THE MOVIES edit human experience to fit within a two-hour running time and so, you might say, sometimes artificially sweeten the script of everyday life. But when it comes to boxing, filmmakers find it surprisingly unnecessary to exaggerate the melodrama. Using no more special effects than a flickering fighter, pawing desperately against fate on his pale canvas backdrop, the movies cover the waterfront (you might say). It's all there for them. Even something as flamboyantly Hollywood as Rocky is, in many ways, a documentary.
And so the genre seems absurdly overrepresented at the cineplex, just because boxing offers moviemakers the chance to demonstrate every possible theme in a more or less believable way. Redemption, dissolution, heroism, corruption--there's nothing I've seen in a boxing movie that I haven't already seen at the fights. There is not quite as much arterial spray as Hollywood would have you believe, but as someone who has sat ringside for 25 years (and at more than one Arturo Gatti bout), I have ruined a few shirts on the job.
Boxing movies, if anything, might be too authentic, more disposed to dark scenarios than, for example, ice skating movies. It seems that boxers, expendable by virtue of their poor demographics, are traditionally tragic on film. Very few of them are allowed happy endings. And an awful lot of them expire. This is a signature plot development and is probably overused. Still, sitting ringside all those years, I have seen four fighters die in the ring. One of them was a jug-eared Welsh boy who had told me two days before the fight that he'd yet to kiss a girl. I remember him blushing, even more than I remember him dying.
There is no reason to invent such a character, or to dream up Don King, Mike Tyson or Jake LaMotta, or even Stillman's Gym or Caesars Palace. All you have to do is get it on film, as faithfully as you can, and hope for the best. It's no surprise that reality TV has entered the arena, with NBC's upcoming The Contender showcasing a stable of unknowns. The inherent drama of two men, each grooved by the homeliest of ambitions (a mother just deceased, a race wronged, a manhood challenged), fighting to the death really should make Shakespeares out of Stallones.
The wonder is not that boxing movies are perennially popular, but that boxing no longer is. Hollywood's raw feed has not gotten any less dramatic; boxing is still reliably cinematic, producing Technicolor wars like Gatti-Ward or Barrera-Morales, charismatic performers like Oscar De La Hoya, failed personalities like Tyson. Even the heavyweight division, a bunch of Million Dollar Babies these days, has its share of suitably (if temporary) concussive characters. And Don King is still around, by the way.
It could be that the demographic shift to the Latin fighter has made it even more of a niche sport, or simply that boxing will always look better when filtered through celluloid, where the spattered blood is thirdhand. It could be that there's just too much realism in the real thing. Those gritty arenas we're always seeing in the movies may be authentic, but they're probably not so comfortable for a night out.
But there will always be some of us who prefer the real thing. Boxing movies can't be beat when it comes to delivering drama, reformatting the sport for one tidy lesson or another, compressing all that emotion to just two hours. I admit to stifling a sniffle from time to time myself. But try as they might, filmmakers can never replicate the surprise, that moment after an eight-minute firestorm--Hagler-Hearns, for example--when you realize you've been standing in your seat and haven't drawn a proper breath in three rounds. Your dry-cleaning expenses will be more manageable, of course, but did you ever stand in your seat in a theater? --Richard Hoffer