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Get In The Ring: 10 Underdog Combat Sports Movies

Get In The Ring: 10 Underdog Combat Sports Movies

Bennett Miller has been using the genre of the “sports movie” tell some of the most fascinating stories of American life and dreams on the big screen. He’s followed up his sophisticated baseball film “Moneyball” with another American story rooted in the context of sports. With last Friday’s release of “Foxcatcher,” the wider public will finally see what we’ve been raving about since Cannes (read our review); a film set in the world of wrestling, that pins down the corroding effects wealth can have on the individual, and intensely grapples with the tragic consequences of human hubris. Not only did it push Steve Carell to his furthest, darkest limits (so much so, he inspired us to write about our favorite dramatic roles from 20 comic actors), but “Foxcatcher” also reminds us of how combat sports can be used effectively as metaphor, highlighting our brittle human condition with individualistic punches.

We’ve seen it before in classics like “Raging Bull” and “Rocky,” and in more recent examples destined, perhaps, to be classics one day, like “The Wrestler” and “The Fighter.” Then, of course, there are the fondly remembered oldies (“Body and Soul,” “The Quiet Man”), bins full of cult classics (“Kickboxer,” “Bloodsport”), and the blazing beacons of martial arts films (“Enter The Dragon,” “The Street Fighter”). All of these films are, in some way, popular. With all the Oscar dust it’s raising, considering its marquee cast, and simply riding on its own considerable qualities, “Foxcatcher” is destined to become among the most popular films to depict the combat sport of wrestling. It’s a lot of things, but “underdog” is not one of them.

That said, we’ve been inspired to write this feature about the underdogs. Forgotten, lesser-seen, unpopular by wide or narrow margin, pummeled by the critics, or remembered only by them, these 10 films are situated in the world of combat sport and are all, by hook or crook, lesser known efforts. Whether by their star’s larger roles, their director’s larger productions, or an unfortunate release date, all 10 are overshadowed on the ringsides. And yes, observant ones, we know that most of them are specifically about boxing. It just isn’t that easy to find quality films on combat sports that haven’t already reached their deserved esteem. But we dug out a fair few.

We ask forgiveness in advance for our succumbing to the irresistible urge to use fighting puns, and hope you enjoy this little run-down of some of our favorite underdogs. Read on….

The Set-Up” (1949)
In a year that saw Kirk Douglas become a star in Mark Robson’s boxing drama “Champion,” nabbing an Oscar nomination in the process, Robert Wise directed this condensed, unsung, story of Bill “Stoker” Thompson, a story adapted from, of all things, a poem. How often do you hear that? Robert Ryan stars as Stoker, a man “always one punch away” from winning, but he’s been on such a cooler of late, his own manager Tiny (George Tobias) ensures the local gangsters that he’ll go down in the second round of his next match without even preparing Stoker for it. Things get complicated and incredibly intense when our downtrodden fighter becomes determined to beat his next opponent, no matter what. What makes “The Set-Up” one of the greatest boxing movies out there is that while it’s all about the action in the ring, it’s also an emotional portrayal of a loving relationship. In 72 minutes we get one of the most rounded and grounded boxing stories, told in incredibly effective, ridiculously immersive, real time. Whether it’s inside the sweat-stained locker rooms, ringside with managers chewing their faces off, or among the zoo-like atmosphere of a maddening general public, Wise’s camera pans, zooms, glides, and cuts its way across the boxing milieu in splendidly efficient fashion. Milton Krasner’s cinematography (that bagged him an award in Cannes) cakes the entire picture in stunning film noir aesthetics, while Ryan’s central performance (channeling some Sterling Hayden) is nuanced far ahead of its time. Wise would go on to make another great boxing flick in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and make a star out of Paul Newman, but we’d personally place our bets on this underdog.

