The Evolution of Boxing in Film

Tuesday, June 21 by

Boxing scenes are an essential part of American film, but over the years the depiction of boxing within American movies has changed significantly. From parodies showing the silliness of two men swinging at each other to attempts at capturing the gruesome violence with hyper realism, directors over the years have tried to put their unique “spin” on the sweet science. Here are a few standout takes–from funny to frightening–one the old one-two. Now, I want a fair fight, touch gloves, FIGHT!


City Lights

Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights may not be a “boxing movie” per se, but it does have at least one fantastic boxing scene, which takes place in the movie after Charlie’s Little Tramp wanders into a boxing venue after losing his job. And it might not be “realistic” per se, but it’s just as if not more entertaining than most more realistic boxing scenes in other movies. The Tramp uses some unorthodox methods in the ring, including hiding behind the referee. And the resulting scene is not only one of the funniest boxing scenes of all time, but one of the funniest comic set pieces of any kind ever filmed! The next time some guy at a party says boxing is just two idiots hitting each other, show him this boxing scene.


The Set-Up

One of the first movies to really depict the brutality of the sport in its boxing scenes–something we modern movie goers take for granted nowadays–and the fact this film was made in the 1940s definitely makes it worth checking out today. The boxing scenes in The Set-Up show punches landing and blood flowing in a way that was never seen outside of a real boxing ring. And that brutality isn’t just in the ring–the way director Robert Wise depicts the bloodthirsty members of the crowd is what really hits home. The boxing scenes may be violent, but they’re never violent enough for the people in the stands.



Boxing ScenesSylvester Stallone‘s breakout role, Rocky Balboa, is probably what most people think of when they hear “boxing movie.” Somewhat surprisingly, the slick and sometimes fake-looking boxing scenes in the Rocky movies aren’t exactly the best in the business–it’s arguable that most people are more responsive to Rocky’s quasi-triumph over adversity and his actual-triumph over his own weaknesses outside the ring. Still, no study of boxing scenes would be complete without Rocky, since they’ve been hugely influential on boxing scenes in movies and on TV in the years since then. And to all who say the boxing scenes “look fake”: We hope you never run into Stallone’s fists. 


Raging Bull

Boxing ScenesMartin Scorsese’s Raging Bull famously only has about ten minutes of boxing scenes in it, but the pitch-perfect performances from Robert De Niro along with the just-as-perfect cinematography still qualifies it as perhaps the best boxing movie ever made. Scratch that — one of the best movies ever made, period. And the boxing scenes in it do not disappoint; each of Jake LaMotta’s matches have a strong visceral impact that makes the viewer feel like he’s in the ring — either sharing the glory of victory, or being pounded into a pulp. These boxing scenes have an expressionistic impact that’s never really been duplicated. Remember when Jake’s opponent gets his nose punched to the other side of his face? Scorsese shows no mercy at the sight of the blood spraying from his head. Or how about the torrent of blood that sprays all the way into the stands?! Hyperstyled? Sure, but name one realistic boxing scene that’s more powerful than the ones in Raging Bull? That’s what I thought. 


The Fighter

As previously mentioned, different filmmakers who attempt to put their marks on boxing scenes try different approaches. In the case of David O. Russell, director of The Fighter, authenticity was the name of the game. The boxing scenes therein are designed to look as much like the original HBO broadcasts of the fights as possible, right down to using similar cameras to film the fights. Sometimes, Russell steps out of this TV-style in order to bring the viewer into the ring — particularly memorably for a super-slow-motion shot of a punch — but even then, realism and authenticity are the chief objectives. That and nailing those Boston accents, of course.


So there you have it. Luckily for any boxing scene fan, there are literally dozens more boxing movies to explore, and almost all of them have at least one boxing scene. And there are more coming out all the time. Just remember, kids, don’t try this at home.

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