The Magazine

Fight Night

Bad boxing makes good movies.

Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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A CERTAIN SUSPENSE surrounds the June 8 heavyweight bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. Lewis is the defending champion, a tall, talented boxer who tends to work very fast or very slow. Against Tyson, will Lewis rush his attack, seeking a quick knockout? Or will he hang back, flicking jabs, building points, assuming that Tyson will fade? And what about Lewis's delicate chin? In forty-two fights, he's lost only twice--but both times, Lewis's opponent eliminated him with a single punch.

Tyson remains a feared puncher, having amassed forty-three knockouts in fifty-four fights. More recently, however, he's become noted less for his boxing skills than for his bizarre behavior. "Iron Mike" is "Mad Mike" now, vowing that on the night of the fight "flesh will not be enough. I will take Lennox's title, his soul, and smear his pompous brains all over the ring." If this proves untenable, will he settle for biting Lewis's ears? Or punching the referee?

The truth is, the challenger Tyson is the real star of this shabby show. These prominent heavyweights have been avoiding each other for more than a decade, opting for easier paydays against more yielding foes. (Think only of Lewis's dubious "draw" with Evander Holyfield in 1999, or of Lewis, a year later, effortlessly dispatching the hapless Michael Grant.) Boxing draws watchers on cable television, but it has seen far better days--most of them a long way back, when Joe Louis was champion and Sugar Ray Robinson a rising star. The press ignores it except when Tyson goes bonkers or some other scandal looms. Picture the boxing scene today, and one thinks of the WBA, the WBO, the IBF--and the FBI. Recent court trials have exposed, at the sport's highest levels, a continuing pattern of corruption and sleaze.

It's confusing, too. These sanctioning bodies--including the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Organization, and the International Boxing Federation--often promote different contenders and crown different champions. In Joe Louis's day, or even Muhammad Ali's, the sport could boast "undisputed" heavyweight, middleweight, and welterweight champions. Now there are sometimes three or more "world champions" in seventeen weight divisions, from heavyweight to what the IBF calls "mini-flyweight." Thus Andrew Lewis is welterweight champion. So is Shane Mosley. And so is Vernon Forrest. You need a subscription to Ring magazine just to keep track of them all.

THE CURIOUS THING, however, is that when real boxing slumps, movie boxing thrives. The last few years have seen "Night and the City," "The Great White Hype," "The Boxer," "Snake Eyes," and more come to the theaters. "The Hurricane," "Play it to the Bone," and a host of other boxing melodramas have appeared on HBO. "Ali," one of last year's most widely promoted films, has just been released on video, and a slew of further boxing movies are in the works, including--for better or worse--Spike Lee's treatment of Joe Louis's famous bouts, in 1936 and 1938, with Max Schmeling.

Boxing's cinematic appeal isn't hard to understand. Prizefighters are often colorful figures, driven by risk. They're generally surrounded by trainers, managers, and flacks, but ultimately they work alone, in a confined but public space, their strengths and weaknesses brutally exposed.

Like westerns, movies about boxing are a long-established film genre of strong tropes that the viewer immediately recognizes. The contender climbs. The underdog fights his fears. The champion fights his demons, his temptations, and the twin lures of lust and greed. And like westerns, boxing movies are almost always morality plays, inevitably informed by the values and assumptions of their times.

Consider "City for Conquest," directed by Anatole Litvak and released in 1940. It stars James Cagney as Danny Kenny, a likable fellow and--for movie audiences in the 1940s--a recognizable type. Danny drives a truck but aspires to more. He's like the seven million New Yorkers who, the film announces, "come like locusts from every nation on the globe, clawing and fighting their way to get a foot on a ladder that might lead them to success."

Danny claws and fights, hits it big, and takes his success in stride. He stays true to his girl, and he supports his brother, a composer whose symphonic salute to New York City (scored by Max Steiner) functions throughout the film as a rousing leitmotif. Danny's career ends, however, when he's blinded during a title fight. But stoicism and humility were popular American virtues sixty years ago, and so he accepts his fate and maintains his good cheer. "City for Conquest" is a melodrama (and a good one) in which fidelity and selflessness are hailed as the highest virtues.

SIMILAR VALUES pervade "Body and Soul" (1947), a darker movie with a more explicitly anti-boxing theme. Like Danny Kenny, its lead character Charlie Davis isn't particularly attracted to the violence of the ring. But he fears failure and poverty, and he wants to support his family, struggling for respectability on New York's Lower East Side. He also wants to impress his girl--a painter who quotes William Blake and represents, the film makes clear, an ideal of refinement and grace.

