In My Opinion: The Five Greatest Boxing Films of All-Time

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter
Photo: Paramoun Pictures

One of the top Oscar hopefuls this year is The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. It’s the story of Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his stepbrother Dickie Eklund (played by Christian Bale) from Boston, MA. For those of you who don’t know, Irish Micky Ward was a light welterweight contender best known for his three exciting bouts with the late great Arturo Gatti. Eklund was a fighter as well and once sent Sugar Ray Leonard to the canvas before succumbing to a serious crack habit that derailed his career. The film is directed by one of my favorite directors David O. Russell (Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster) and along with Wahlberg and Bale, the film also features Amy Adams and the underrated Melissa Leo.

Boxing pics have historically been a tough sell, but I have high hopes for this one. Wahlberg worked his ass off to make The Fighter happen. Mark is a true boxing aficionado and often comes to the Wild Card Gym where I work out at here in Hollywood. Another Bostonian, Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach runs the Wild Card. The gym started out in Mickey Rourke’s loft before moving to its present location so there has been a lot of Oscar talk at the gym in recent years.

This year could be a banner year for the Wild Card with Wahlberg in the running for a Best Actor nom along with another good friend of the gym, Robert Duvall. I have not seen The Fighter but the early word is very good. According to some folks I’ve already talked to, Wahlberg definitely has a shot and Bale is all but a shoo in. So in honor of The Fighter, here are my top five greatest boxing films of all time.

Fat City

One of the last films directed by the late, great John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of Sierra Madre, The African Queen). It stars a young Jeff Bridges and an underrated Stacy Keach, and this film is as real as it gets. Some people are going to argue with this one. I don’t care. Fat City is a terrific film.

Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, loved the film and John Huston’s direction. He wrote, “This is grim material but Fat City is too full of life to be as truly dire as it sounds. Ernie and Tully, along with Oma (Susan Tyrrell who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film), the sherry-drinking barfly Tully shacks up with for a while, the small-time fight managers, the other boxers and assorted countermen, upholsterers, and lettuce pickers whom the film encounters en route, are presented with such stunning and sometimes comic accuracy that Fat City transcends its own apparent gloom.”

Fat City isn’t for everyone. But if you ever wondered why so many people rave about the early career of Jeff Bridges this is one of the films you should definitely check out — along with Bad Company, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Lolly Madonna War and numerous others.

When We Were Kings

The true story of the Foreman-Ali Rumble in the Jungle. This may have been the zenith of boxing as we know it. This is Muhammad Ali in his prime. The most famous and popular athlete of his generation. Not just in the US, but around the world. Fighting the man no one thought could be beat. The best scene in the movie shows Ali walking around the slums of Kinshasa in the immediate aftermath of the fight. Without a single bodyguard. He doesn’t need one. He is a real life Superman who fears no one, not the seemingly unbeatable George Foremen or the people inhabiting the most crime ridden neighborhoods in the world.

Leon Gast‘s feature doc captures every moment of this spectacle and Gast ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary for his efforts. If you haven’t seen this film you really should. When We Were Kings shows definitively why Ali is such a transformational figure to this day.

Body and Soul

John Garfield plays Charley Davis. A fighter who needs a little help from some friends to win the title. Body and Soul is very much a picture of its time. An era when the mob ran boxing and every fighter had to play along to get a title fight. The story has been told many times since, but never better. It is often considered the first great boxing picture although the original version of The Champ with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper had already been nominated for Best Picture in 1931.

Garfield got an Oscar nom for his role, Abraham Polonsky was nominated for his script and the film won for best editing. Polonsky later directed the cult classic Force of Evil also with Garfield before being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Body and Soul had one of the best closing lines in film history when Garfield snarls at his former handlers, “Everybody dies.” Then the end credits roll.


Whatever you say about Sylvester Stallone, and a lot of people do, he wrote one of the greatest scripts of all time. Loosely based on Muhammad Ali’s fight with Chuck Wepner, Rocky is pretty much a perfect movie. Stallone was the right choice to play the washed up palooka from Philly and smart enough to insist the studio use him.

I could go on and on about this film. The casting, (Burgess Meredith, Burt Young and Jason Schwartzman’s Mom are all wonderful) the gritty way it was filmed, the soundtrack that would have been completely hokey in any film other than the tale of an outlier who finally catches the brass ring. But why go on? It’s Rocky. Like my choice for #1, it won the Oscar for Best Picture. And it’s the blueprint for almost every sports movie that has been made since it came out. Enough said.

On The Waterfront

One day I asked Freddie and the guys at the gym what their choice was for the greatest boxing movie of all time. I was surprised when they almost unanimously voted for On The Waterfront. Not because it isn’t a great movie. It’s just I’d never thought of it as a boxing movie. But they were right. It is a boxing film.

In Elia Kazan‘s classic Marlon Brando plays former middleweight Terry Malloy. Lee J. Cobb plays what I consider to be the greatest villain in cinema history, mob boss “Johnny Friendly”. Rod Steiger plays Terry’s brother and the unbelievably sexy Eva Marie Saint plays the girl. Directed by the Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg during a period when they could do no wrong. On The Waterfront won the Academy Award for best picture. Deservedly so.

Honorable MentionRaging Bull, Requiem For A Heavyweight, Hard Times. Great films all. Just not worthy of the top five in my opinion. But I’d love to hear what the audience thinks.

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