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Get in the Ring: The 10 Best Boxing-Movie Fights

From Ali vs. Foreman to Balboa vs. Drago, breaking down silver screen’s sweet-science bouts

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Columbia; Everett; MGM

When it comes to boxing movies, there are a few things you need to make the punch-drunk-love grade: You need actors who look like they've put in the roadwork and have been hitting the heavy bag. You need a mentor pushing them to the limits, the crustier the better. (Bonus points if they keep calling their fighter "a bum.") You need a training montage set to inspiring, go-for-it music. The latest film to strap on the gloves, Southpaw, has all of these things — Jake Gyllenhaal's abs may get their own Oscar nomination, Forest Whitaker's trainer hits the right cantankerous notes and damned if Eminem's Phenomenal doesn't make you want to start jumping rope along with the hero.

But more importantly, it makes sure its fighting scenes meet the requisite sweet-science cinema requirements. When Gyllenhaal's on-the-rebound boxer Billy Hope steps into the ring for that One Big Bout with his trash-talking nemesis and the blows start raining down, you remember that this is what separates the genre's heavyweights from its featherweights. Boxing movies live or die by their fights. Otherwise, all you've got are ripped actors, a lot of synth-scored sit-ups — and zero drama.

So we broke down 10 of the best on-screen boxing matches and judged them on their ability to combine convincing screen-ready skills with cinematic bravado and narrative high-stakes. Sorry, no MMA, kickboxing, barroom brawls or street fights allowed: To be approved by the RollingStone.com Boxing Commission, all bouts must take place in a ring, with bells and gloves and colorful trunks. Ding ding!

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed, ‘Rocky’ (1976)

The "tale of the tape" doesn't look promising for Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) against reigning heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers): The challenger is slow, undersized, and almost perversely unwilling to defend his face or midsection. Were it not for that colorful nickname "The Italian Stallion," Creed would have picked some other lethargic bum for a tune-up, sending him back to the Philly ratholes from whence he came. But the 50-1 underdog is both the perfect foil and the true embodiment of the American spirit — all determination and grit. Rocky sends Creed to the canvas with his first punch, the only time the champ has even been knocked out in his career. Yes, our man Balboa loses on points, but the fact that he goes the distance when nobody believed he could suggests a dignity that, say, outslugging Mr. T conspicuously lacks. There are more exciting bouts in the series (see the epic Balboa vs. Drago below), but none that better express the authentic blue-collar toughness at its core.
Pretend boxing skills: Despite Stallone's series-long habit of leading with the face, he's utterly convincing as a poky southpaw with surprising power; Weathers dances around as gracefully as any fake-boxer in movie history. 10
Style: Director John G. Avildsen isn't going to knock anyone out with style, but he proved here (and later with The Karate Kid) that his character-first approach to fighting can make unfussy staging seem electric. 8
Stakes: On the one hand, the stakes are much higher for Apollo than Rocky, just as they always are for favorites against vastly overmatched opponents. For Rocky, the worst thing that could happen is he goes back to his old life, which isn't looking so bad now that Talia Shire's Adrian is in the picture. And yet, the latter is the pride of a downtrodden city — a respectable showing is essential. He's gotta fly now! 9
Overall rating: 9

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Jake La Motta vs. Sugar Ray Robinson, ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

Starting with that haunting opening credits sequence of Robert De Niro shadow-boxing in slow-motion, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece has zero interest in the mechanics of the sweet science. So put the scorecards away: The filmmaker doesn't care to give the audience a blow-by-blow perspective on Jake La Motta's third and final bout against Sugar Ray Robinson, known as "The St. Valentine's Massacre." Instead, he turns La Motta's performance into a gruesome nightmare of popping flashbulbs, savage headshots, and blood dripping from saturated rope; the whole thing epitomizes the yen for self-destruction that's ruined his life. That taunt after the closing bell — "You never got me down, Ray" — is both petty and tragic.
Pretend boxing skills: De Niro famously gained 60 pounds to play the older La Motta, and his Method commitment no doubt had him traveling back in time to study the champ's boxing technique as well. (After sparring with the actor, La Motta claimed that the movie star could have been an ace pugilist; according to a 2010 Vanity Fair article, the actor entered a few pro fights on the sly on won two of them.) But that last Robinson fight is so abstract that De Niro's skills — and those of Johnny Barnes, as Robinson — are virtually rendered irrelevant. N/A
Style: Each fight in Raging Bull has its own texture, but this one is Scorsese at the top of his game, turning the sport into an expression of La Motta's tortured psyche. 10
Stakes: For as much as the champ punishes himself in the fight, he's a boxer of declining skills clinging to the sport for dear life, hoping an upset will keep him from falling off the precipice. 10
Overall rating: 10