Charlie's moral dilemma comes when Roberts, the gambler who promotes him, orders him to throw a big fight. If Charlie wins, he risks swimming the Hudson in a pair of cement shoes. If he loses, he retires a wealthy man. By this point Charlie has been thoroughly compromised by the fight game and Roberts's world of fast money, swank night clubs, and flashy dames. He's all set to take a dive. But anti-heroes weren't around in Hollywood in the 1940s. The Jewish Charlie has his conscience stirred when, just prior to the bout, he visits his old neighborhood and meets a friend full of ethnic pride. "Over in Europe," he reminds Charlie, "Nazis are killing people like us, just because of their religion. But here, Charlie Davis is champion. So you win, you retire as champion, and be proud."

BOXING MOVIES, good and bad, appeared almost yearly from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. This was a bad time for the sport, and its critics were even more vocal than they are today. Despite the presence of popular fighters--especially Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and Archie Moore--the press increasingly portrayed the sport as dishonest and dangerous, the athletic equivalent of Russian roulette. In "Legalized Murder," a 1950 article for Look magazine, a physiologist named A.H. Steinhaus claimed that an average of ten fighters died each year from boxing-related injuries. Other fighters, "their brains knocked out," became "the living dead of pugilism, the victims of its occupational disease: punch drunkenness."

Senate hearings in the early 1960s confirmed the wide assumption that professional boxing had been essentially run for years by Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, shifty promoters with links to organized crime. Carbo and his boys routinely muscled fighters and their managers to take bribes and rig matches--even championships.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, many of the better boxing films of the era--including "Champion" (1949), "The Set Up" (1949), and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962)--took up boxing's seamier side. Based on Budd Schulberg's 1946 novel, "The Harder They Fall" (1956) is the best of these. Its main villain, Nick Benko, is a ruthless promoter convinced that boxing is nothing more than a crude form of show business. But Benko worries that marketable fighters have grown scarce. "All the good fighters are gone," he laments. "The boys are getting too smart. They all want to go to college. They don't want to fight for a living." So Benko looks elsewhere for fresh blood and finds a circus performer and promoter's dream named Toro Moreno in Argentina. Toro (played by Mike Lane) is modeled partly on Primo Carnera, a lumbering giant who briefly held the heavyweight belt in the 1930s, following a series of dubious victories. Built like a silo and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, Toro towers over his opponents. But he doesn't know a straight right from a left jab. So Benko feeds him "tank artists" paid to cower and drop.

To help promote Toro, Benko hires an unemployed sports reporter named Eddie Willis, played by Humphrey Bogart in his final film role. The jaded Eddie quickly spots Toro's liabilities: "a powder puff punch and a glass jaw." But Eddie has bills to pay, and he's tired of scraping by on a newsman's wages: "When a man passes forty," he says, "he shouldn't have to run anymore." Suppressing his scruples, Eddie becomes Toro's publicist and, eventually, his trusted friend. But Eddie soon finds himself sinking in a world of moral compromise. At close range he finds the fight game a tawdry circus of gamblers and pimps and managers who regard their fighters with sneering contempt.

Toro's myth is shattered when he meets the reigning champion, a psychopathic brawler obsessed with making "the Wild Man of the Andes" look bad. In his final fight, Toro is savaged, left battered and senseless on the mat. Benko completes the humiliation by stealing Toro's pay, leaving him fifty bucks out of a million-dollar gate. "You let him get beat to a pulp," Eddie tells Benko, "and then you leave him with a hole in his pocket." In the film's final scenes, Eddie is back at his typewriter, vowing to expose the plight of fighters in a murky system run by dishonorable men.

BOXING REVIVED during the 1960s, thanks largely to Muhammad Ali, who--as Cassius Clay--first won the heavyweight title in 1964 at the age of twenty-two. But Ali wasn't alone. Between the mid-1960s and late 1980s, boxing was thick with talent, which meant that Ali's opponents included some brilliant fighters: Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes. Meanwhile, great middleweights appeared: Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran. And then there was Raymond "Boom Boom" Mancini, who was himself like a scripted character--a resilient, likable lightweight who fought in tribute to his father, a top contender in the 1930s and 1940s.

