Creed
"Creed"

The 10 best boxing movies of all time

Hit the heavy bag and perfect your rope-a-dope with our ranked list of the best boxing movies of all time

Matthew Singer
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It’s called ‘the sweet science’, an odd nickname for a sport where the goal is to punch your opponent unconscious. But there’s something compelling about boxing that has kept filmmakers, in particular, coming back to it for decades, even as its position in popular culture has waned. Obviously, there’s the gladiatorial aspect – two individuals locked in combat, essentially bare but for their gloves and attire, duking it out in the vaunted squared circle for a ravenous crowd. Within that framework, there is a wealth of human stories to be told: about winners and losers, the has-beens and the shoulda-beens and the never was, underdogs and sure things. And in the great films, you really don’t have to know anything about the sport to get drawn into those stories. These are ten of the absolute best examples.

Best boxing movies

  • Film
  • Action and adventure
Rocky (1976)
Rocky (1976)

A movie so iconic it inspired the city of Philadelphia to erect a statue in honour of a fictional athlete. It’s a testament to just how real Sylvester Stallone’s unlikely breakthrough as a writer-director-actor feels, and to the believability he brings to the role of Rocky Balboa himself. A mumbly meathead with a heart of gold and fists like frozen beef, he embodies the self-doubt of every working-class palooka who’s been told he’ll never amount to nothin’ – until, of course, he’s given the opportunity of a lifetime. Even if you’ve seen it a million times, or simply absorbed it via osmosis from the countless underdog tales that follow the same beats, once ‘Gonna Fly Now’ hits the soundtrack, only the sourest cynic remains stuck to their seat. 

  • Film
Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorsese’s evocative black-and-white biopic about real-life brawler Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is an intensely physical movie, tracing with operatic grandeur its protagonist’s life from volatile middleweight contender to an obese has-been. The punches land hard in and out of the ring—LaMotta’s confrontations with his long-suffering wife (Cathy Moriarty) and loyal-to-a-fault brother (Joe Pesci) often seem bloodier than any of the astonishingly visceral slugfests.

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  • Film
  • Documentaries
When We Were Kings (1996)
When We Were Kings (1996)

Blessed with total access to what would be a seismic, symbolic event, documentary director Leon Gast headed to Zaire, Africa, to capture 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” the apotheosis of Muhammad Ali’s legend. Ali’s connection with crowds of cheering Zaireans became a spiritual bond, one that turned him into a global icon of pride and power.

  • Film
  • Drama
Fat City (1972)
Fat City (1972)

In John Huston’s engrossing drama, Stacy Keach plays a past-his-prime boxer who acts as both mentor and rival to cocky up-and-comer Jeff Bridges. The ensemble is stellar—especially Susan Tyrrell as a belligerent barfly—and ace cinematographer Conrad L. Hall brings out the seedy poetry of the back-alley California setting.

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  • Film
  • Drama
Ali (2001)
Ali (2001)

Michael Mann’s biopic proudly refuses to demystify its subject (played by a transformed Will Smith), as if constantly whispering in our ear: This man really did these things. While the movie suffers from a few tired narrative turns (much of Ali’s life may be storybook-perfect, but we expect more grit), the fight scenes are terrific: brutal, kinetic and purely expressive.

6. Undisputed (2002)

Fueled by a scrappy, improvisatory energy, this prison-set boxing drama pits a recently incarcerated heavyweight champ (Ving Rhames) against a yard favorite (Wesley Snipes). Apart from the imminent clash of fists and egos, there’s a fascinating side plot concerning promotion, masterminded by elderly con Peter Falk in one of his craftiest turns.

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  • Film
  • Drama
Creed (2015)
Creed (2015)

What a wonderful surprise: a new Rocky movie that returns the steroid-pumped series back to the street poetry of its humble 1976 beginnings. Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler sharpens his fandom of the original film into electrifying homage, while giving Sylvester Stallone the finest, subtlest round of his career, the performance he’ll be remembered by.

  • Film
The Set-Up (1949)
The Set-Up (1949)

Before shooting Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese gave this influential movie a spin or two. Robert Ryan is an over-the-hill boxer who must either throw his last fight or risk a cement-shoe trip to Palookaville. This is the kind of resourceful, no-budget noir craft that still prompts film lovers to bow down to RKO, despite all the crap the studio gave Orson Welles.

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  • Film
The Fighter (2010)
The Fighter (2010)

Using vintage Betamax cameras and hiring veteran cable-sports crews to replicate the look of HBO’s mid-’90s boxing matches, David O. Russell adds a level of period-perfect verisimilitude to this biopic on welterweight champ Micky Ward. The stoic Boston brawler is played, punch for punch, by Mark Wahlberg, who personally nurtured the project for years.

  • Film
  • Drama
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)

When white-trash dreamer Hilary Swank wanders into wise old trainer Clint Eastwood’s backstreet gym, another Rocky fairytale looms, yet this modern fable takes us into darker territory—the perilous lure of success and the impassable road to redemption. As a performer, Eastwood himself digs deep.

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