Hollywood's Favorite Athlete, The Boxer
Since Hollywood debuted the Academy Awards in 1929, only three Best Pictures went to sports related movies: (2004) “Million Dollar Baby”, (1981) “Chariots of Fire”, and (1976) “Rocky”. In total, 34 Oscars were handed out to the sports genre with boxing being the largest category.
Unlike the ‘feel good’ tear jerkers and screw ball comedies of most sports movies, boxing pictures always portrayed the life of a hard luck fighter struggling inside and outside the ring. Depicted as an underdog pugilist, the main character often lives in a seedy world of grit and gangsters with all the odds stacked against him.
The first fisticuffs movie to take home an Oscar was (1931) “The Champ”, a story about a washed-up alcoholic boxer trying to put his life back together for the sake of his son. The film won Best Actor and Story and was remade decades later in 1979 by Franco Zeffirelli.
Clint Eastwood’s (2004) “Million Dollar Baby” tops the chart for the winningest boxing story on the big screen. It picked up four trophies: Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actor. The plot revolves around an aspiring female boxer who ends up a quadriplegic after landing on her neck in the ring.
The classic and iconic (1976) “Rocky” comes in with three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director and Editing. Written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, this rags-to-riches tale of a Philadelphia club fighter earned $225 million in the first year and on a film budget of just over $1 million. Its box office success spawned six “Rocky” sequels, the last one being (2015) “Creed”.
“Rocky” is considered one of the greatest sports films ever made and was ranked second best in its category by the American Film Institute ("AFI").
The first on AFI’s list is (1980) “Raging Bull”, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. Though walking away with only two Awards, Best Actor and Editing, the film was actually nominated for eight Oscars but lost Best Picture to Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”.
Based on the tumultuous life of 1940’s-50’s middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, “Raging Bull” is a black and white artistic masterpiece. Taking the prizefighter’s character to the limit, De Niro even gained 60 lbs. to portray LaMotta in his later years.
(2010) “The Fighter” starring Mark Wahlberg, and (1956) “Somebody Up There Likes Me” with Paul Newman, are additional themes on ring fighters. Both were grounded on true life stories and each earned two Academy Awards.
By its very nature, boxing had to win a Best Documentary somewhere. (1996) “When We Were Kings” recounts the famous 1974 ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.
Besides the fight itself, the film captures the build up to the big day with Ali embracing his African roots and Don King working on his first big promotion. It took director Leon Gast 22 years to complete the documentary, which features Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and musical performances by James Brown and B.B. King in Zaire.
Boxing as a sub-theme to a larger story also made its way to film history. (1954) “On The Waterfront” won eight Oscars including Best Picture. Up against a corrupt union boss and his longshoremen thugs, dock worker and small-time fighter Marlon Brando ruminates:
”I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
With such haunting and unforgettable lines, it’s not a surprise that boxers are among Hollywood’s favorite screen characters.
BASEBALL April 2, 2010 Former MLB pitcher Mike Cuellar dies at the age of 72. A 2x World Series champion and 4x All-Star, Cuellar started off with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959 and played for 5 teams, spending the most years with the Baltimore Orioles. He won the AL Cy Young award in his first season with the dynastic Orioles and was their starting pitcher at the 1969 World Series against the NY Mets. Cuellar closed his career with an ERA of 3.14 and 1,632 strikeouts.
BASKETBALL April 2, 2000 At the 19th Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship, the Connecticut Huskies defeat the Tennessee Volunteers 71-52. Led by their famed coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies claimed their second national title. They would win another 9 championships and become the nation’s most successful women’s basketball program to date. The Connecticut ladies dispatched Penn State at the Semi-finals before taking on Tennessee for the crown.
GOLF April 8, 1990 Nick Faldo wins the 54th annual Masters Tournament held in Augusta, Georgia. Shooting a 278 (-10) and tying Raymond Floyd in the final round after the latter bogeyed on the 16th hole, Faldo emerged victorious in the playoff showdown. It was his second consecutive win at the Masters and third of what would be six career majors. Born in Herdforshire, England, Faldo turned pro in 1976 and has won more majors than any other modern European golfer.
OLYMPICS April 12, 1980 The U.S. Olympic committee announces their boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A total of 66 countries chose not to attend the games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, 80 other nations did agree to send their athletes to the first Olympics that were held in a communist country. Four years later, the Russians and their East European allies would follow-up with a boycott of the Los Angeles games.