Jake Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw hits theaters on Friday, and the star’s preparation for his turn as fictional boxer Billy Hope has already caught media attention. His physical transformation alone is impressive (he’s fast securing a place for himself in the Hollywood weight yo-yo-ers Hall of Fame), but his overall performance will ultimately be judged not just on if he looks like a boxer and delivers a dramatic turn that delivers on the body blows, it will also be based on if Southpaw can show the proper respect to boxing and boxers, and feel authentic within its fight scenes.
With that in mind, it seemed like a good time to examine some of the most accurate and iconic boxing films in memory. The judges? Boxing’s own – trainers, analysts, and even the subjects themselves.
What 1980’s Raging Bull had working for it is obvious: Robert De Niro‘s Oscar-winning turn as “The Bronx Bull” Jake LaMotta, Martin Scorsese at the helm, and a hands-on subject. LaMotta (who is still kicking at age 94) coached and sparred with De Niro while filming the biopic about his life as a middleweight boxing champion. The former athlete spent an entire year working out with De Niro in Manhattan’s famed Gramercy Gym.
“I guess, in the first six months, we boxed a thousand rounds, a half hour-straight every day,” LaMotta told ESPN’s Page 2. In fact, LaMotta was so impressed with De Niro’s transformation that he scheduled three professional fights for him, of which the actor won two.
While Scorsese’s award-winning film was completely in black and white, and many of the fight scenes were filmed with weird, artsy angles, the nuts and bolts of LaMotta’s in-the-ring style were evident.
De Niro captured LaMotta’s well known ability to stay vertical, even while taking some serious hits, and was clearly conscious of the boxer’s fight style – note all those roundhouses and the “crab”-like shuffle. The 12 fights depicted were choreographed with intense detail, with LaMotta consulting. While some of the nasty body sound effects were overwrought, Raging Bull pleased its subject. What more can you ask for?
As for today’s experts? When forced to choose between Rocky and Raging Bull in a Q&A, boxing commentator Max Kellerman‘s answer came easily.
“Raging Bull is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Michael Mann’s 2001 film Ali, about Muhammad Ali, may place more attention on the boxer’s personal life and struggles, but when they take it to the ring, oh boy do they take it. Will Smith was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of The Greatest, and rightfully so. He’s so attentive to the boxer’s rope-a-dope tactic used in the famed Rumble in the Jungle that trainer Darrell Foster, who’s worked with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, challenges doubters to watch the fight and the movie recreation side-by-side.
“The most authentic boxing movie I’ve seen is Ali. I want you to be able to slow my films down. I dare you to find a miss. Watch the Rumble in the Jungle, frame by frame. You’ll be there all day trying to find a disparity,” Foster told Men’s Journal of the fight sequences he carefully choreographed. Foster even told the mag he had to un-train the professional boxers who took on roles in the film. Superheavyweight Charles Shufford, who played George Foreman, had to be taught how to fight more like the grill creator.
Bill Simmons best sums up the sheer impressive nature of the fight’s accurate portrayal in Ali.
“A number of punches make you think, ‘How the hell did they film that?’ and, ‘Wait a second, that actually landed!’ During the climactic Foreman fight, some punches land with such force that you can see the actors’ faces crumble and shake. Again, it’s amazing to watch.”
While there are definitely discrepancies in the numbers of The Fighter (real vs. reel records and weigh-in totals), much like the proceeding movies, the accuracy of David O. Russell’s story about Massachusetts brawler Micky Ward lies in its leading star. Mark Wahlberg put big money behind his role as Ward, hiring Hall of Famer Freddie Roach to train him and turn him into the WBU Light Welterweight Champion.
But Wahlberg still wasn’t satisfied. He lived with Ward in attempt to really tap into his mannerisms in the ring.
“Dicky and I moved in with Mark for a while,” Ward told the Mirror. “He watched me every day to get my mannerisms. Mark trained so hard – I think he could fight for real if he wanted. He’s got a great left and strong chin. We sparred a bit, and he gave me a good uppercut! Christian was amazing, too. We’ve all gotten to be friends.”
High points of Marky Mark’s portrayal? His take outs of Sanchez and Neary. Specifically the Neary fight, as he allows himself to get beaten down before scoring a knockout.