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The 15 Best Modern Boxing Movies
Whether it’s Rocky or Creed, there’s no sports figure more celebrated in Hollywood than a boxer finding their way to the top. These are the 15 best modern boxing movies.
Boxing movies, for better or worse, are as clear a representation of redemption as there is in film. There are internal and external stakes, physical transformations, and any number of breakthrough moments where the hero — considered a fledgling pugilist or a proud, strength-defining champion — finds a triumph. Even when the pacing feels formulaic for a boxing movie, each has its splash of charm and backbone.
For every punch, knockdown and knockout, a corner man or side character is urging our protagonist to push through. And there’s no sports figure more celebrated in Hollywood than a boxer finding their way to the top. It’s the likely reason why boxing movies (and the performances in them) have a higher rate of securing an Oscar nomination than any other genre tied to sports. With Michael B. Jordan lacing up the gloves for Creed IIIalongside Jonathan Majors, we look back through film history to narrow down the 15 best boxing movies of all time. (And sorry Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames, Undisputed lost out by split decision.)
15. Southpaw (2015) directed by Antoine Fuqua
A volatile champion emotionally dragged into a point where he must be rebuilt after being broken. Southpaw takes cues from several films before it, right down to a sleazy promoter looking to squeeze more fights out of a beaten hero. However, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope isn’t out to just save himself and his daughter, but his trainer as well. Southpaw does its job taking in the swirl that grief places us in, and makes it clear it’s not something you immediately beat inside of a ring (or life for that matter).
14. Rocky II (1979) directed by Sylvester Stallone
The direct sequel to the original Rocky calls for an obvious decision to be made. Given the end of their first bout, the stakes between Rocky and Apollo are greater for the rematch. The former needs to provide for his family; the latter needs to prove his win wasn’t a fluke. The dramatics up themselves further in Rocky’s world, with Adrian attempting to protect her now husband from himself, beginning a series trope that endured throughout the franchise. While the ending remains a legit “only in the movies” kind of spectacle, it gives fans the more satisfying ending where Rocky doesn’t only win respect — he becomes champion of the world.
13. Cinderella Man (2005) directed by Ron Howard
Before there was a Rocky Balboa (or even a Chuck Wepner) there was James J. Braddock, a 1930s heavyweight champion who scored one of the greatest upsets in boxing history over Max Baer. History may regard him as the champion before Joe Louis, as well as one of sports’ biggest underdogs, but Braddock’s life story is perfect movie fodder. Cinderella Man takes its cues from films before it, with Russell Crowe being the archetype for the everyman fighter coaxed into a miracle after feigning retirement. Ron Howard’s Depression-era film packs on the in-ring glory and Braddock’s rags-to-riches story. But most importantly, it gives it a balm by highlighting how Braddock wasn’t merely fighting for himself, his family, and close friends, but the idea that someone could show and prove the worst of the Depression was over.
12. Million Dollar Baby (2004) directed by Clint Eastwood
Feel whatever you want about Clint Eastwood, but long after establishing himself as a Hollywood standard, he continued to craft classics — including Million Dollar Baby. Built around an underdog from the Ozarks wanting a chance to be something more than a waitress, the film takes three enigmatic personalities (Hillary Swank, Eastwood, Morgan Freeman) and warps them into an unconventional family. Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn lives and breathes the sentiments of an old trainer who wants nothing to do with people, but eventually finds love and solace in his next prized pupil. The emotional peak of the movie centers around tragedy and its reaction to it, with questions regarding what a well-lived life truly means. For Swank, it’s a tour de force performance that earned her a second Best Actress Academy Award (and a second Best Supporting Actor win for Freeman). By the end of award season, it joined Rocky as the only boxing film to ever win Best Picture.