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman, ‘Ali’ (2001)

Michael Mann's underrated biopic captures Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) at a time of great personal and political transformation, as he embraces Islam, faces consequences for refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War, suffers the first loss of his career to Joe Frazier, and travels to Africa for a legendary showdown against George Foreman — the "Rumble in the Jungle." In typical Mann style, Ali and Foreman enter into a titanic, larger-than-life battle in the ring, each seeming a little bit larger than themselves, as if they understood they were players in sports history. When Ali takes back the heavyweight title, it's a moment much bigger than boxing.
Pretend boxing skills: Smith seemed like a stretch to play Ali, but he spent two years building up his comparatively slender frame and immersing himself in all aspects of the fighter's life. He also  scrupulously recreates the "rope-a-dope" tactics that gave Ali the edge over an exhausted Foreman. That meticulousness pays off everywhere in the film, including the choreography inside the ring. 10
Style: Mann is one of the best directors working today. Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) is one of the best cinematographers ever. They work well together — and this fight scene demonstrates their attention to detail, nuance and knack for capturing a sense of immediacy in the ring. 10
Stakes: Just on a sporting level, Ali's attempt to wrest the heavyweight crown from a seemingly unbeatable opponent raises the tension plenty. But in tying the bout to Ali's identity and consciousness as a man, the film suggests the "Rumble" as the key event of his life. 10
Overall rating: 10

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Honey Roy Palmer vs. Hammerhead Hagan, ‘Diggstown’ (1992)

Michael Ritchie's 1992 gem features James Woods' con artist challenging Bruce Dern's small-town boxing-scene king to a $100,000 bet: An aging brawler named Honey Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett, Jr.), can beat 10 boxers over a 24-hour period. And in the ninth fight, our winded hero faces Hammerhead Hagan (Willie Green), the only fighter to ever beat him in his professional career. The odds are poor for the AARP-aged brawler, and he's beaten so viciously in the early rounds that even his gambling patron pleads with him to stay down. But you know what happens when you beg this man to throw in the towel? He'll catch it on the fly and hurls it back at you — a triumph second only to the glorious comeuppance in the tenth and final match.
Pretend boxing skills: There are "aging brawlers" and then there's Gossett, who was in his mid-50s when Diggstown was shot. He looks incredible for his age — and at a muscular 6'4", still plenty imposing — but the film kindly requests some suspension of disbelief. 8
Style: Ritchie channeled some of his old Seventies magic (see The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears), but his talent is more for comedy than choreography. The story elevates this bout more than the meat-and-potatoes filming of it. 6  
Stakes: $100,000 plus side bets are on the line. We've seen the best from two ace hustlers and a indefatigable veteran. For Palmer to go out in anything less than a blaze of glory would be unthinkable. 10
Overall rating: 8

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Stoker Thompson vs. Tiny Nelson, ‘The Set-Up’ (1949)

