Nothing conveys drama, commitment and passion like the knockout punch of a well-made boxing movie.
If I were to compare the most popular and dominant pugilists of all time to the most financially successful and critically adored boxing movies ever made, then Muhammad Ali is Raging Bull. Mike Tyson is Million Dollar Baby. You might throw Roy Jones Jr. in there as Cinderella Man, but the point is: we’ve all seen Rocky, and we’ve all marveled over that De Niro performance even forty years down the line.
If you’re of a certain age, you might even be familiar with older classics such as Gentleman Jim and Requiem for a Heavyweight, but today, we’re going to look at the most underrated boxing movies of all time. Let’s get to it!
5. Bleed for This (2016)
When witty dialogue meets memorable performances by a few familiar faces, the result is a brilliant biographical sports film by writer/director Ben Younger.
While some people may abhor the inducement of constant anxiety over the course of a film’s runtime, it’s fascinating that the filmmaker stirred such emotion from me that I would debate fast-forwarding through a scene, or even turning it off entirely—not because the movie was poorly made, or anything. It was just hard to watch at times.
Based on the true story of Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, it’s one that needed to be chronicled in cinematic fashion. His comeback from a devastating neck injury is truly one for the history books, and more worth checking out than the 70% on Rotten Tomatoes and 62 on Metacritic might suggest.
I wouldn’t score it too much higher than either of those, but when you combine the middling reception with the failure to gross even half of its budget, the result is a clear choice for this list.
4. The Boxer (1997)
An element of crime is the perfect foil for any sports drama—at the start of The Boxer, lead character Danny Flynn is released from a fourteen-year prison sentence and attempts to turn his life around by reopening the boxing gym at his local community center while balancing a relationship with his former girlfriend and the criminal fallout of his prison sentence.
This leads to a deep, multi-dimensional plot—the boxing, the corruption, the love—with great camerawork and stellar performances by the two leads: Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson. Their on-screen chemistry is like a one-two punch combination, setting each other up perfectly for the knockout blow—Watson is the jab, and Day-Lewis the finishing cross.
Also, Daniel trained boxing for a year in Ireland to prepare for filming, further showcasing his commitment to the role of Danny Flynn. It holds an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is great, but it has a 75 on Metacritic with 0 nominations at the Oscars. At the very least, Daniel should’ve been nominated for Best Actor.
It might be the best film on the list, if not then a close second, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most underrated. A lot of media outlets will still have it featured on a list of the best boxing movies, albeit pretty low if it’s even featured at all.
3. Chuck (2016)
Released as The Bleeder in the UK, Chuck follows a retired fighter (played to a wonderful degree by Liev Schreiber) who once got knocked out by Muhammad Ali in the fifteenth round, just seconds short of going the distance. That bout inspired Stallone to pen the original Rocky movie—yes, if you couldn’t tell before reading this, Apollo Creed is a clear, fictional version of Ali.
It has a great score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, but only a 68 on Metacritic, and it made a mere half-a-million dollars at the box office on an unknown budget—suffice it to say, the movie did not make its money back. That’s not surprising given how niche the plot is, but it’s also engaging and heartbreaking once you give it a go, so I’d highly recommend it.
2. Resurrecting the Champ (2007)
Arguably the most underrated performance of Sam Jackson’s career (which spans over a hundred films) and honestly, there are strong acting efforts all around with equally vigorous exchanges of dialogue.
The main character has tangible development as a journalist who printed a story that—little to his knowledge—was essentially built on lies. A big no-no in the journalism business. Filmmaking, maybe. But not journalism. The featured scenes at the magazine can drag from time to time, but you’ll be reabsorbed when Sam Jackson’s “Champ” appears on screen.
It takes creative risks and uses them in big ways—they mix footage of real-life heavyweight contender Bob Satterfield with voice-over narration to a wonderful effect, and I adored how Rocky Marciano appeared in Champ’s head when it was really the kid that beat him up in the first act.
Rotten Tomatoes has it at 60% and Metacritic at 55, but for my money, anything hinging on a “failing grade” is too low for a film of this caliber. Would I give it much higher than, say, a 70? I doubt it, but it also only accrued $3 million on a $13 million budget. That’s just not right.
At the end of the day, it’s not the most technically adept boxing film out there, but its thematic push and heartfelt acting efforts are bound to stick with you.
1. The Hurricane (1999)
I’ve talked to over twenty people about this movie, and before me having that conversation with them, only one knew of its existence. Sure, that’s about as anecdotal as one can get, but it is always dangerously low on any given media site’s ranking of boxing movies, again, if featured at all.
For his performance as Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter—a man framed for murder which resulted in a life sentence—Denzel Washington won the Golden Globe for Best Actor and was nominated for the same category at the Academy Awards. Albeit, that’s really the only praise the movie garnered.
Like I said, few film fans today have even heard of this movie, let alone seen it or know anything about it, and I’m aware of only a handful of greater injustices in this world.
It truly is one of Denzel’s best performances—right up there with his roles in Glory, Malcolm X and Training Day. I personally consider Fences to be his finest achievement, but that’s neither here nor there. The crux of this paragraph is that Denzel consistently loses himself in his roles, and there are few better examples of that than The Hurricane.
It’s not a perfect film, and most of that’s due to pacing, but if director Norman Jewison was ever backed against the ropes, he always had Denzel in his corner. Plus, you’re guaranteed a killer soundtrack— it’s obligatory to mention when writing about this movie that Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane” was, yes, about the same man as in the film: Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter.
Have You Seen Any of These?
This is a pretty niche topic, but if you ever found yourself with a hankering for more movies like Raging Bull, Rocky and Million Dollar Baby, then you’ve come to the right place.
Also, it’s definitely not overrated (made great money, tons of nominations at the Oscars, etc.) but I have to at least mention David O. Russel’s 2010 masterpiece, The Fighter. An absolutely essential watch, and my favorite boxing movie ever. Thanks for reading!