11. Girlfight (2000) directed by Karyn Kusama
Made at a time when Michelle Rodriguez could do low stakes, personal coming of age flicks, Girlfight inverts plenty of boxing film tropes and places them squarely on a Latina woman accosted by poverty, an abusive home life and more. From the onset, Girlfight aims to be a movie about a teenage girl wanting to not only be heard but understood. Rodriguez’s performance is a revelation, easily picking up on the physical nature of boxing while funneling anger outside of the ring against her male counterparts. Every fighter has a breaking point, and in the eyes of Rodriguez’s Diana Guzman, attempting to find solace in men is her’s. From her father driving her mother to the brink to her own burgeoning teen love, Diana seeks legitimacy — not only as a fighter but a woman with a voice.
10. The Great White Hope (1970) directed by Martin Ritt
A film based on the life of the first Black heavyweight champion and adapted from a stage play of the same name, The Great White Hope isn’t a straight on biopic of Jack Johnson. But through James Earl Jones’ portrayal of Jack Jefferson, history gained a stronger idea of who Johnson was. Jones is unflinching and defiant as Jefferson, knocking down any and all opponents in the ring as he ascends to win the heavyweight crown. But Jefferson’s defiance pits him against society as a whole, as he’s confronted with the truths of racism in the early 20th century (especially through his love for his first wife, a white woman). Mixing romance with typical boxing brutality, The Great White Hope was a triumph for Jones and co-star Jane Alexander, with both earning Academy Award nominations.
9. The Hurricane (1999) directed by Norman Jewison
The Hurricane is an all-time Denzel Washington performance packed in arguably the greatest 10-year stretch for a Black actor (start from 1992’s Malcolm X and count the number of Denzel heaters until 2001’s Training Day). Washington is powerful as the brooding, contemplative, and patient Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, slim enough to carry 1960s middleweight aesthetics in the ring with his hands, but towering in ways when attempting to navigate through a 20-year prison sentence for a triple murder he didn’t commit. The movie does embellish a bit on Carter’s standing as a potential champion (he lost 12 times) but it’s an outstanding drama, regardless if its lead character overpowers everyone on screen.
8. Creed II (2018) directed by Steven Caple Jr.
The sequel to a beloved revitalization of the Rocky franchise, Creed II bulks up Michael B. Jordan and drops him in the heavyweight division. Caple Jr.’s arc in the life of Adonis Creed focuses on his growth and evolution as a man, letting him navigate building a family and finding a stronger purpose beyond his late father in the ring. But what Creed II does better than several of the Rocky sequels before it, is that it gives deeper stakes for its antagonist beyond a desire to be champion. Ivan (and by proxy his son Viktor) is not only out for respect, he’s out to reclaim what he lost 30 years ago. While revenge is a prevailing theme throughout, self-identity remains the key focus for Creed and everyone around him. Caple Jr. even manages to sneak in an ode to Rocky IV with the ending, Russia once more showering a foreign fighter who wouldn’t give up all the praise.
7. The Fighter (2010) directed by David O. Russell
Attempting to condense Micky Ward’s career is no small feat but David O. Russell achieved it in The Fighter, with Ward being played by Mark Whalberg (an actual close friend of his). Offscreen, Ward is known for his trilogy with Autro Gatti. Onscreen, Whalberg grapples with a combustive triangle outside the ring, all while the world watches his brother and trainer Dicky (Christian Bale) crumble before building himself back up. Trust is the strongest battle Ward has with everyone involved, from getting doped into bad fights to ultimately capturing the welterweight crown. While Whalberg is the name here, Bale and Melissa Leo (portraying Ward’s mother) steal the show. The film swept the Supporting Actor category at the 83rd Academy Awards, proving outside drama can be just as good as the drama inside the ring.
6. Rocky IV (1985) directed by Sylvester Stallone
Stallone’s third try at directing a Rocky film arrives with the kind of plot that transforms the character from a typical boxer to an American hero in line with John Rambo, Stallone’s other ‘80s classic action character. The beef with the Russians and Ivan Drago over Apollo’s death is what propels Rocky back into the ring. Still, the action is ratcheted up to an almost cartoonish effect to make it, perhaps, the one legit popcorn flick of the franchise’s original series of films. Once Rocky avenges Apollo, all the patriotism and jingoism (it hit theaters in the middle of the Cold War, mind you) runs wild. The first Rocky movie perfectly captured an audience becoming enamored with Balboa from sticking out a beating. Rocky IV captures a crowd won over mainly because a man won’t stop fighting.