Think Rocky Balboa is the biggest underdog in boxing movie history? Consider the case of Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), a 35-year-old has-been who's own manager doesn't bother to tell him that gangsters have paid them to throw a fight. Stoker finds out during the fourth and final round that the fix is in — considering his opponent, the younger and faster Tiny Nelson, should have made quick work of him, it's surprising he lasted that long. Yet he refuses to go down, even with his life on the line. It's a hell of a fight: Stoker and Nelson trade blows in an electrifying free-for-all that, tragically, is fought entirely on the level.
Pretend boxing skills: Let's be honest here: There are a few times when a landed punch is clearly a couple of inches from the face or body. But The Set-Up is notable for its street-fight viciousness, so convincing as a war of attrition that Stoker feels he must win at all costs. 8
Style: Director Robert Wise stays in the ring for all four rounds, and the film's stark black-and-white photography and brutality inside (and outside) the ring were a clear influence on Scorsese when he made his boxing picture. 9
Stakes: If Stoker throws the fight, his loses his dignity. If Stoker wins the fight, he loses his life. High stakes, folks. 10
Overall rating: 8

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Monroe ‘Undisputed’ Hutchens vs. George ‘Iceman’ Chambers, ‘Undisputed’ (2002)

The great Walter Hill's chopped-up prison boxing pits George "Iceman" Chambers (Ving Rhames), a heavyweight doing time for a rape conviction, against Monroe "Undisputed" Hutchens (Wesley Snipes), who's reigning champ at maximum-security corrections facility Sweetwater. The odds are stacked against Hutchens — as they would be against any man with Fisher Stevens for a trainer — but the men trade blows evenly, parrying and striking against a ring of metal bars and barbed wire. Under lockdown, theirs isn't a fight for money or fame, but the secret honor of determining who's the real king of the ring.
Pretend boxing skills: Snipes and Rhames are both athletic, muscular, and skilled at the art of fake fighting. They're a nice contrast in style, too, with the former a quick and wiry answer to the latter's power punching. 10
Style: The fight itself reminds you why Hill is one of the best two-fisted machismo directors of his generation, but we're docking points for casting Ed Lover as a hype-man/color commentator. When Lover goes quiet for the second half of the fight, it's no coincidence that it picks up in intensity, replacing the sound of his voice with the thwack of punches landed; the action gets a chance to speak for itself and proves to be way more eloquent. And you'd think that handheld camera was an invisible referee. 8
Stakes: No one outside of Sweetwater — and a few Vegas betting circles — will know who won this unsanctioned event, but for "Undisputed" and "Iceman," their reputations are on the line. 8
Overall rating: 8

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

James Braddock vs. Max Baer, ‘Cinderella Man’ (2005)

Braddock staged one of the most storied upsets in boxing history when he outlasted Max Baer, the light heavyweight champion; the match was considered to be so lopsided that the latter didn't even bother to train for it. Ron Howard's period piece follows the long journey of the down-and-out underdog (played by Russell Crowe), as the unfortunate double-whammy of a fractured right hand and the Great Depression knocks the brutish brawler down. He returns to the ring older but hungrier, and damned if Braddock doesn't go the distance. The movie none-too-subtly suggests the mug is a stand-in for American stamina during tough times. He's the champion of our hearts.
Pretend boxing skills: Crowe's physicality has long been a defining trait as an actor — more so than, say, his mellifluous voice — so he handles himself well in the ring, as does Craig Bierko as Baer. 7
Style: An alter-boy at the Church of Spielberg, Howard gets as much out of reaction shots as he does the action in the ring. More importantly, he emphasizes the bout as an endurance test, where blows survived are as important as blows delivered. 8
Stakes: If Braddock wins, America pulls out of the Great Depression. If he loses, it's six more weeks of winter. Or something like that. 9
Overall rating: 8

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago, ‘Rocky IV’ (1985)

