Screens Down with the count

America loves boxing movies' triumphalism, but in the end, we're all TKO

In 1895 and 1896, the first motion pictures drew curious viewers with short snippets of ordinary life: a train pulling into a station, workers leaving a factory, a baby being fed. But by 1897 director Enoch J. Rector was feeding the public's new cinematic hunger with moving images of legalized mayhem: Bob Fitzsimmons' defeat of James J. Corbett for the heavyweight championship. Long before George Foreman tasted his first bite of barbecue, boxing movies were attracting bigger gates than boxing matches.

Russell Crowe dodges a right hook as Depression-era boxing champ James Braddock in the new release, Cinderella Man.

Football, hockey, and auto racing are hazardous activities, but boxing is the only major sport in which success is determined by one's ability to disable the opponent physically, totally. Questions about whether it is indeed a sport rather than compensated cruelty have led to prohibition at different times in different places. But they also add to boxing's louche luster, the thrill of thumbing an imaginary pug nose at social propriety. Spectators share the secret, guilty fantasy that the next punch will be a death blow, transforming the festive event into a public execution. Ring of Fire, the recent USA Network documentary about how Emile Griffith pummeled Benny "the Kid" Paret to death on live TV in 1962, offered viewers the frisson of lethal violence even while deploring it.

Football - curt collisions among 22 padded, helmeted men - is a creature of TV, enhanced by chitchat, replays, commercials, halftime hoopla, and outings to the refrigerator and the toilet. Basketball, wealthy hulks bolting up and down between two nets, is cinematic monotony, like bowling, golf, and cricket. Perfect for the rhythms of radio and inspiration for literary treatment by Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris, W. P. Kinsella, and Robert Coover, baseball strikes out often on the screen. But boxing is an activity of magnified moments that thrives on closeup. It is the most fundamental of confrontations, one-on-one combat - sans bat, sans racket, sans helmet, sans shirt, sans anything but blood and guts to spew out on the canvas. If you seek elemental truth about a naked human being, look within a movie frame within a boxing ring.

Boxers I have loved
Beyond a quick right hook, boxing battens on personality, flamboyant figures such as Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Mike Tyson, Max Schmeling, and Sonny Liston, who transform the wretched business of battering flesh into bombastic drama. Eras, such as the present, that lack colorful contenders also lack interest in boxing. Who can name any of the four current claimants to the heavyweight crown? It is because the movie camera is also enthralled by personality that Rocky Balboa, Jake LaMotta, and Maggie Fitzgerald command the screen. "We both know the name of this game," Joe Gould tells Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man, "and it sure ain't pugilism." Back-pedaling is a crucial skill in pugilism, but boxing, movies, and - especially - boxing movies all succeed by peddling personality.

Boxing movies come in two varieties, victory and defeat. The original 1976 Rocky, itself the triumph of unheralded Sylvester Stallone over an industry wary of his acting and his script, is the quintessential upbeat boxing flick. With images of Stallone sprinting up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art accompanied by "Gonna Fly Now" burned into one's brain, it is easy to forget that Rocky actually loses his match against champ Apollo Creed. Yet it is only a technical defeat. After lasting 15 brutal rounds, Rocky merely loses on points, while winning universal respect and the love of Adrian. It is the story of an underdog who holds his own at Westminster, and it is the recipe not only for Rocky's moronic sequels but also for other movies that aim to win the hearts of audiences. See Hoosiers (basketball), The Replacements (football), Mystery, Alaska (hockey), and Breaking Away (bicycle racing) for examples of how Hollywood, emissary of triumphalist culture, has repackaged the formula.

Seabiscuit is another, and it would be accurate to describe the current boxing movie Cinderella Man as the story of a bipedal Seabiscuit. We are back in the Depression and another tattered also-ran, James J. Braddock, overcomes destitution to achieve improbable victory over the formidable Max Baer and fulfill the hopes of millions whom circumstances have knocked down though not out. Damon Runyon dubbed scrappy Braddock "Cinderella Man," but so is every desperate immigrant - Irish, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican - or African American who has ever used his fists to lift himself, at least temporarily, out of misery a Cinderella Man.

Cinderella Man concludes in jubilation, with Braddock proclaimed champion. However, he was knocked out the first time he defended his title, in 1937. Had Ron Howard ended with a freeze of Braddock smashed off his feet by Joe Louis in the eighth round, he would have had a different, darker film. Million Dollar Baby appears to be a female Rocky, until Maggie Fitzgerald is abruptly crippled. The greatest boxing film, Raging Bull, begins and ends with bloated, pathetic Jake LaMotta reflecting on what was and what might have been. "I could have been a contender," laments Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. "I could've been somebody!" Fat City, Body and Soul, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and other brooding boxing films illustrate how tenuous is the boundary between champ and chump. Reminding us that any victory is momentary, they are a meditation on mortality. No matter how many rounds we last, we never stand a chance.


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