5. Rocky III (1982) directed by Sylvester Stallone
From a boxing standpoint, the first two Rocky films were about the contrast between Apollo Creed’s flash, and Rocky’s grit and ability to take massive amounts of punishment. Mr. T’s Clubber Lang rises as the villain in the third film of the series, and stands out as the best villain of the entire franchise (well, until Jonathan Majors in Creed III). From his introduction, Lang has one mission — winning the title from Rocky by any means — and breaks Rocky down in the most disrespectful ways. Rocky having to enlist the help of Creed to vanquish Lang is an act of hubris and humility, a necessary step in his redemption. But Mr. T’s Lang carries the movie. Close your eyes, and you’ll become enamored with how much of a beloved heel and antagonist Clubber is.
4. Ali (2001) directed by Michael Mann
Will Smith probably should have won an Oscar for his portrayal of “The Greatest.” Unlike most biographies attempting to capture the full life of its subject, Michael Mann’s slick filmmaking zeroed in on perhaps Ali’s most poignant 10 years as a man attempting to learn the world. Getting Smith in boxing shape was the easy part; throwing him in the ring and capturing what made Ali was a tandem effort between the actor and Mann. There’s a meticulousness to Smith’s portrayal of the boxer, from capturing how physically imposing he was in and outside the ring to his mannerisms as a 22-year-old trying to navigate the many voices surrounding him. The end result is a film that succeeds in showing us how Ali went from a motormouth heavyweight champion with bombast beyond measure, to becoming the people’s champ with his 1974 knockout of George Foreman in Zaire.
3. Creed (2015) directed by Ryan Coogler
There’s nothing quite like an addition to a classic tale. While the original 1976 Rocky film built upon the gamble of a journeyman fighting a heavyweight champion (with a splash of romcom as the B story), Creed lunges forward with an earnest bravado, repackaging those original Rocky themes and freshening them up as a new love story for Philadelphia. With Stallone and Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler injects the Rocky series with themes surrounding a Black man coming of age as he struggles with accepting a name and his place in the world. If the original Rocky set the blueprint for Creed, Coogler and company give it heightened realism with a memorable montage scene, a paternal bond between Stallone and Jordan, and more.
2. Raging Bull (1980) directed by Martin Scorcese
Scorcese and Robert De Niro had already crafted a template for the hard-to-love anti-hero with Taxi Driver‘s Travis in 1976 (the same year as the first Rocky film). Fast forward four years later and there’s Raging Bull, a biopic about middleweight champion Jake LaMotta that earned De Niro his second Academy Award and first for Best Actor. De Niro’s portrayal of the champion is one of great tragedy. Scorcese and De Niro perfectly capture what made him great in the ring for his bullying and crowding style, but also showcase what a flawed man he was outside of it. With some of the most realistic boxing action ever captured in a film, Scorcese perfectly bookends Raging Bull with LaMotta aged and in pain, attempting to perfect a comedy routine as he searches for the next chapter of fulfillment in his life.
1. Rocky (1976) directed by John G. Avildsen
Before it became a cliché and the setup for a perfect Eddie Murphy joke, Rocky set a new standard for boxing films. There’s the iconic row of characters, a villain who merely played a twist of Muhammad Ali in Apollo Creed, and the type of in-ring action and drama that lured audiences in and kept them there. There are films with more significant action and even more heart-tugging emotion. But the original Rocky pieced together the formula and became a slice of American mythology. Name a boxing film after Rocky and every one of them carry its DNA somewhere, all thanks to a small-time boxer wanting to fight for a title, a girl, and his self-respect.
Brandon Caldwell is a writer from Houston, Texas who has written for ESPN, Complex, Vulture, Pitchfork, NPR, The Recording Academy and more. You can find him on Twitter @_brandoc