WAIL! | The CBZ Journal | February 2004

Boxing on the Big Screen

By Tom Donelson

Boxing, along with baseball, has produced some of Hollywood's better sport movies. The drama of one-on-one competition has the potential of producing conflict and action sequences that can be both inspiring and exhilarating. Boxing is in many ways our version of modern-day gladiator-warriors who fight and bleed for the satisfaction of a bloodthirsty crowd. Boxing is also the sport in which the combatants are the most exploited, and this too has been the staple of Hollywood movies.

When Chuck Wepner fought Muhammad Ali, in the audience was an aspiring actor named Sylvester Stallone. Wepner, accurately nicknamed the Bayonne Bleeder, extended the great Ali to 15 rounds before being stopped. Ali even ended up on his butt during the fight, and Wepner withstood every Ali onslaught and gave Ali more than he'd bargained for. Stallone based Rocky Balboa on Wepner.

Rocky is the story of the underdog fighter who fights the fight of his life and inspires even in defeat. Rocky Balboa is a down-on-his-luck southpaw who works at the local meat factory, occasionally does some strong-arm tactics for the local mob, and is allowed to trained at a local club. Apollo Creed, the Ali look-alike, picks Balboa for his next big fight, as part of a Fourth of July special.

In the opening scene, Balboa beats up on some club fighter for a measly purse, and after the fight, both men share a smoke in the locker room -- showing the underside of boxing, where $50 purses are the rule, and glamour does not exist. Balboa is a fighter whose talent had long been wasted, and when he is picked for the championship fight, it is his last chance for redemption. Boxing has historically been filled with fighters looking for redemption for past sins. James Toney's recent victory over Vasiliy Jirov is one example, as Toney, once of the best pound-for-pound fighter, lost his glitter after losing to Roy Jones Jr. in 1994. For nearly a decade, Toney fought in boxing netherworld and often far from the view of the fighting public, until he defeated Jirov at the age of 34. Rocky could have been a good fighter, but he's fighting in small clubs for small fees, far away from an adoring public.

Throw in a love story with Adrian, Rocky's plain-looking girlfriend played by Talia Shire, and you have the potential for the ultimate David-and-Goliath movie. We watch as Balboa decides that he wants to train and give this fight all he has left. There will be nothing left. Watching Rocky get up for his early morning run and watching him diet, we become wrapped up in Rocky's quest. When he runs up the stairs at the Philadelphia Art Museum, we all applaud. Rocky actually believes that he can win, but on the night before the fight, he is brought to earth, as the promoter tells him, "You will put on a good show." Rocky realizes then that he has no chance, but what he has is courage to face the inevitable. The fight is a brutal affair, as both men whack each other. Creed wins the decision, but Rocky's pride is restored. While Stallone would go on to create four more Rocky movies, this was the best and should have been the last. Like Wepner in real life, Rocky put on a show, and the movie ended the way it should have.

Girlfight is the female version of Rocky. Karen Kusama directs this independent film, and you feel the grittiness of training in a small local boxing club. Most of these fighters, including Diana's boyfriend, look for boxing to provide their way out. Adrian, Diana's boyfriend, has his pro career mapped out, and for Diana, boxing is the release of her everyday life of an abusive father and a school life marred by boredom. The actual training in the club and the actual fight scenes portray a realism that has you feeling each and every punch delivered. The best part of the film is the fight scenes.

Diana is a sullen person, a female version of Mike Tyson, but in the ring she finds the escape from everyday life. I must admit I find the late scene in which she beats her boyfriend for the amateur championship unbelievable, but it leads to a final scene. For Adrian, this is the one fight he does not want, as he is forced to fight the woman he loves. But to win would mean another step in his professional career. A loss could end it, and in the end, Adrian looks at his boxing career, which is in shambles after his loss to Diana in the championship fight. The boxing scenes in Girlfight are worth the price of admission.

The Harder they Fall shows 1950s America a glimpse of the truth about the sport they fell in love with. In the '50s, boxing was a staple on TV, and all of America tuned in to Friday night at the Fights. The mob controlled boxing in the '50s, and in The Harder they Fall, we see Nick Benko, played by Rod Steiger, exploiting his Argentinean heavyweight Toto Moreno. Humphrey Bogart, in his last role, plays Eddie Willis, an unemployed sportswriter. His job is to be the swill for Toto, and to promote Toto as the next great heavyweight. But in reality, Toto is a mediocre fighter who can only win through manipulation of fight results. Translation: His fights are fixed.

Based on the Bud Shulberg novel, The Harder they Fall is a fictional account of the Italian heavyweight champion Primo Carnera. In his biography of Jack Dempsey, Roger Kahn noted that many boxing promoters had sportswriters on their payroll, and Eddie Willis was possibly based on some truth. At the end, Willis realizes that Benko is basically going to steal all of Toto's income. As for Toto, before the big fight, he is told the truth: All of his big fights are fixed. The point is hammered home when Jersey Joe Walcott, playing his Toto trainer, nails Toto with a left hook while countering Toto's wild right.

Toto realizes as he steps into the ring that he has no chance, but he fights with courage. His defeat is preordained, and there are no last-second miracles. As for Willis, he becomes a crusader to clean up boxing, and he turns over all of his earnings to Toto as Toto leaves for Argentina. Toto is finished with boxing.

Requiem for a Heavyweight is a dark movie portraying the bitter end of a heavyweight career. Mountain Rivera was a top-notch contender, and Anthony Quinn's portrayal of a fighter at the end of his career is magnificent. You find yourself believing Quinn was an ex-fighter. Rivera is a man of courage and principle, a man of loyalty but a gentle soul. His slurred voice and puffy face show the scars of a lifetime of beatings. The contrast to Quinn is his manager of 17 years, Maish, played by Jackie Gleason. Gleason was a brilliant actor whose talent was underestimated and underappreciated. Forever remembered as Ralph Kramden, Gleason was an even better dramatic actor, and his portrayal of the corrupt manager is contrasted to the nobler Mountain Rivera. Maish is a man between a rock and a hard place. Gambling debts are leading him to make decisions that aren't in the best interests of his fighter, and even he feels bad for his final betrayal of his charge. He can't save himself from his choices. Rivera is a failure outside the ring, and every attempt by his job councilor to find him a suitable job fails, because his only desire is to fight, and that's all he knows.

The last scene is the ultimate humiliation, as Mountain Rivera, dressed as an Indian, marches into a wrestling match, as he has now become the latest attraction on the professional-wrestling scene. He leaves a sport that was considered real‹but that on occasion could be as fixed as professional wrestling, because of mob influence‹to a sport where everyone knows the results are predetermined. In boxing, we try to believe that all fights are real, and that corruption cannot taint the purest of sports, but we know that it does. In the '50s, Hollywood treated boxing as a sport corrupted by the mob. But boxing could make its warriors the most noble of sportsmen, men who still try to play it straight in a world in which they are manipulated.

As Paul Simon wrote in his song, "The Boxer," after all that he suffers, "the fighter still remains."

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