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Raging Bull
Raging Bull

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

By Joshua Rothkopf and Time Out contributors
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Pounding out aggression on the canvas and into our hearts, the best boxing movies capture a private sense of poetry in the most unlikely of places. A decent boxing film that spends time on training and tactics—something like Raging Bull or Rocky—always has a shot at becoming one of the best action movies ever. A handful of the movies on this list “went the distance,” all the way to the Academy Awards, but even if they didn’t, they dance and jab with the best movies of all time. A new boxing drama, Hands of Stone, about notorious champ Roberto Durán (played by Carlos’s Edgar Ramírez), is now in theaters; start with these films for a fuller dramatic experience.

Best boxing movies

1. Rocky (1976)

Movies Action and adventure

Written by its star (who shrewdly insisted that he himself play the lead), this Oscar-winning hit is the ne plus ultra of underdog movies, the story of every guy who’s been pegged a loser so many times that he believes it. Then Bill Conti’s iconic score kicks in and, suddenly, Rocky Balboa becomes a symbol for finding the true winner in all of us. It’s a Cinderella story pumped up to perfection, the kind that gets you out of your seat and cheering the way real athletic events do.

2. Raging Bull (1980)

Movies

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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3. When We Were Kings (1996)

Movies Documentary

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.

4. Fat City (1972)

Movies Drama

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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5. Ali (2001)

Movies Drama

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.

Sports movies: Undisputed (2002)

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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7. Creed (2015)

Movies Drama

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.

8. The Set-Up (1949)

Movies

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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9. The Fighter (2010)

Movies

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.

10. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Movies Drama

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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