There’s a scene in Rocky when, the night before his big fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa takes a walk, unable to sleep, and visits the arena where he’s going to fight Creed for the first time. He comes home to Adrian and confides to her that can’t do it, that he can’t beat Creed. But, he says, it doesn’t matter: “All I want to do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, seeing that bell ring, and I’m still standing, I’m going to know for the first time in my life, that I’m not just another bum from the neighborhood.”
That line right there; that’s what makes Rocky so beloved. It’s why the film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s why it spawned five sequels, with a seventh film in the franchise, Creed, coming out this November.
Plenty of articles have been written about why American boxing is a dying sport; just Google it. The reasons are legion: from the rise of the fast-paced Ultimate Fighting Championship to the lack of consistent mainstream news coverage to international competition from other countries such as Poland, Russia, Germany and England to the absence of real stars to sheer greed.
But the thing that boxing lost — that made it one of America’s premiere sports for decades, one that defined America right up there with baseball — is that it used to have heart.
Overly promoted as the “Fight of the Century,” the May 2 Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao fight was more than five years in the making. Fans worldwide clamored to see the two duke it out in the ring with 4.4 million pay-per-view buys at $100 a pop — more than any other fight previously — and a few paid between $1,200 and $7,500 to see the fight live at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The fight ended with very little fanfare as Mayweather was declared victor, predictably. To make matters worse, it was revealed after the fight that Pacquiao knowingly fought with a damaged shoulder, leaving fans feeling cheated.
In the case of most boxing films, however, we rarely leave the theater disappointed. That’s because Hollywood knows what its fans want out of those movies – and in sports movies generally — an inspiring tale of an underdog who overcomes the odds, who struggles, who defines victory for himself in a way that might not include “winning.” More importantly, we want it to win our hearts.
There are almost 200 movies about boxing, which means that more movies have been made about the sport than any other. By the time 2016 rolls around, four more boxing films will hit the theaters — Bleed For This, Hands of Stone, Creed and the recently-released Jake Gyllenhaal drama Southpaw.
As with their predecessors, these films will most likely tell good stories about characters we care about. And in two cases — Bleed for This and Hands of Stone — they are based on true stories that took place during what many consider the last days of boxing’s supposed golden age, the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Looking back at American professional boxing’s 100-plus-year history, names such as Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jack Dempsey and, of course, Muhammad Ali, permeate the sport’s rich and often controversial past. Even Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield invoke a sense of greatness when it comes to the sport. But the glory days of boxing seem to be behind us, thanks in part, to Tyson himself.
Tyson dominated the ring in the late ‘80s. The odd collision of his quiet, child-like voice and heavy lisp and that once-in-a-generation combination of speed and power helped make him a media sensation. Virtually every comedian on the planet had their own brand of Mike Tyson impersonation. And when Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was released on the Nintendo gaming system in 1987, it sold more than two million copies. And then there’s the whole ear-biting thing. If it’s one thing the man knew how to do it was how to put on a show.
Then came Tyson’s conviction and incarceration for rape. As boxing’s last, true golden boy faded from the limelight, so did the sport.
But the movies about boxing kept coming, retelling true stories from the sport’s better days – stories about heroes who fought for more than just money and fame. Cinderella Man, The Fighter, Ali, and The Hurricane. There were even boxing movies about women in the ring like Girlfight and Million Dollar Baby. Hollywood loves formulas — witness the current vogue of superhero movies — and boxing gave filmmakers a mostly bulletproof set of rules to follow: Desperate hero, tarnished but noble, with more heart than skill, who wants to use his fists to achieve what society would not grant: control over his or her own destiny and a sense of worth.
To make a film about boxing is to craft a metaphor about life — the ups and downs, the punches life throws at you, the determination to keep going, to get back up, the million-to-one-shots. Though the future of professional boxing in America is unclear, it’s doubtful the sport will ever truly die. It is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that unless the “Sweet Science” finds a LeBron James-level star, it will just continue to limp along the way it has for the past twenty years or so.
As a recent New York Times article noted, white, middle-class kids don’t go into boxing. Boxing is for poor kids who have no other way to make ends meet, who are hungry for a shot at the big time. It’s most likely there are some good stories to be mined, some potential boxing heroes that could emerge should the boxing industry choose to focus less on the money and more on the heart and soul of a champion.
Sounds like the makings of a good boxing movie, huh?
Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He’s written for The Atlantic, Slate, Paste Magazine, Tablet Magazine, The Week and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.