Requiem For A Heavyweight” (1962)
Another tale of the tape that measures the emotional dimensions of the manager-fighter relationship, an aspect Miller’s “Foxcatcher” spends a good chunk of time on, is this 1962 ballad. Rod Sterling rose to fame after writing the teleplay, and whether the TV version with Jack Palance is better than the feature film Ralph Nelson directed with Anthony Quinn is a debate that has an infinite number of rounds. Whatever your result, “Requiem For A Heavyweight” is a vigorously alive display of what the sport does to your body and soul. Quinn is sensational in the way he breathes life into the staggering, mumbling, Quasimodo of boxing, Luis “The Mountain” Rivera. 17 years in the game, and two punches away from going blind if he continues, this man was “almost the heavyweight champion of the world,” now reduced to little more than a human punching bag. He tries to assimilate into society with the help of cut man Army (Mickey Rooney) and social worker Grace (Julie Harris), much to the chagrin of his manager and best friend Maish (Jackie Gleeson) who is deep in the pockets of local gangster Ma Greeney (Madame Spivy). Apart from having a gangster squad led by a female in the 1960s (seriously, wow!), Nelson’s version most crucially differs from the TV version in the ending; a riveting display of broken friendship and hair-raising humiliation. The entire ensemble is sharp as razors, Quinn and Gleeson most especially, and the film is famous for its opening which features one Cassius Clay, playing himself before he became Muhammad Ali. And yet, somehow, it’s an underdog next to Quinn’s other performances and other boxing flicks. 

The Champ” (1979)
This remake of the more critically embraced 1931 version got chewed up and spat out like a broken tooth by the critics, but we’re making a case for it as a film that time has been kinder to. Of course it’s more melodrama than drama, and Dave Grustin’s Oscar-nominated score doesn’t just pull your heartstrings, it rips them out through your throat, but considering it’s Franco Zeffirelli’s American directorial debut, and that Jon Voight had practically zero time to get into shape for the titular role, “The Champ” turned out pretty well. Destined to be cherished by audiences more than critics as one of those “man-to-man” films about the bond between a father and a son, “The Champ” is the story of Billy Flynn (Voight), an ex-boxer who’s making meager ends meet in the horse training business, and providing for his son T.J. (Rick Schroder, a serious candidate for greatest child performance ever captured). When Flynn’s ex-wife Anne (Faye Dunaway) comes back into their lives, the faucets are loosened even more, until the floodgates fully open for that final boxing match. Those ultimate moments are famous for being some of the saddest, most heart bruising scenes ever put on film (psychological studies prove it). The touching performances from Voight, Dunaway and Schroder, and Zeffirelli’s choice to linger with his characters during their most intimate moments, creates a manipulative story that you can’t help but get sucked into. Not as formally refined as its predecessor, but certainly not as terrible as it was made out to be.

Warrior” (2011)
Alright, so maybe this is the most popular film on this list, and it’s true that we were this close in including Thomas McCarthy’s wrestling indie “Win Win” instead, but then we looked into some figures, and realized that as far as fighting movies go, it’s “Warrior” that comes out the underdog of combat sport movies in 2011. For a couple of reasons; firstly, it was a box-office failure, not turning a profit over its $25m budget, neither at home or abroad. And then, while it was something of a surprise critical success, and Nick Nolte got major buzz as a potential dark horse to steal the Supporting Acting Oscar from Christopher Plummer, “Warrior” found itself unwittingly grappling in the shadows of David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.” We’ll the leave the debate as to which movie is better in your hands, but helped along by a tremendous triple threat of acting in Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nolte, “Warrior” is the greatest fictional film ever made about MMA (granted, the genre isn’t quite that expansive just yet). While it sets up a lot of its emotional hits in all-too-familiar patterns, it does so many things well that you readily forgive its every cliché. The story of brothers Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan (Edgerton), both estranged from their ex-alcoholic father (Nolte), entering the same MMA competition, is elevated by how it effortlessly invests the viewer into these lives, making it impossible for you to take sides.