WITH SO MUCH THEATER and accomplished fighting in the ring, the boxing movie had gone into decline by the early 1970s. There were, however, some notable exceptions, including "Fat City "(1972), directed by John Huston and based closely on an excellent novel by Leonard Gardner. "Fat City" opens with shots of the seedier side of Stockton, California. Its protagonist, Billy Tubbs (Stacy Keach), is first glimpsed in his grim apartment surrounded by empty bottles of booze: In an era of bleak movies--including "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), "Easy Rider" (1969), and "Joe" (1970)--"Fat City" provides its own atmosphere of failure and despair.

But "Fat City" is also a fine, unpretentious film offering a fair look at the world of small-time prizefighting. In recent years, boxing, like yoga, has become trendy, and it's still not uncommon, in some big-city gyms, to spot sous chefs and software designers hitting the bags and looking tough. "Fat City" shows that real fighters are almost always troubled, oddly vulnerable souls for whom discipline and distraction are more pressing needs than the distant prospect of wealth and fame. And to have true careers, fighters require a trait that guys who read the Wine Spectator tend to lack: the regular, focused ability to pummel another human being and, in turn, absorb countless blows to the head.

INITIALLY "Rocky" (1976) appears set to cover similar ground. Like "Fat City," it opens with gritty scenes of urban blight; its hero, Rocky Balboa, is a club fighter with vague means of support. Rocky, too, is a chump, one assumes, caught in a dirty world of fruitless struggle.

But then the film turns. Sylvester Stallone, its screenwriter and star, reached back to the 1950s for inspiration--specifically, to "Somebody Up There Likes Me," the 1956 adaptation of Rocky Graziano's bestselling autobiography that celebrates boxing's character-building virtues. Graziano started life in a slum, taking naturally to crime and spending time in the can. In the army, he assaulted an officer, went AWOL, and found himself incarcerated in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, where he learned to box--and boxing redeemed him. Played by Paul Newman in the film, Graziano went on to become a top contender and, the film suggests, a model husband. Proud of his accomplishments and protective of his family, the film-version Graziano stops running with hoods and gamblers, and refuses to take a dive. Like all boxing movies, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" ends with a vivid, bloody dramatization of the Big Fight--in this case, a legendary middleweight battle, Graziano vs. Tony Zale.

Boxing also redeems Rocky Balboa. Stallone's script casts the sport in a wholly positive, if fanciful, light, largely eliminating the presence of shifty promoters and suggesting, impossibly, that a champion like Apollo Creed can blithely pluck contenders from the ranks of unheralded bums. Rocky, of course, makes the most of his bout with Creed, and his brave performance underscores the patriotic themes of a film released in the bicentennial year.

One hesitates to knock the most popular boxing movie of all time, and "Rocky" does have its charms. But it is also cloying and annoying. Stallone obviously admires his own physique, and the film grants us plenty of opportunities to admire it, too. Rocky's gruff but trusty trainer (Burgess Meredith) comes straight from Central Casting. His girlfriend (Talia Shire) is lifted from Pier Angeli's portrayal of Graziano's wife in "Somebody Up There Likes Me"--just as Stallone's Rocky is essentially an extended imitation of Newman's loose imitation of Graziano. The two talk similarly, walk similarly, and are similarly shy around girls. (Although Newman doesn't look like he spent years drinking protein supplements on Muscle Beach. He looks like a guy who lived in the Village, studying method acting with Elia Kazan.)

THE SUCCESS of "Rocky" very probably inspired the 1980 release of Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," which, like "Rocky," was produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. "Raging Bull" also nods to the boxing films of the 1940s and 1950s--but Scorsese is no Stallone, and "Raging Bull "evokes darker, more explicitly anti-boxing films like "Body and Soul" and "The Harder They Fall."

Like "Somebody Up There Likes Me," "Raging Bull" is based on one of the better boxing books: Jake La Motta's 1970 autobiography. La Motta's book is a compelling if unfocused piece of self-analysis by a man who, despite his lack of formal education, had read fairly widely and thought frequently about the roots and consequences of his self-destructive actions.

La Motta's credo is: "Just don't trust anybody, anywhere, anytime." But elsewhere he admits that his life has been ruled and warped by fear of "God, fate, life." As a fighter, La Motta was celebrated for his steady legs and concrete head. He beat Ray Robinson and Marcel Cerdan, and he held the middleweight crown.

But Scorsese is less interested in La Motta's boxing than in the harrowing landscape of his mind. In the film version of "Raging Bull," La Motta is sadistic, masochistic, and crude; he is jealous, paranoid, and capable of throwing a fight for a bigger payday down the road. He is a good fighter but a weak man, a flawed hero in unheroic times.

