Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (Screenshot: What Makes A Great Boxing Movie?/Vimeo)

There are plenty of movies about pretty much every popular sport, enough to fill a whole section of a video store if there were still video stores. But perhaps no sport, not even baseball, has fired the imagination of filmmakers quite the way boxing does, from Champion to Ali to Creed. What sets boxing apart? For one thing, the sport is as basic as it can be. Jerry Seinfeld once called boxing “the simplest, stupidest sport of all. It’s almost as if these two guys are just desperate to compete with each other, but they couldn’t think of a sport. So they said, ‘Why don’t we just pound each other for 45 minutes? Maybe someone will come watch that.’” And they have, for decades. Nelson Carvajal analyzes the history and purpose of pugilistic cinema in a video essay for Fandor Keyframe called “What Makes A Great Boxing Movie?” It’s supplemented by a text-based essay here as well.

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What Makes a Great Boxing Movie? from Fandor Keyframe on Vimeo.

As the video shows, boxing was pretty much treated as a novelty in films until Alfred Hitchcock’s silent The Ring from 1927, a “much more substantial” film about a boxer and his struggles in and out of the ring. From there, the boxer became a universally recognized archetype in film history, a lone warrior struggling against the odds. This is something everyone in the audience can relate to. Eventually, says Carvajal, movie boxers came to be metaphors for the fight against social injustice, and boxing films tended to focus on issues of racism and class warfare. The video cites Ali, Million Dollar Baby, and The Fighter as examples. The essay also analyzes how boxing itself has been depicted over the years. The Fighter opts for a fuzzy look that replicates vintage television broadcasts. Creed adds to the drama in the form of long takes.

Curiously, the most iconic boxing movie of all, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, skips a lot of the conventions of the boxing genre. There’s no training montage, nor even a climactic fight at the end. The film is really about “the long struggle of life,” says Carvajal. The most famous montage in the film is more about the passage of time, simply using Jake LaMotta’s fights as signposts along the way.


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