A Brief History Of Boxing Biopics

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There is no sport that has had more movies made about it than boxing – and that’s not including made-for-TV movies such as Tyson and Rocky Marciano. Maybe it’s the passion that surrounds it, the sheet brutality of the sport, the money, the mobsters, the mystery… Whatever it is, it’s brought amazing performances out of the acting profession since cinema first took over our lives way back when. But what makes the sport even more astounding – cinematically, at least – is that so many of the stories the films tell are true. Or, shall we say, are based on the truth. So now that The Fighter has hit the multiplexes, we thought we’d take a look back at boxing biopics gone by to see just how good they were, and how close they stayed to reality…

Director: Raoul Walsh
Star: Errol Flynn playing James ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett (1866-1933)
Awards:** **None, although it did earn an impressive $2 million at the box office

What's the story? Set in 1890s San Francisco, Flynn plays cocksure and charismatic bank teller James Corbett as he’s drawn into the shady world of boxing – still illegal in many states and viewed as a harsh, brutal sport – before a judge, keen to improve the sport’s image, chooses him as a potential poster boy for the more technically accomplished Marquess of Queensberry form of fisticuffs. He swiftly excels at the new version of the sport, helping to popularise it and picking up a handy nickname along the way. Then he takes on well-liked world champ John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) and beats him fair and square. Plus, what with him being Errol Flynn, he’s so damn attractive and beguiling that he also wins sophisticated dame Victoria’s heart (as well as the championship belt).

Real boxing? Errol Flynn was proud of his role, and rightly so. This is one of his finest pictures, helped in no small measure by his dedication in preparing for the fighting scenes. Sure, he used junior welterweight champion ‘Mushy’ Callahan for some of the footwork footage, but the praise should all go to Errol. In fact, he was so dedicated that he suffered a minor heart attack halfway through the shoot, which delayed production for a time. The lesson? See your doctor before tackling any role that involves boxing.

How far from the truth?
Though it’s a rip-roaring, feel good ‘40s classic, it’ll have any boxing history buffs climbing the walls. For one thing, ‘Gentleman Jim’ was self-effacing in reality, not larger-than-life and cocky as shown here; for two, Sullivan and Corbett had fought years before the famed championship fight. To make matters worse, Sullivan hated Corbett, selling the championship belt before Jim could get his hands on it – meaning the emotional meeting between the two after the fight in the film just ain’t true.

Director:** Mark Robson
Star: Humphrey Bogart as journalist-turned-boxing publicist Eddie Willis Awards*:** An Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White

What's the story?** **Sure, it’s not a biopic, but as The Harder They Fall is an only-slightly disguised account of the scandal that was Primo ‘The Ambling Alp’ Carnera’s career, it just about counts. Probably.

Sportswriter Eddie Willis (Bogart in his last screen role) is a respected journalist who’s out of a job after the newspaper he works for closes down. A boxing promoter hires him to publicise his new talent, a lumbering ape of a man called Toro Moreno (Mike Lane playing the Primo Carnera character) who has a featherduster punch and falls over like a broken stepladder at the slightest touch. Somehow, though, Toro keeps winning, and people are making a lot of money off this new ‘contender’ as he makes his name known. The reason why he’s winning so often? All his competitors are being bribed to throw the fights – until heavyweight champ, Buddy Brannen, refuses to play ball, promising to beat nine bells out of Moreno as soon as he enters the ring. Willis now faces a choice: tell Moreno, or let him have it…

Real boxing?** **Well, no, but it does have one thing going for it: the actual heavyweight champion who beat Primo Carnera in real life, Max Baer, plays his equivalent, Buddy Brannen, in the movie version of the real story. But, as it turns out, we’ll be hearing more about him later…

  • How far from the truth?* A full ten rounds, but the parallels were still sufficient for the real Primo Carnera to sue the producers for libel for implying that he was involved with rigged fights. The fictional cover maintained by the makers was enough for the courts, however, and Primo’s case was dismissed. Still, many historians believe that Carnera’s career was based around managers fixing fights and that Primo remained unaware of it.