These days, in 2002, boxing is not, in fact, hopelessly corrupt. Smart fighters can, with the right guidance and legal advice, leave the game rich and secure. Many longtime fighters have survived the sport and thrived: Just ask George Foreman, television commentator, grill salesman, and millionaire. But the fact that boxing destroys so many of its own is one of the key elements of its dramatic appeal. One thinks more readily of Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, and--most of all--Muhammad Ali, all of whom have suffered boxing's "occupational hazard": permanent damage of the brain.

LIKE BABE RUTH, Ali was one of sport's transcendent figures, somehow embodying--and exploiting--the spirit of his times. Ali was not a reader or a highly thoughtful man given to prolonged bouts of self-analysis, like Patterson. Blessed with height, speed, and intelligence, Ali was a heavyweight who fought like a middleweight, with speed and guile, like Sugar Ray Robinson, his boyhood hero. Most impressively--and fatefully--he could take a punch and a pounding better than any big man, ever.

Last year's film treatment, "Ali," was credited to four screenwriters. Perhaps as a result, the movie proved a mess: an unfocused piece of Hollywood hagiography with the pace and look of a made-for-cable movie. Every shot is a cliche. Ali's ring career is covered more or less, although his losses and near defeats--to Norton, Leon Spinks, and Holmes--are ignored. Ali's large, often disturbing personality isn't conveyed by the shallow script or by Will Smith's reverential imitation, which looks impressive in clips but soon proves wearing. (Ben Kingsley did a much better Gandhi.)

"Ali, "in fact, has little to say about boxing and a good deal to say about big-budget films assembled to divert everyone and offend no one. Its hero is vaguely portrayed as a victim of the system, a bit of a rebel and a survivor, tough but good-hearted. "Ali"is all surface, and its real interest is in all those cool props from the 1960s: tailfins, console televisions, rayon shirts.

THE BEST FILMS about Ali are both documentaries: "A.K.A. Cassius Clay" (1970), which concentrates on Ali's early career, and "When We Were Kings" (1996), which recounts his legendary 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaire. Ali, by most accounts the underdog, won the "Rumble in the Jungle" by relying on defense, using his arms to block countless hard blows until Foreman wore himself out. "When We Were Kings" includes ample clips of Ali at press conferences and in interviews, blustering, pronouncing, holding forth in his brazen way. Long before Mike Tyson, Ali understood that fighters with vivid personalities are more likely to attract publicity and that provocation is good for the gate. And like many fighters, including Tyson, Ali had a dark side that emerged during his crude, cruel tauntings of Joe Frazier, a tough fighter with a thin hide.

But as "A.K.A. Cassius Clay" reveals, Ali, like Lennox Lewis--and unlike so many other fighters, including Mike Tyson--didn't endure want or neglect as a child. He grew up in a fairly stable lower-middle-class family. And like Lewis, Cassius Marcellus Clay started boxing as a boy, mentored by men who believed in the sport's character-building virtues. Ali fought hundreds of times as an adolescent, winning amateur titles and a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. He was blessed with discipline and determination, and he believed that great fighters were noble figures and masters of their profession, like doctors and lawyers--a point he stresses in this quirky documentary.

IN ONE especially amusing segment, Ali debates his place in boxing history with the cranky Cus D'Amato, another of boxing's great characters and the man who educated Tyson in the first stage of what was once a promising career. "A.K.A. Cassius Clay" also includes splendid footage of Ali's earliest fights, including his two bouts with Sonny Liston, who was not fat and flat-footed but a finely conditioned fighter with firm, if limited, ring command. Clay is all adrenaline, bouncing and jabbing, a blazing force of life.

"A.K.A. Cassius Clay" also shows how readily Muhammad Ali took to the stage. His popularity stemmed, in large measure, from his instinctive skills as a celebrity in an exploding media age. In the 1950s and 1960s, television still inspired a certain awe, and video interviews of the era show even veteran performers and public figures looking stiff before the camera's eye. But there is Ali, utterly at ease, joking, boasting, poeticizing, modulating his mood, adjusting his tone, controlling his audience, and holding the media in thrall throughout his career.

When one compares Ali's performance outside the ring with Tyson's or Lewis's--when one compares his performance inside the ring, for that matter--one has to admit that his day was a much better time for boxing. But the result was a much worse time for boxing movies. Either way, there's something worth watching.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Baltimore.