If I asked you to name the last five boxing movies, you could probably rattle off most of them without even checking IMDb. Now try doing the same for the last big boxing matches on pay-per-view. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Sure, there’s the rare Pacquiao/Mayweather blockbuster. But for the most part, the sport’s glory days are long over, now that UFC has officially taken over as our preferred national bloodsport. You wouldn’t know it from Hollywood, though, which keeps pushing boxing movies back into the box office ring at a minimum of two to three a year.
This year alone, we’ve had the Roberto Durán biopic Hands of Stone — which pulled Robert De Niro back into the gym to play legendary trainer Ray Arcel — and Bleed For This, starring Miles Teller as Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, who capped off his own improbable comeback after a serious car accident nearly ended his career. And just in case that wasn’t enough, there’s also the upcoming Liev Schreiber movie The Bleeder, another based-on-a-true-story boxing drama about Chuck Wepner, the real-life inspiration for the Rocky franchise, which just snagged a distribution deal at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall.
Even while the sweet science has lost much of its cultural cachet in recent years — blame the lack of heavyweight talent, or our reduced interest in watching athletes trade concussions for our entertainment — boxing movies have managed to retain a prestige unmatched by other sports. Maybe it’s because boxing itself is inherently theatrical: the lights go down, two men climb onto a stage and slug it out in front of a cheering crowd. Boxing celebrates showmanship. The sport succeeds or fails on the strength of the storylines it creates — hyping grudge matches, celebrating comebacks, deifying underdogs. Hell, boxing’s probably one of the few industries that loves a big-ticket sequel as much as movie studios do.
It’s also why the best boxing movies are just as concerned with the drama outside the ring as the action in it. See: Requiem for a Heavy-weight’s powerful meditation on the indignities of aging. The Fighter’s dysfunctional family dynamics. Rocky IV, transporting real world Cold War anxieties to the boxing ring (and basically ending the Cold War in the process). Even Creed, the current titleholder for Best Recent Boxing Movie, is as much about Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Johnson going to toe-to-toe with his father’s legacy than whether he’ll win a title against some forgettable antagonist.
Boxing movies have become a shorthand to tackle tricky subjects like race, class, masculinity, and violence, keeping them contained between the ropes and the genre’s easily-digestible underdog formula. They allow us to explore our inherent contradictions, finding visual poetry amidst brutality. Think of those striking black-and-white shots of blood dripping off the ropes in Scorsese’s boxing opus Raging Bull or that expertly choreographed one-take fight in Creed.
Through boxing movies, we’re able to celebrate the best in human nature — our steadfast determination to overcome adversity and push through pain and struggle — while also acknowledging our worst, all unchecked aggression, violent impulses and self-destructive tendencies. Boxing movies are like Westerns — another genre that refuses to die, despite representing a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. No one rides horses, no one watches boxing. But both genres provide ample room for metaphors.
Whether the sport itself ever makes a triumphant comeback of its own, there will always be a place for that sort of cinematic self-examination. And as long as Hollywood keeps ringing the bell, we’ll keep coming back for another round.