Best Boxing Movies of All Time Ranked
From Raging Bull to Rocky IV to Million Dollar Baby, let’s explore what makes boxing movies quintessentially cinematic.
In doing research for this series on the different sports genres in film, there was one sport that seemed to be considered the greatest consistently—boxing. With movies directed by the likes of Martin Scorsese, starring the likes of Kirk Douglas, Russell Crowe, and Will Smith, and launching the careers of cinema stars like Sylvester Stallone, this sub-genre of the sports film is about as deep and decorated as they come.
But, what makes these boxing films stand out? Is it something practical about how the sparse setting of a boxing ring in the middle of a dark auditorium makes for easy production?
Or, is there something more profound and inherently cinematic about the sport that pits man-vs-man in the most literal of senses?
To answer these questions and further explore what makes these boxing film classics tick, let’s explore our list of the best boxing movies of all time to see what we can learn from them.
Boxing Movie Honorable Mentions
We have a lot to mention before diving into our actual list. However, one odd thing about boxing films compared to other sports sub-genres is that most of the movies are actually quite similar, which should be undoubtedly helpful for filmmakers looking to work within this genre.
There aren’t many boxing comedies or boxing rom-coms, or boxing sci-fi films. Most boxing films are pure drama that focuses both on foes in the ring and enemies (and relationships) outside of it.
Also, while it’s not on our list because it doesn’t contain any boxing scenes, one could even argue that one of the best films of all time—Marlon Brando‘s On the Waterfront—could be the original blueprint for the boxing narrative used throughout the genre’s history.
7. The Fighter (2010)
Starting off our list, we have a modern film by a great director and starring an A-list cast of stars. The Fighter was released in 2010 and was directed by David O. Russell. The film stars Mark Wahlberg as real-life fighter Micky Ward and features a supporting cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo.
For his role, Christian Bale underwent a drastic weight change to play Ward’s brother and trainer, who struggles with drug addiction.
Like many boxing films on (or even not on) our list, The Fighter was a critical and commercial success going on to receive seven Academy nominations and two wins (Best-Supporting Actor and actress).
Wahlberg’s role was highly praised, and Russell’s direction gave the genre a modern classic that stayed true to the melodrama roots of the boxing film formula.
6. Fat City (1972)
As a testament to the boxing genre’s rich history, Fat City—directed by John Huston and starring Stacy Keach as boxer Billy Tully (along with a supporting cast including Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, and Candy Clark)—is considered by many to be perhaps the greatest film of Huston’s storied career, as well as possibly the best the genre has to offer.
Yet, here it sits at number six on our list simply based on the strength of this illustrious sport’s history.
Released in 1972, Fat City serves as a nice segue between the classic boxing film tales of the early days of cinema and the more modern adaptations, which pay homage, yet deviate slightly from the true formula.
Fat City also might be the most honest and direct film about the sport of boxing, as it explores the true grit and valor this violent pastime requires and the toll it takes on its heroes.
5. Body and Soul (1947)
To truly understand the boxing sub-genre of sport films, one really needs to go back to the early days of classic Hollywood and watch films like Body and Soul (1947).
Combining elements of drama, noir-mystery, and of course, in-the-ring action, John Garfield‘s performance as boxer Charley Davis is a perfect case study of how to bring a heroic boxing character to life.
Directed by Robert Rossen, the film is regarded as one of the genre’s best and perhaps greatest examples of the original boxing film formula done exactly right.
4. Creed (2015)
Jumping back to modern-day boxing films, we also need to highlight Creed (a.k.a. Rocky VII) as an example of just how far this genre has come in terms of style and approach.
Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring his usual counterpart Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, the son of former Rocky rival Apollo Creed, Creed requires several layers of boxing film history to properly understand.
All that aside though, the film is actually a masterclass in modern sports genre filmmaking. It uses its Rocky world-building more as a backdrop, rather than a central figure, in creating one of the most visceral and hard-hitting boxing films ever.
Its in-the-ring cinematography is second to none and owes a great deal to the experimentation from the Rocky films that proceed it.
3. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
While the exploits of the greatest sports film will always be on the field, ballpark, or boxing ring, what really makes an all-time classic are the parts of the film that happen outside of the sport.
Starring Hilary Swank as Mary Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald, a hard-working aspiring boxer from the Ozarks, and supported by Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) as her gruff but well-meaning trainer, Million Dollar Baby hits every melodramatic note to perfection as it tells a heart-wrenching, yet inspiring story.
Million Dollar Baby was a smash hit upon its release earning well over $200 million at the box office and taking home four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, easily making it one of the best boxing—and sports—movies of all time.
2. Rocky (1976)
What’s greater than a four-time Academy Award-winning boxing film, you ask? Well, that would, of course, be another Oscar-winning breakout film that’s become a worldwide phenomenon and media franchise, and spawned eight sequels (with more still to come).
Similarly to his portrayal of protagonist Rocky Balboa, Stallone’s journey to bringing the film to life (based on his spec script and demands to star in it—despite being completely unknown at the time) are pure filmmaking folklore, at this point.
The film itself, while perhaps probably not even the greatest in its series, is by far the most important as it would go on to become a sleeper hit, grossing over $200 million against a sub-$1 million budget.
Rocky received ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, of course, launched Stallone to the highest levels of Hollywood stardom for decades to come.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Finally, to top our list of best boxing movies, we must highlight perhaps the best film by the best director of all time. Martin Scorsese‘s epic sports biopic drama Raging Bull is considered the legendary director’s magnum opus and arguably the greatest performance from its star (and longtime Scorsese collaborator) Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta.
Based on an adapted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin of LaMotta’s memoir, Raging Bull pulls all of the cinematic punches its star-studded cast and crew have at their disposal to craft one of the most beautiful, well-acted, and gut-punching stories of all time.
Shot in black-and-white, the film feels like a timeless classic that hearkens back to the earliest days of boxing films, yet creates an underdog narrative that’s both classic and highly experimental in its editing and combative in-the-ring cinematography.
While reviews of the film were mixed at its release, it’s gone on to be considered the crowning achievement in the historical careers of filmmaking heavyweights like Scorsese, De Niro, and Schrader.
It’s required viewing for anyone interested in this particular boxing sub-genre or in understanding the history and value of sports films.
For more genre filmmaking roundups and insights, check out these additional articles below.
Cover image via United Artists.
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