Why Hollywood Is Still So Obsessed With Boxing Movies
No sport is better suited for the movies than boxing. The drama is inherent, the characters' intentions clear, the heroes and villains easily identified. Two entertainers dance on an elevated stage and under bright lights. At once vulnerable and comfortable, they trade blows using just their fists. A ring confines the pulpy chaos, and its intermittent breaks—determined by a bell and the crowd's climactic roars—provide pep talks and pampering with water, sponges, Q-tips, and wistful tactics. Trainers smooth and smear lacerations, numbing bruised egos with advice and motivating anecdotes.
Over the course of 12 rounds, a boxer has endured the full spectrum of emotion; each punch and blow to the body retracing a life story, mending a broken past, all of it mediated by an announcer's crescendo through the television or radio. The fights serve as natural culminations to an all-too-familiar trial-and-tribulation narrative, which fosters the visceral, sentimental payoff—a knockout, a kiss, a belt, a raised fist. No wonder Hollywood, much like the bruised boxer in his corner between rounds, rinses and repeats.
The latest installment to provide such testament is Bleed for This, which follows the same, predictable beats the subgenre's forefathers have so dutifully played before it. Based on an improbably true story, the movie, directed by Ben Younger, stars Miles Teller, whose scarred and punchable face makes a convincing top to world champion Vinny Pazienza's highly volatile body. His torso begins clothed in saran wrap, while his legs pump a stationary bike to make weight for a championship bout. After jumping up two weight classes and earning a title, his spine nearly shatters in a car accident, forcing him to undergo Halo surgery, which requires four screws to be drilled into his skull.
The doctor says he may never walk again, but, of course, this is the kind of prognosis that fuels a boxer's road to rehabilitated redemption. Along this journey runs the array of well-traveled tropes—the blue collar Providence, Rhode Island, neighborhood, the workout montage, the family huddled around the TV—with his trainer (Aaron Eckhart) right beside him. But Younger works hard to imbue them with impactful permutations. He narrows the camera's gaze on eyes, hands, glasses, rings, and heightens subjective sounds—ears ringing from a deathly punch in the ring mimicking the enduring blare of a car horn after the fateful crash. He's reminding you how fragile and fleeting a boxer's strength and glory can be, and how desperate Pazienza is to retrieve them.
Bleed for This is the fourth major boxing movie to be released in the last two years, following September's Hands of Stone, a messy movie about Roberto Duran, along with last year's Creed, the brilliant Rocky spinoff, and Southpaw, featuring a ripped Jake Gyllenhaal. More are due soon, too, including Jamie Foxx taking on Mike Tyson and Jeremy Renner embodying Rocky Marciano. A casual, outside observer might presume Hollywood was seizing on a cultural moment—that boxing had regained its pounding heartbeat to rejuvenate the American sports bloodstream—and capitalizing on society's persistent need for pugilistic entertainment. But that, of course, is not the case.
Bleed for This is the fourth major boxing movie to be released in the last two years.
As television ratings and water cooler talk will attest, UFC has replaced the void left in boxing's faceless wake. Mixed martial arts, and more importantly, its polarizing personas, have made its Saturday night fights feel like appointment viewing, delivering the same kind of brutal, bloody pleasure, just inside a cage.
And yet we keep consuming, and retelling, the story—a fighter, two gloves and an opponent. Why, after more than 60 years, do boxing movies persist?
Most commonly associated with Star Wars, The Hero's Journey, popularized by American mythological researcher Joseph Campbell, remains one of the fundamental blueprints for effective storytelling.
It's rare if a boxing movie strays from this timeless narrative structure, which provides the hero an incentive to leave home (a championship fight), offers the hero a guide (a trainer), tests his/her endurance (an injury, a defeat) and watches the hero claim the ultimate reward (a title belt, love) before returning home (roll the credits).
