s also acting and stuff like that. A pre-Vader James Earl Jones delivers the goods in this adaptation of Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play based on the life of Jack Johnson.
22. Cinderella Man (2005)
A charming period piece that takes certain liberties with history (Max Baer was actually a nice guy) and never strays too far from the feel-good formula. But if anything, we’re grateful that a movie brought renewed attention to the era of heavyweight boxing between Gene Tunney and Joe Louis, which is often overlooked.
21. Rocky Balboa (2006)
Even though Rocky V brought the action back to Philadelphia, “Rocky VI” was the one that took the franchise back to its roots. It doesn’t have the ridiculous awesomeness of Rockys III and IV and never quite reaches the emotional heights of Rockys I, II, or Creed, but it ably resurrected a franchise which is once again going strong.
20. Girlfight (2000)
This indie darling from 2000 is kind of like an amateur boxing version of Creed or Somebody Up There Likes Me. For some people, boxing isn’t a way out; some people just want to fight all the time. Girlfight understands that and for the most part avoids the story beats we’re all painfully familiar with.
19. The Hammer (2007)
Former amateur boxer and boxing fan Adam Carolla spins the usual boxing movie clichés into a fresh-feeling indie comedy that effortlessly rises over most of the pack.
18. Rocky IV (1985)
One could probably argue that Rocky IV isn’t even a real movie, but rather a 1980s pop cultural artifact that deserves to be cherished, which is why it’s so high on this list. If we were going on popularity alone it’d probably be number one. Even Russians like this movie.
17. Rocky III (1982)
Some will disagree with whether Rocky III is better than Rocky IV, but this is undeniably where the series first embraced the cheese factor that has since become synonymous with Rocky for many fans of the series. It doesn’t ever quite reach the absurdity of Rocky IV, but at certain moments it comes pretty close. This is also where the relationship between Rocky and Apollo really blossomed (if you know what I mean), so we have Rocky III to thank for Creed as well.
16. Rocky II (1979)
It pains me to rank this honest and heartfelt character study above Rockys III and IV, but it is probably a better movie. This is where Stallone took the reins and set a course for Rocky to become one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
15. The Boxer (1997)
With the possible exceptions of Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter and Michael B. Jordan in Creed, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Boxer is probably the best actual pugilist of all the actors mentioned here. Prepare to be hypnotized by his ability as soon as you see him shadowboxing in the first scene. Combine Day-Lewis’s skills with a plot that juxtaposes the hero’s fights in the ring with the Troubles in Northern Ireland (it’s a metaphor) and you’ve got a boxing drama that’s well worth a watch.
14. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Clint Eastwood apparently saw Love and Basketball and decided to make a sports movie with a female protagonist that was actually good. And Million Dollar Baby is good—very good.
13. Body and Soul (1947)
This 1947 classic is known to many as perhaps the first good boxing movie. A lot of readers of TheLead are probably turned off by black and white movies and will take a pass on this one, which is too bad. Body and Soul would set a formula—a boxer rises from rags to riches only to be exploited by unsavory promoters—and tone that would define most boxing movies until a certain film came out in 1977.
12. Warrior (2011)
Our editors tell me that MMA and boxing are different sports (someone should tell that to Conor McGregor), but this drama owes more to the ring than it does to the octagon. It fits right into the Rocky tradition and manages to go toe to toe with the best of the feel-good boxing genre.
11. Hard Times (1975)
If you’re interested in a Depression-era period piece about bare-knuckle boxing in New Orleans starring Charles Bronson with Lee Marvin as your promoter, then this is your movie. If none of those things sound interesting to you, stay away.
10. Champion (1949)
The first and best of many boxing movies to use this creative title, Champion is a moral parable along the same lines as Body and Soul. In this movie, Kirk Douglas plays a popular fighter ordered to take a dive. It seems like Hollywood was sort of skeptical about this boxing thing from an early age.
9. The Set-Up (1949)
The Armageddon to Champion‘s Deep Impact, The Set-Up was released in the same year, and is also about a fighter instructed to take a dive by shadowy unsavories. The difference is that The Set-Up has the illusion of taking place in real time, so maybe it’s more like the 24 to Champion‘s Prison Break.
8. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)
One of the first movies to take a positive view of getting punched in the head as a career path, Somebody Up There Likes Me is also the movie that made Paul Newman a star. It’s an adaptation of the biography of the same name, and details the life of Rocky Graziano, one of the sport’s great brawlers, whose highs and lows inside the ring may have been even more dramatic than those outside of it.
7. Creed (2015)
The buzz on this movie is basically all true. It’s one of the strongest character pieces of the Rocky series, and its fights are among the best shot and choreographed in the entire genre. It does justice to its namesake and is an instant classic.
6. The Harder They Fall (1956)
Boxing was apparently dying (again) back in 1956, and Humphrey Bogart brought his usual brilliance to this uplifting tale of a promoter teaming up with a reporter to create (and exploit) a popular fighter out of a desperate immigrant for one last cash grab.
5. The Fighter (2010)
Word on the street is that Micky Ward tried to get Marky Mark to fight professionally after getting the star ring-ready for The Fighter, and that’s maybe the least badass thing about David O. Russell’s 2010 gem about Lowell, Massachusetts-born bruisers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. The only complaint anyone could have about this movie is that there isn’t a sequel yet from the same creative team chronicling the next part of Ward’s career: the Arturo Gatti trilogy.
4. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
You might be noticing that most older boxing movies weren’t very optimistic, and it turns out that the movie with “requiem” in the title didn’t buck that trend. The guy who created The Twilight Zone (another project not known for its sunny disposition) kicked off his career with this brilliant condemnation of the fight game and where it leaves fighters once their careers are over.
3. Fat City (1972)
Probably the only movie to illustrate what life is like for most blue collar fighters (hint: not very good), Fat City is a classic study of America’s working class. It also features great performances from Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach and belongs at the very top of this or any other sports movie list.
2. Raging Bull (1980)
Not many people know this, but Martin Scorsese made a boxing movie in 1980 that turned out to be pretty good. If you’re interested in solid movies that are a little under-the-radar, give Raging Bull a chance.
1. Rocky (1977)
Why is this ranked higher than Raging Bull? To put it simply, Rocky is the most influential sports movie of all time. All of the boxing movie clichés we take for granted—the redemption arc, the training montage, the tough significant other in the corner—come from this script and star-making turn from Sly Stallone. As this list illustrates, the great boxing movies that came before Rocky hadn’t yet laid the feel-good blueprint that Stallone gave us (and that Hollywood continues to emulate today).
Well, there you have it. Next we’ll do the same for jai alai.