Let’s head into the boxing ring. We’re going to briefly look over the role of boxing movies within cinematic history, the genre’s conventions and how it has updated itself to see if we can discern why boxing films remain enduring favourites.
A Swift History
Boxing films have played a key role throughout cinema. Early boxing films, helped pioneer documentaries by using limited setups to film real (or reproduced) matches to later show to wider audiences. These films gave wider visibility to women’s boxing, and showcased big stars and historical matches, e.g. Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries – which showed the first African American heavyweight champion (Johnson) winning against a white opponent (Jeffries). Leading to considerable racist backlash.
Since then boxing movies have also become dramatic cinema staples; playing a role in many artists’ development. Silent stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton used boxing movies to grow their names. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Clint Eastwood, Ryan Coogler and more have received acclaim in the genre. Additionally, the genre helped pioneer feature-length filmmaking (The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight), played a role in the transition to sound films (The Shakedown) and helped popularise the beloved training montage (The Rocky series).
Knocking Audiences Out
So why do audiences and creatives continually return to boxing movies? Well, the stories offer great opportunities for emotionally engaging storytelling. They focus on underdogs whose audiences want to succeed or protagonists with fraught emotional lives that provide windows into uncomfortable subjects. Allowing audiences to easily get invested and giving artists the freedom to explore various engaging topics.
Boxing movies also feature fight scenes that go into detail showing the boxers hurt each other (quick edits to show each punch). This coupled with the personal stories built up outside the ring and the physical challenges our protagonist faces, such as gangsters who offer them money at their pride’s expense, powerful ring opponents or foes from the past, help make the action viscerally impactful for audiences and provides great tools for creatives to play with.
These films also often focus on ingrained racist, classist, and patriarchal systems that dehumanize our protagonists. And generally, a boxing movie will end with the boxer either proving their worth, showing that hard work can yield success or the boxer will lose something significant, showing that hard work alone won’t beat the system. There are variations but these dominant elements key into the dreams and realities many audiences face. Making them easy for audiences to identify with.
Finally, boxing films are pleasurably familiar. In an ever-changing industry, boxing movies remain broadly similar. Keeping the genre accessible to new audiences and creatives.
Same Game New Era
But while predictable these films have evolved. After years of ignoring or erasing boxers of colour, international and women boxers the genre has seen a rise in movies focused on telling more stories from diverse perspectives. The genre has also continually experimented with fight presentation to make them feel more immediate. For example, The Fighter replicated televised fight aesthetics to add an element of realism, while Creed used a one-take setup to heighten tension. And there has been a growth in documentaries and biopics to bring renewed attention to important stories from boxing’s history.
Ultimately the boxing film remains a cinematic fixture because it deals with themes that many people around the world can relate to, in ways that get us emotionally and intellectually invested. It provides both escapism and realism, while highly formulaic filmmakers always find new ways to present the stories and they act as a relatable window into the past, showing struggles that ring true across generations.