Meet Soviet boxer Ivan Drago — a 6'5" tall, impenetrable 261 pounds of mirthless, steroidal, state-manufactured muscle. Put him toe-to-toe with respectablly 5'10" Rocky Balboa, and the American champ looks like the Russkie's pesky kid brother. With its Best Picture Oscar tucked away on some distant mantelpiece, the Rocky series had, by this point, reached new heights of absurdity — so writer-director-star Stallone just takes it all the way by having the Italian Stallion fight the Cold War and win. (Amazingly, Balboa's can-do spirit proves so infectious that even the Soviet crowd turns in his favor.) Our hero absorbs headshot after headshot until he finally, decisively breaks through Drago's defenses and exposes him for the weak, mouth-bleeding Communist he is. The Berlin Wall would fall a few years later. Not a coincidence.
Pretend boxing skills: Stallone doesn't stray from the boxing technique that got him through the series: Gloves down, body open, leaning into punches. By contrast, Swedish actor/martial artist/future Expendable Dolph Lundgren was in his physical prime, every bit the specimen of human perfection that the Drago role required. The disparity is comical. 8
Style: The movie montages its way through the bout, with the Eighties guitar cheese of Vince DiCola's original score replacing the comparatively austere horns of Bill Conti's famous Rocky theme. What makes the fight so effective is that Drago knocks Rocky around like a ragdoll and the American keeps coming back for more. U-S-A! U-S-A! 6
Stakes: "Two worlds collide, rival nations/ It's a primitive clash, venting years of frustrations/ Bravely we hope against all hope/ There is so much at stake/ Seems our freedom's up against the ropes." You said it, Survivor. 9
Overall rating: 7

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Micky Ward vs. Shea Neary, ‘The Fighter’ (2010)

Director David O. Russell'c contribution to the genre focuses on Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a Lowell, Massachusetts brawler with a lotta heart, a domineering mother/manager and a coulda-been-a-contender brother (Oscar-winner Christian Bale) who's losing a battle against crack addiction. His big fight against Shea Neary looks like a disaster, pitting him against a superior boxer from a higher weight class. But Micky lures his opponent into a rope-a-dope-like trap of overpunching until the spirited underdog starts landing jabs and uppercuts. Cue triumph of the human spirit!
Pretend boxing skills: Wahlberg is a longtime boxing enthusiast and went straight to the source for inspiration, inviting Ward on set to mimic his mannerisms (he even had both brothers stay at his house). He also got additional help from Freddie Roach, a professional trainer, and Manny Pacquiao, who's Roach's prize student. 10
Style: Russell stays with the fight long enough to make sense of Ward's strategy, which has him losing badly on points right up until he scores a knockout in the eighth round. He's also content to let HBO Sports take over the camera and commentary as if the fight were being produced for broadcast — not a surprise, given that he purposefully used the same cameramen who shot the network's fight coverage back in the day. It's a methodology that works…sometimes. 6
Stakes: For Micky Ward, this is his one longshot chance at a welterweight title, and an opportunity for his brother to put his life back together. The human stakes outweigh the sporting ones. 9
Overall rating: 8

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Girlfight: Everett; Ali: Columbia; Rocky IV: MGM

Diana Guzman vs. Adrian Sturges, ‘Girlfight’ (2000)

Long before she fought on Pandora and got both fast and furious, Michelle Rodriguez was already perfecting what's arguably her secret weapon: that do-not-fuck-with-me glare. Her character, the public-housing teen and would-be pugilist Diana Guzman, takes up training at her brother's gym and develops a passion for the sport. Eventually, she starts taking on opponents — including her on-again/off-again boyfriend Adrian (Santiago Douglas) in an amateur featherweight tournament final. He's extremely reluctant to fight a girl, much less Diana, but after a tentative first round, they lose themselves to the sports. ("I don't care who this guy is to you," her trainer says. "Don't be afraid to hurt him.") Their relationship is staked on a willingness to hold nothing back and to fight on equal terms.
Pretend boxing skills: Rodriguez and Douglas are both playing amateurs, with the attendant headgear and glancing blows, so the impact of the fight isn't as visceral as the fake-professional bouts on this list. But the action seems appropriately scaled to the event. 8
Style: Over three rounds, director Karyn Kusama mixes up her approach effectively: The first is tentative and slow, with both fighters (and the camera) reluctant to engage; the second is more active, as they land meaningful punches; and the third is a slo-mo ballet between two young people who are taking their relationship to the ring. 9
Stakes: This is New York's first gender-blind amateur boxing final. Go, Diana, Go!  10
Overall rating: 9