Director: Robert Wise
Star:** Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano (1919–1990)
Awards:* **Two Oscars (Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Art Direction)

What's the story?** **Rocky Graziano had one hell of a childhood. A street hoodlum growing up in New York, he boasted a bad attitude and an underage rap sheet that would make the most forgiving mother weep. He wound up at reform school, then prison, then, via the draft, in khaki. He deserted (punching an officer in the process), changing his name (from Barbella to Graziano), before being tracked down by his army superiors and being dishonourably discharged. After all that, boxing and folk hero status – eventually – awaited him.

Then, alas, things get a little trickier for Rocky as his past catches up with him. Ex-cons threaten to reveal his shady history to the world, his New York boxing license is revoked, and his only shot at winning it all back is a title fight with champion Tony Zale far away in Chicago. Can he do it? You betcha, especially with the help of his wife Norma (Pier Angeli), a nice, shy, pretty girl and friend of his sister’s; yes indeed, Norma is the direct inspiration for Rocky Balboa’s Adrian. Also, while we’re on trivia here, the role of Graziano was originally set for James Dean, but his fatal car crash happened months before production started – allowing Newman his last shot at the big time after the box office bomb that was The Silver Chalice.

  • Real boxing?* It’s directed by Robert Wise, who previously brought us another boxing classic in the form of The Set-Up (1949), so the boxing is top notch. Plus, Paul Newman – never a man afraid to get his hands dirty – really threw himself into the role, spending a lot of time with the real Graziano, as well as training at his New York gym. He also sparred with the real Tony Zale, who was going to play himself in the movie until he hit Paul Newman a little too hard. Boxers, eh?

How far from the truth? Well, it sticks close to Graziano’s autobiography – written with journalist Rowland Barber – but dwells too long on his tough youth. Overall, though, it’s an uncontroversial adaptation of the great fighter’s life story.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta (1921–)
Awards: Two Oscars (Best Actor in a Leading Role for Robert De Niro; Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker), as well as nominations for just about everything else.

What's the story? Bookended by an overweight, frustrated Jake LaMotta practising a comedy routine in the changing room of a nightclub in1964, Raging Bull tells the tale of the one-time middleweight boxing champ from his first loss in 1941 (against Jimmy Reeves) to 1958, when he’s finally been forgiven by his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci) and his wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) has divorced him.

Over the course of the film, LaMotta is portrayed as an angry, aggressive, jealous man who despite his success in the ring manages to screw his life up royally. He alienates his brother and best friend Joey, constantly suspects his wife Vickie of adultery – accusing both his brother and mob members of sleeping with her – before starting a downward spiral that ends with his loss to long-time rival Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951.

Real boxing? We only ever see ten minutes of fighting, but Scorsese was meticulous in maintaining authenticity, going to Madison Square Garden as research and running six weeks over schedule to ensure perfect in-ring shots. He even used just one camera so it felt like the “third fighter”. De Niro suffered too, enduring over a thousand rounds of training with the real La Motta, who believed De Niro really could have been a contender. Honesly. No joke.

How far from the truth?** **Not too far. The Joey character is an amalgamation of the man himself and one of Jake’s friends Peter Savage (who co-wrote Jake’s autobiography, which the film itself is based on). There were other, minor changes – the “On The Waterfront” speech was originally an excerpt from Richard III, but Scorsese thought it was too un-American – but if you thought the director went easy on his volatile lead character, you’d be wrong. Reportedly when LaMotta saw the film, it dawned on him how horrible he’d been, asking the real Vickie: "Was I really like that?" Her response? "You were worse.”

Director: Ron Howard
Star: Russell Crowe as James J. Braddock (1905 –1974)
Awards:** **Three Oscar nominations for Editing, Make-Up and Actor In A Supporting Role (Paul Giamatti)

What's the story?** *You want rags-to-riches? We’ve got rags-to-riches… and then some. James J. Braddock (Crowe) is a one-time boxer who’s quit the sport after breaking his hand. His wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), is glad he’s stopped, but knows they’ll have far less money with James now forced to do manual labour instead. Then the Great Depression begins, and things look really* bad. Work dries up, and when his old manager asks him to step into the ring for a one-off bout against the world number two – essentially to get beaten to a pulp for money – he has to accept. Then, against all odds, he wallops him one in the third round and knocks him clean out.

Mae disapproves (strongly), but Braddock believes his hand is back in action, and starts a comeback – a comeback so successful he’s soon offered the chance to fight world champion Max Baer (him again). Baer has a reputation as a fearsome, bloody fighter, which leaves Mae unable to watch the match, or even listen to it on the radio. Can James beat him? Well, put it this way: it all ends happily.

