No sport is more perfectly constructed for the cinema than boxing. Just as submarine-set movies provide action films with an almost idiot-proof formula for success, boxing movies have so much inherent drama from their baked-in premise that it is almost impossible to make a non-captivating one.
At the centerpiece of every boxing movie is, of course, a big fight scene. You can’t have a boxing movie without one. And with the Miles Teller-headlined Vinny Pazienza bio-pic Bleed for This in theaters this week, what better time than now to go through the annals of boxing history and rank the silver screen’s best boxing matches – both real and fictional?
Balboa vs. Drago (Rocky IV) – A fight so wonderfully filmed and staged, it ended the Cold War. How can this not be tops?
Balboa vs. Creed, the Rematch (Rocky II) – Probably the most fondly remembered of all the Rocky films brings us the second-best filmed fight ever, as the rematch between Rocky and famed opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) provides a brutally satisfying championship for the challenger. Go ahead, yell out the “Yo Adrian, I did it!” quote. Go ahead.
Adonis Creed vs. Conlan (Creed) – I swear, they won’t all be Rocky movies. Just the top three. Swear it. The most recent entry into the Rocky catalog absolutely belongs to this list, as director Ryan Coogler shows a brilliant command of the action in the ring between Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) and challenger “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). We can only hope the sequel is just as good.
LaMotta vs. Robinson VI (Raging Bull) – Presented in beautifully rendered black-and-white, the recreation of the final, famous matchup between Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) and Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) is as gripping as the rest of the film. No filmmaker has ever rendered a fight in as brutal beauty as Martin Scorsese did.
Ward vs. Sanchez (The Fighter) – Christian Bale’s unforgettably addled performance as Dicky Elkund is probably the most remembered part of David O. Russell’s film, but the faithful dramatization of Micky Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) stirring comeback to welterweight championship should also be mentioned.
Flynn vs. Bowers (The Champ) – Go ahead and cry. We won’t judge. Really. Who wouldn’t? Let it out. “No! Champ! No! Champ. Is he out? Is he out? What’s the matter, Champ? Champ, wake up! Wake up! Wake – wake up!”
Guzman vs. Stiles (Girlfight) – An unfortunately little-remembered film that launched the career of future Fast and the Furious star Michelle Rodriguez has the best fight scene of the criminally-underrepresented genre of women’s boxing (Million Dollar Baby does not make this list).
Braddock vs. Baer (Cinderella Man) – It’s too bad that Russell Crowe had to T.K.O. his reputation right before this movie came out because he’s remarkable in this film; director Ron Howard’s recreation of the earth-stopping final fight between James J. Braddock (Crowe) and Max Baer (Craig Bierko) is captivating.
Carter vs. Cooper (The Hurricane) – There’s a lot wrong with the Denzel Washington-headlined dramatization of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s life (read up on the movie’s inaccuracies), but this stirring bout is not one of them.
Hope vs. Escobar (Southpaw) – The Antoine Fuqua-directed, Kurt Sutter-penned boxing drama is a bit too melodramatic for its own good (after all, the name of Jake Gyllenhaal’s main character is “Billy Hope”) but the final boxing match just about makes up for it.