Vision Quest” (1985)
“It ain’t the six minutes, it’s what happens in the six minutes.” That’s goddamn glorious inspiration, people! Wrestling movies will always have Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and, now, Miller’s “Foxcatcher” as popular benchmarks. Even McCarthy’s “Win Win” made a good buck on its small budget and was one of the most critically praised films of its year. But none of those are as emphatically inspiring as the one that came before them all; Harold Becker’s “Vision Quest.” It’s a picture critics just could not get behind, and even today is much more popular with movie lovers who grew up in the ’80s. Sappy and cheesy though it may be, it still has that ineffable ’80s sweetness to it, and the performances by Matthew Modine (who would two years later turn up in a little film called “Full Metal Jacket”), the impossibly charismatic Linda Fiorentino, and J.C. Quinn as Elmo (the man behind that powerful “six minutes” speech), seem to get better and better with time. The story of Louden Swain (Modine), an ambitious 18-year-old who decides to drop down two weight classes in order to wrestle a high-school champion, wears its heart on its sleeve and is one of the most underrated coming-of-age sports films. In true ’80s style, the soundtrack (lead by Tangerine Dream and Madonna) became more popular than the movie, but watch “Vision Quest” today and we dare you not to get engaged right up until its final six minutes.

Beautiful Boxer” (2004)
This little-seen Thai film did festival rounds in 2003 and 2004, picking up a healthy amount of awards and international recognition, before it came to the States in 2005. Unfortunately, it came behind Clint Eastwood’s ultra-popular “Million Dollar Baby,” and the public wasn’t ready for two movies about female boxers. Then again, “Beautiful Boxer” isn’t like any other movie; boxing, female-driven, or otherwise. Playing out like a hybrid version of “Million Dollar Baby” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” thanks to Ekachai Uekrongtham’s elegant direction and Asanee Suwan’s elegiac performance, “Beautiful Boxer” absorbs the sweat of controversy into one forceful, lyrical punch as only Thai cinema can do. It’s the real-life, biographical account of Parinya Charoenphol, the most popular transgender Muay Thai boxer from Thailand, who defied society’s odds and expectations and boxed her way to a sex-change operation, finally manifesting her interior identity to the outside world. We get a real sense of the struggles Charoenphol went through, and the fights she had to endure both inside and outside the ring; mostly due to Suwan (a professional kickboxer in real life), who gives us a real taste of the hardcore discipline involved with an exceptionally tough variation of the sport. The tender direction, and color-splashed cinematography from Choochart Nantitanyatada, help prop “Beautiful Boxer” into a film that should soar above its LGBT pigeonhole, and fly right alongside so many other great combat sports films.

Girlfight” (2000)
Sure, you could just watch “Million Dollar Baby” to see a movie about a woman battling against all odds in a male-dominated sport, but then again, we’d urge you to watch “Girlfight” instead. It’s a film made 4 years earlier, which highlights exactly that, while underlining its underdog status in more ways than one. A remarkably raw feature debut by writer-director Karyn Kusama (who is still trying to defy expectations she created with this film), and one of the fiercest acting debuts of recent times in the form, shape, and skill of Michelle Rodriguez, “Girlfight” is the story of Diana Guzman, a troubled teen who gets into school fights with bitchy girls and ends up training to become a professional boxer. She achieves things the men around her, that include an abusive father and a reluctant coach, never thought possible for a woman. Coming years before Hilary Swank knocked out her competition for a second Oscar, Rodriguez, thanks to the independent nature of her own film, didn’t reach the same success (though she won enough indie awards to stuff a duffle bag with). Still, we feel “Girlfight” doesn’t get the proper cred it deserves among relevant conversations, mostly because it deserves to be compared to male-lead boxing films as much as female-led ones.

