Though they're not all winners, combat sports-themed movies have made for some of my most memorable cinematic experiences. When done right, they are addictively rewatchable in a way that few other genres can match. Below are my top ten favourites from the worlds of boxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts.
Remember, all film is subjective. This is not a "Best Of" list, but rather a spotlight on the stories that have had the biggest impact on me.
10. Ali (2001)
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight
Critical Consensus: Though perhaps no film could fully do justice to the fascinating life and personality of Muhammad Ali, Mann's direction and Smith's performance combine to pack a solid punch. - 67% RT
My Thoughts: I'm a Michael Mann man. From 1992-2006 he was one of the best directors in the world. Ali beautifully blends his unique style with Will Smith's unrelenting swagger. It's a fascinating look at one of the most pivotal periods of time in the former heavyweight champions illustrious career.
9. Real Steel (2011)
Director: Shawn Levy
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie
Critical Consensus: Silly premise notwithstanding, this is a well-made Hollywood movie: Thrilling and exciting action with just enough characterization. - 60% RT
My Thoughts: Not enough people have seen this movie! Think Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots meets Creed. Shawn Levy shoots the action gorgeously, but it's the relationship between Hugh Jackman's character and his son that makes Real Steel immensely satisfying. Prepare yourself because it packs quite the emotional punch.
8. The Boxer (1997)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson
Critical Consensus: The Boxer is a standard drama that packs a true emotional wallop thanks to the highly tuned central performances. - 80% RT
My Thoughts: You need to watch this movie for Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. In terms of the boxing sequences, I don't know that any actor has ever looked better. To go along with his tremendous work is the gripping tale of a man looking to start anew (after being incarcerated for 14 years) in a place that can't seem to break the cycle of violence and crime.
7. The Karate Kid (1984)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Starring: Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Elisabeth Shue
Critical Consensus: Utterly predictable and wholly of its time, but warm, sincere, and difficult to resist, due in large part to Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio's relaxed chemistry. - 88% RT
My Thoughts: An 80's classic if there ever was one. In fact, just the other day while landscaping my backyard I suggested to my wife that we buy a Bonsai tree. In all seriousness though, between all the iconic quotes, the epic final showdown, and Elisabeth Shue being an absolute dream I don't know if there's anything not to like about this movie. Also, if you haven't already, check out Cobra Kai. I was skeptical of it at first, but it's actually quite fun.
6. Creed (2015)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Critical Consensus: Creed brings the Rocky franchise off the mat for a surprisingly effective seventh round that extends the boxer's saga in interesting new directions while staying true to its classic predecessors' roots. - 95% RT
My Thoughts: Creed is an emotional, pulse-pounding film that managed to recapture the magic that made the original Rocky so special. Ryan Coogler is one of the premier directors working in Hollywood today so it was fascinating to hear how personally significance this franchise and story are to him. He and Michael B. Jordan have become a dream team and at this point, I'll watch anything that either of them does.
5. Warrior (2011)
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton
Critical Consensus: Warrior relies on many of the clichés that critics of the genre love to mock -- and it transcends them with gripping action, powerful acting, and heart. - 83% RT
My Thoughts: I missed Warrior when it was in theatres, but I remember ordering it at home and being on the edge of my seat, gripping the armrest during the fight scenes. At its core, however, this is an intimate family drama. Hardy and Edgerton play off each other brilliantly and lend a gravitas to the film that allows for the ending to have some real emotional weight.
4. The Wrestler (2008)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Critical Consensus: Mickey Rourke gives a performance for the ages in The Wrestler, a richly affecting, heart-wrenching yet ultimately rewarding drama. - 98% RT
My Thoughts: Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan be damned, The Wrestler is Darren Aronofsky's masterwork. Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson is one of the most perfect casting decisions ever made. This is a brutal, yet sincere elegy of an unforgiving profession and a lonely man struggling to find redemption.
3. Cinderella Man (2005)
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger
Critical Consensus: With grittiness and an evocative sense of time and place, Cinderella Man is a powerful underdog story. And Ron Howard and Russell Crowe prove to be a solid combination. - 80% RT
My Thoughts: I adore Cinderella Man, though admittedly more than most. Ron Howard has made some great movies but none have resonated with me as much as this one. There's a sentimentality engrained in the storytelling that I find quite charming. Russell Crowe is tremendous (as always) and gives a stirring performance. It's a shame that it came out at a time when his public persona was affecting his professional career because a lot of people took a pass on it. If that's the case, you need to go back and watch it immediately!
2. Rocky (1976)
Director: John G. Avildsen
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith
Critical Consensus: This story of a down-on-his-luck boxer is thoroughly predictable, but Sylvester Stallone's script and stunning performance in the title role brush aside complaints. - 93% RT
My Thoughts: The ultimate underdog story. We can laugh about what the sequels devolved into, but this is an incredible film that deserved its Academy Award for Best Picture. That general malaise that Stallone carries himself with made him perfect to play the lovably insecure nobody, and it was further accentuated by this incredible, larger-than-life cast of characters. Burgess Meredith, in particular, is outrageously entertaining. Avildsen does a remarkable job of capturing the grittiness of Rocky's world while also maintaining a sweet and tender tone throughout.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
Critical Consensus: Arguably Martin Scorsese's and Robert De Niro's finest film, Raging Bull is often painful to watch, but it's a searing, powerful work about an unsympathetic hero. - 95% RT
My Thoughts: Shot in beautiful black and white, Raging Bull is Scorsese at his best. A darkly hilarious film that takes an in-depth look at the male psyche. Everything from the romanticized slice-of-life moments to the in-ring brutality feels deeply personal and it makes for a thoroughly engaging experience. Robert De Niro is a revelation as Jake LaMotta and gives what might be his most absorbing performance ever. Raging Bull is not just the greatest sports movie ever, but it stands toe-to-toe with cinemas most decorated heavyweights contending for the distinction of being called the greatest of all time.