Real boxing? Pretty darn close. Professionals were hired to ‘fight’ Crowe and were told to land their blows as close as possible: so close, as it turned out, that Crowe suffered several concussions, a few cracked teeth, and even a dislocated shoulder, an injury that delayed shooting for two months.

How far from the truth? Naturally liberties are taken in any biopic: anecdotes are cherry-picked; difficult moments dodged; areas highlighted. But the portrayal of Max ‘big baddo’ Baer angered so many sports historians that it may have crossed the line. In the film he’s a vicious thug, and is said to have killed two men in the ring (whereas in reality it was only, um, one). Plus, he was also known for his gentle nature, not for being a complete monster. Hmm.

Director:** Norman Jewison
Star: Denzel Washington as Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter (1937–) Awards:* **Nominated for one Oscar (Best Actor in a Leading Role, Denzel Washington) and won a Golden Globe in the same category.

What's the story?** **The story of Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter is not your typical boxing movie, Sure, there’s the uplifting ending, initial success, trials (literally) and tribulations, but in reality it’s a character piece based around Denzel’s powerhouse performance of a man wrongly convicted for a triple murder – a conviction that kept him in jail for nearly 20 years, despite Bob Dylan writing a song about him:

"They're gonna put his ass in stir. They're gonna pin this triple muuuh-durgh / On him / He ain't no Gentleman Jim!"

The story that runs alongside it all is that of a young boy from Brooklyn, Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), trying his damndest to get his hero out of jail, eventually succeeding after asking his adoptive Canadian guardians to help out.

Real boxing? Not really: we don’t see much boxing except for early on, and it isn't that good. But as this is an angry young man to philosophical mid-lifer emotional arc movie, the boxing, dare we say it, doesn’t much matter. Still, Washington trained for a year with a boxing coach, so a big tip of the head protector to him for that.

How far from the truth? How much time have you got? This may well be a fine film, a movie with important points to make about racism, injustice and the establishment, but so much is glossed over or omitted that it barely withstands scrutiny. For example: Carter actually served four years in prison prior to the events shown (for three muggings); there was no speech from Carter in the courtroom when his conviction was overturned; he was only released when proof of poor police evidence-handling came to light, rather than proof of innocence; oh, and he had four years out of jail between the two convictions. He wasn’t a military hero, either – he was dishonourably discharged. And another thing: Joey Giardello, the boxer he was shown fighting, sued for his poor depiction in the movie, forcing the director to make a statement on the DVD version that said: "Giardello no doubt was a great fighter.”

Director:** Michael Mann
Star:* Will Smith as Cassius Clay Jr. / Cassius X / Muhammad Ali (1942–)
Awards:* **Two Oscar nominations for Best Actor In A Leading Role (Will Smith) and Best Actor In A Supporting Role (Jon Voight)

What's the story?** **Ali’s amazing story has been covered before in documentary form, both in the highly excellent When We Were Kings and the slightly-less-good The Greatest, but Mann and Smith’s Ali is the first feature-length biopic about the great man. And as this is Ali we’re talking about, it has to cover a huge amount because of his truly extraordinary life.

There’s his outspoken entrance onto the boxing scene, his astounding talent, his style, his manner, his way of speaking, fighting and living, his conversion to Islam, his friendship with Malcolm X, his fight for African-American rights, his refusal to fight in Vietnam (and his subsequent ban from boxing for four years), his legal fight to return to the sport, and his eventual comeback and rope-a-dope knockout of George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle. Ph-ew. Ali lived a very busy life back then, and it’s a very driven Will Smith that attempts to fit in his very big boots.

Real boxing?* Mann and the film’s producers were exceptionally proud of the quality of boxing in Ali. For starters, Smith trained seven hours a day, and sparred with professional heavyweights. In fact, only Charles Shufford (the man who plays George Foreman) was told to hold back, but otherwise, Smith took it like a man.
*How far from the truth?* It does a pretty good job at staying faithful to what actually happened – and considering the amount of attention and analysis the Greatest has received over the years, it’s no surprise. With Ali, though, there’s just no need to make it up. That said, a white butterfly didn’t really appear after Ali knocked out Foreman. Just in case you were wondering.