With Warrior getting staggering reviews out of the gate, now seems as good a time as any to release our list of the Best Fighting Movies ever made. The requisites for making the cut are as follows: the film must be able to be considered a boxing movie, a wrestling movie, or another form of officially sanctioned fighting. So don’t start ‘roiding out when you don’t see Enter the Dragon or Legend of Drunken Master. The same goes for Jean Claude Van Damme’s canon of films. While admittedly not an expert on the recent addition to The Expendables 2, I know enough about Bloodsport to know a martial arts tournament where people die is not justly regulated.
Also not included – movies with lots of fights. I know, I know. The title is a little misleading here, but most of those would fall under the action movie genre. Fights need to be in or around a ring or octagon to be considered here. Finally, in an effort to be fair to the other competitors, the Rocky series will be exempt from competition. What is clearly the best fighting franchise of all time doesn’t need to be mixing with what are comparative peons. Just know in your burning heart the films (other than Rocky V, of course) hold a place higher than the #1 seed on this list.
Got it? Good. Now touch gloves and read on. Who knows? Maybe by the time The Fighter 2 comes out and we republish this list, Warrior will have fought its way into the fray.
I know, I know. After listing all those regulations, I’m starting off the list with a film that barely qualifies as a fighting film. For the first three-fourths of this classic, I was ready to write it off. Granted, Brando’s performance is one for the ages and the anti-corruption parable holds tremendous relevancy to this day. But there’s no fighting. From the outset, Terry Malloy is a retired boxer. The line is “I coulda been a contenda”, not “I AM a condtenda”. He’s done fighting.
So how does it qualify? If you haven’t seen it (and I know plenty of folks from my generation who have not), stop reading and watch it to find out. For those wise enough to seek it out on Netflix instant or old enough to have watched it on VHS, you know it’s the final act that saves it. Like the other films on this list, there’s a title bout at the end. Malloy’s physical fight is with corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly, but his victory comes from standing up (physically and spiritually) for his beliefs – honesty, truth, and the workingman.
If the final showdown took place in a ring, On the Waterfront would be in the top five. As is, its fighter’s attitude earns it the last slot on this list.
That is not a typo. I did not mean to put an “o” instead of a “y”, just as I did not mean to choose James Earl Jones’ 1970 boxing drama over Samuel L. Jackson’s 1996 boxing comedy. The Great White Hype is a film adored by fight and film fans alike, and deservedly so. It takes all the stereotypes of the boxing genre and turns them against the audience. For once, filmmakers conning their audience is part of the fun.
Starring as a thinly veiled version of Don King, Jackson promotes the hell out of a match between the heavyweight champ, James “the Grim Reaper” Roeper (Damon Wayans, in his element) and the retired challenger Terry Conklin (Peter Berg). Most of the movie is Jackson selling the fight, Conklin preparing for the fight, and Wayans slacking off so much he shows up to the fight with a gut the size of a heavy bag.
But don’t expect heart to win out – The Great White Hype is not using its title ironically. Boxing is not about who’s strongest, toughest, or purest – skill is involved, despite what other films have taught you. The film is undoubtedly a dark comedy, but it’s necessary viewing for all fight film fans if only to keep reality from blurring.
Hotly contested for everything but Smith’s fine performance, Michael Mann’s Ali is a lengthy, slow-paced biography about a fast-talking athletic and social legend. It had a lot to live up to, and to many, it fell short.
How could it not? No movie could fully encompass the confounding, courageous Cassius Clay. Yet Mann’s attempt is an appropriately reflective, enamoring picture with a strong lead performance to boot. It takes a neutral stance on a man everyone had an opinion about, which may numb its impact to some while heightening it for others.
Unlike many of the other pictures on this list, Ali isn’t constructed around the final fight. The most noted historical moments for Ali the man, his fights, are not the most noteworthy in the movie about him. After all, Mann is trying to show you something you haven’t already seen instead of merely recreating your favorite moments from Ali’s fights. It may not be the greatest, but it’s great enough for this list.