Bad boxing makes good movies.
Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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.