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Boxing's better at the movies
The romance that surrounds boxing continues unabated at the movies, and now on TV. “The Fighter,” a film about junior welterweight Micky Ward, is earning awards talk in theaters, while FX soon will premiere “Lights Out,” a gritty series about a fictional heavyweight champ who might be forced to risk a comeback.
“The Fighter’s” OK, but “Lights Out” (yes, on FX, a Fox Sports corporate sibling) is more interesting. Premiering Jan. 11, the series features Holt McCallany as a retired champ whose fortunes tumble, with Reg E. Cathey (“The Wire”) as a Don King-like promoter and Stacy Keach as the boxer’s dad/corner man.
As for the genuine article, boxing appears to be on the ropes. The volume on TV remains robust – indeed, you can find fights all over the dial – but as a major-event producer, the sport is reeling. Compared to its heyday, the sweet science clearly has lost much of its luster.
HBO and ESPN carry plenty of fights, but when was the last time something came along to stir the imagination of casual fans? Some excitement has been siphoned away by the mixed-martial arts, which have caught on with younger people. Meanwhile, those weaned on champs from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson haven’t had major heavyweights to stoke interest or many personalities in lower divisions to rival Sugar Ray Leonard, whose larger-than-life shadow not coincidentally looms over “The Fighter.” (Leonard has a small cameo in the movie.)
The irony is that despite its weakened condition, boxing still fascinates screenwriters because of the dramatic possibilities and has probably produced more first-class films than any other sport. It’s just that movies – and now TV, with “Lights Out” – are generally emblematic of the sport’s bigger and better (if often corrupt and melodramatic) days.
All this got me thinking about boxing movies. Everyone has their own favorites, but my criteria balance the quality of the story and the level of ring action, because too many movies (see “Rocky” Nos. II through VI) feature guys blocking haymakers with their faces.
Following those standards eliminates “On the Waterfront” and “The Quiet Man,” great movies that aren’t really about boxing; and “Million Dollar Baby,” a fine drama whose boxing twist, for my money, is too preposterous to make the cut. And just to simplify matters, we’ll exclude documentaries.
With those disclaimers, get ready to go a few rounds with the DVD player. In descending order, here are my top boxing movies (and I welcome feedback on yours):
1. “RAGING BULL” (1980): Not just the best boxing movie ever, but a great film period, with stylish fight scenes and a tremendous performance by Robert De Niro as self-destructive champ Jake LaMotta.
2. “ROCKY” (1976): Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough film worked precisely because it was plausible – a sweet, lovable underdog getting his one shot and surprising an overconfident champion. The movie’s good enough, thankfully, to make amends for the mostly misbegotten sequels that followed.
3. “SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME” (1956): A very young Paul Newman is terrific as middleweight champ Rocky Graziano, with a great supporting cast to boot.
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4. “THE GREAT WHITE HOPE” (1970): James Earl Jones starred as a fictional version of Jack Johnson, the African-American champ whose early 20th-century dominance prompted the search for a you-know-what to defeat him.
5. “CHAMPION” (1949): Mostly a big ol’ soap opera, but you have to admire the fantastic shape Kirk Douglas was in as a hard-on-his-luck kid who becomes first a champion – and then a world-class jerk.
6. “THE HARDER THEY FALL” (1956): Humphrey Bogart stars as a sportswriter hired to promote a poor lug from Argentina who – through a series of dives and fixed fights, in what’s portrayed as a very corrupt fight game – is transformed into a heavyweight contender.
7. “BODY AND SOUL” (1947): John Garfield was one of the great over-actors ever, in another story about a tough kid who funnels his aggression into the grimy world of boxing.
8. “TYSON” (1995)/“DON KING: ONLY IN AMERICA” (1997): Both made for HBO, the two are logical companions. Michael Jai White is just plain uncanny as Mike Tyson, with Ving Rhames perfectly cast as a wonderfully sleazy Don King.
9. “HERE COMES MR. JORDAN" (1941): Although the premise was remade a couple of times (including “Heaven Can Wait,” which switched sports to football), this fantasy about a dead boxer given a second chance is great fun, if forgettable for its ring scenes.
10. “ALI” (2001)/“CINDERELLA MAN" (2005): Two recent additions worth seeing for the lead performances by Will Smith and Russell Crowe, respectively, but neither qualifies as a great movie.
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