We All Love Boxing Movies - But Why Not Boxing?
by Alex Billington
December 20, 2006
Why is it that boxing movies have become some of the most legendary, best known, and greatest sports films of all time, while boxing as a sport seems relegated to the fringes of FSN and ESPN? Rocky Balboa opens in theaters today and I assure you that the audience for this movie, the crowd that will come and cheer and chant "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" over and over, doesn't watch real boxing, but loves Rocky to death - why?
I noticed this phenomenon when I saw Rocky Balboa at an advance screening last week where around 600 passes had been given out to the public (including some from us), and the theater could only seat around 475. By 6:30 PM, 30 minutes before the movie's start time, the line had looped around the lobby multiple times and stretched all the way outside. I just kept thinking to myself that all these people came to see another good boxing movie in the legendary Rocky series, but few would watch real brawlers compete on Friday Night Fights.
A 2005 Harris poll named boxing as the ninth-most popular sport in the U.S., virtually tied with soccer and horse racing. However, just take a look at some of the truly epic boxing movies of the past: the Rocky series just opening its sixth and final film today, Raging Bull, The Hurricane, Ali, The Great White Hype, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, and even Snatch. That list includes a few very well-known sports movies, maybe some of the most well-known for a sport that we hardly care much about these days. It may be because the people that come from it are so legendary and build themselves up to steal our hearts. Although I'm fairly young and have missed some glory days, boxing has never captured the public's interest in my life since Mike Tyson reigned as heavyweight champion.
Sure we've had some unforgettable names from the real-life boxing world: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, but how many Rocky Balboa viewers will recognize Antonio Tarver as a championship boxer and not as a first-time actor? Boxing as a sport rarely has storylines, especially now that Ali and Tyson have retreated from the microphones that made them so legendary, but boxing films really dig deep to show how their protagonists rise from the gutter to the world stage. Boxing can also be surprisingly boring at the heavyweight level - there's far more clinching and hesitation in a real title fight than there is in a Rocky film - and there are precious few boxers in any lighter class who are broadly recognizable. It could be that the brutality you see on TV is real and of little consequence, a shock that is dulled when seeing a historical bout presented in a more dramatic context. I found some of the matches in Cinderella Man to be some of the most incredible scenes in a film I've ever watched. I even start to cry (hey, I'll admit it) when he finally wins his big boxing match at the end - it's just that powerful. I just honestly don't think I can see myself these days in an arena with the HBO cameras flying around, watching a fight between two guys who I don't know or care about.
Maybe it's the story, the passion that comes from these names, that makes people prefer only the movies and not the real sport. There is one thing I know and it's that I truly appreciate and truly love these boxing movies. Rocky Balboa is another example of how incredible a boxing film can be. Rocky himself is a flawed character who's taken many beatings, yet he delivers his wisdom as best he can. His character's inner beauty is incomparable. That alone is only small portion of what makes boxing movies so great.
I suggest you head out to the theaters and see Rocky Balboa this week(end) with a full theater chanting for Rocky. It's truly worth it. While you're out there this week, think to yourself about why you and the people around you love these boxing movies so much more than the actual sport on which they're based.