The Boxer” (1997)
So, here’s the film that places its combat sport in the furthest of backgrounds out of all the others on this list (despite what its title might suggest), but it qualifies purely on the basis of our inspiration; “Foxcatcher” is a film that’s about wrestling as much as it’s about the dark side of the American dream. Well, in Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer,” we get the dark and impossibly gloomy side of the Irish Dream, where the land of opportunity becomes the ropey confines of a boxing ring. It’s the third collaboration between Sheridan and heavyweight champion of the acting world Daniel Day-Lewis, dangling at the shoelaces of “My Left Foot” and “In The Name Of The Father,” and thanks to this, it’s more often than not swept under the mat. Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) is released from prison after a 14-year sentence, and tries to assimilate back into the everyday by managing a boxing gym. Most of the story is focused on his relationship with Maggie (Emily Watson), and the air is denser with instability caused by British-Irish relations than sweat from competitive bouts. But, there are enough gritty boxing scenes and one hell of an understated Day-Lewis performance, to make the film eligible for our purposes. It’s not for nothing that UFC presenter and boxing aficionado Joe Rogan calls Day-Lewis’ performance the best he’s ever seen of an actor playing a boxer. 1997 was the year of “Titanic,” which practically made every other movie released in its vicinity an underdog, but for its realism and a particularly gut-punching politicized metaphor of boxing, the years should’ve been kinder to “The Boxer.”

Throw Down” (2004)
Throw Down” is Johnnie To’s judo actioner, a lesser-known picture compared to the man’s superlatively more popular gangster flicks. It’s a movie the Hong Kong director dedicated to Akira Kurosawa, since “Throw Down” is somewhat obviously inspired by the latter’s debut film “Sanshiro Sugata,” (which, by the way, would’ve totally made this list had it not itself inspired a schleppy sequel and a whopping five different remakes in Japan). To’s film deals with a former champion getting pulled back into the competitive world of judo, which he left behind for a karaoke nightclub. It substitutes To’s usual predilection for pistols, for the more sophisticated martial art of judo; coordinated and choreographed with emphasized respect toward its spiritual roots. Not many films deal with this particular combat sport, and fewer still are any good, which doesn’t give To’s film much competition in being among the very best out there. Featuring fantastic fighting scenes, unexpectedly moving performances from Louis Koo and Aaron Kwok, and a bombastic soundtrack that will make you want to get up and train quicker than any remix of “Eye Of The Tiger,” “Throw Down” didn’t make as big of an international splash as “Breaking News” or “Drug Wars,” but don’t let that stop you from seeking this out and enjoying the skill on display.

Fat City” (1972)
Listen to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” an original song that bookends “Fat City,” and you’ll be awash in an understanding of how despondent, touching, and hopelessly human John Huston’s late masterwork really is. Set in Stockton, California, Huston’s picture is a slice of Americana peppered with authentic images and encounters of the blue-collared and the unemployed, ending with a final elliptical point of view; life passes you by, while you sit on a barstool, watching it from a distance, plastered. It’s the story of two boxers whose only similarity is their weight class; Billy Tully (Stacey Keach) is almost 30 years old and past his prime; nowadays he can’t punch his way out of a wet paper bag without pulling a muscle. He meets eighteen-year-old Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and immediately recognizes the potential in him. Ernie gives it a shot at boxing with Tully’s ex-coach Ruben (Nicholas Colastano), while Billy shacks up with boozy slooze Oma (Susan Tyrell). Though it’s clear that “Fat City” is much more than a straight-up boxing film, not since “The Set-Up” was there such a complete and competent portrait of the who’s who in the boxing world. In Keach and the Oscar-nominated Tyrell you have two dynamic acting forces colliding in glorious ways, and Bridges is just about the only one who can make someone like Ernie interesting and sympathetic. After a few box-office bombs, Huston bounced back with “Fat City,” yet the picture is hardly ever counted beside his more popular works. We’d go against the grain and count it as one of his best, and one of the greatest boxing pictures out there.

What did we miss? With only ten, we’re sure we missed some major under-the-radar fighting flicks. Do tell us which ones, and let us know what some of your favorite combat sports movies are below.

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