That's not meant to be a simplification of any boxer's path to success. The order of that general progression is often toggled and tangled, and sometimes inverted (a fall from grace can open a film, going the distance and losing can still equal victory). But each of these movies rests comfortably knowing that no matter how predictable the final knockout might be, we're powerless to defend its emotional blow.
The Hero's Journey only works on that emotional level if the movie has laid the appropriate groundwork. That often begins within a boxer's environment, a direct reflection of his upbringing and mindset in the ring. The fighters we inevitably care about lug a chip on their shoulder, carrying the burdens of their working class, forgotten neighborhoods. They represent a community of people—seen in their weathered faces and calloused hands—that has pinned their hopes on David defeating Goliath.
Parochial towns foster a humbleness that's needed when the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, or South Philadelphia migrates to Las Vegas or New York to fight under brighter lights with bigger stakes. Opponents look larger and boast danger—James Braddock must shrug off Max Baer's punch that killed his last opponent in Cinderella Man—but don't have the drive, the checkered past laced with regrets and defeats, to understand the gravity of their adversary.
In the most obvious example, Rocky doesn't train with the latest technologically engineered workout machines or weights. He punches meat carcasses in a freezer. Instead of a track, he hits the streets, striding through rail yards and markets, leading a pack of neighborhood kids through Philadelphia to the cheers of locals. Here, hard, determined work is cherished and eventually rewarded. Like most underdogs, this kind of dedication connects the boxer to his people, who trust his stone and sling in the ring.
In the same vain, winning a boxing match is often far more than an individual achievement. Fighters become surrogates for something greater—a beaten down town, an entire class structure during the Great Depression, a whole country fighting for independence—in which victory amounts to cosmic justice, temporarily giving hope for the future.
They can be as political as Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, in which Daniel Day-Lewis uses boxing as a way to mediate the rising tensions between the Protestant and Catholic divisions within England and Ireland. They can also be as personal as Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, where a father mends a lost relationship with his daughter by training a female boxer with whom he develops a similar bond.
These movies suggest that a primal sport such as boxing offers the most cathartic path towards healing old wounds while ironically creating new ones. A fight is never just a fight. It's a reckoning with the past by being physical in the present. Who wouldn't want a chance in the ring for that?
"People love violence," narrates Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. Directors love filming it, too. Unlike other individual sports, boxing caters to choreography. In The Fighter, David O. Russell opted for an HBO broadcast facsimile, grounding the fight through cable television's perspective. Ryan Coogler conjured something more immediate in Creed, weaving his camera between fighters in a single shot for an entire round, twirling around punches in balletic form. Michael Mann chose multiple angles in Ali, using slow motion to counteract his revered subject's quick feet and unrelenting fists.
And then there is the ugly beauty of the sweat, spit and blood dripping from the nose, down over the mouth and onto the canvas. The sound of the jaw cracking, the mouth guard flying, saliva flying into the light and blurriness that accompanies those crushing blows, or, in the case of Bleed for This, the ear ringing that mutes the crowd's gasps and provides the auditory panic shared with a bulging eye and split-open brow, can become a work of art. These moments tempt you to turn away, but keep you locked in with an innate, guttural fascination.
It is the body's transformation and these inherently re-watchable popcorn-chewing spectacles that influence studios come awards season. It would be too cynical to believe actors sign on to play pugilists for a shiny piece of hardware, but less so to believe that it's a viable route to being taken more seriously—as an actor and human being.
That's mostly because of the immense ab-shredding, muscle-building, weight losing (and gaining) process that's typically required for playing a character whose torso is uncovered for a decent portion of the movie. Gyllenhaal acquired nearly 30 pounds of lean muscle to sell his Southpaw character. Robert De Niro added 60 pounds to his muscled Jake LaMotta for Raging Bull's latter sequences. Oscar nominations from John Garfield to Sylvester Stallone to Denzel Washington to Hillary Swank prove this much to be true.
Need to bulk up the acting resume, and body in general? Hit the gym, grab some gloves and be ready to slap on the gauze.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.