Rising from a ring of fire

What film profession did Elvis Presley share with James Earl Jones?
Paul Newman played the part, as did Robert DeNiro, Carl Weathers, Kirk Douglas, Jeff Bridges, Sylvester Stallone, Will Smith, Marlon Brando, Hilary Swank, and even Charlie Chaplin.
Meanwhile, directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, John Huston, and John G. Avildsen gave direction to the genre.
Cowboys? No. Statesmen? Nope. Entertainers? Getting warmer.
No, the answer that binds the above mentioned talent together is (drum roll please)—boxing.
And it was boxing that reigned supreme at the recent Academy Awards, with “Million Dollar Baby” being inscribed inside the envelopes for best supporting actor (Morgan Freeman), best actress (Hilary Swank), best director (Eastwood), and best picture.
Now I haven’t seen the movie, but I doubt “Million Dollar Baby” can spar with the all-time classic (drum roll please)—“Rocky.” But what is it about boxing movies that can capture an audience?
The drama of the ring provides a convenient vehicle in which your typical Joe Schmo (who almost invariably is a poor city fellow of immigrant status) overcomes obstacles (usually nefarious mobsters, grinding poverty, or middle age) and personal weaknesses (typically strong drink, fast women, and double cheeseburgers).
Heavyweight champ Sonny Liston once said, “A boxing match is like a cowboy movie. There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. That’s what people pay for—to see the bad guys get beat up.”
But boxing movies have remained such a durable genre not based solely on the premise that one man wins and another man loses. What they allow us to do is speculate about what really happens behind the scenes. They enliven our imaginations and add to what we know about the sport.
Through them, we can exercise our suspicions, fantasize about donning the gloves ourselves, cheer the saints, jeer the devils, and enjoy the spectacle of pugilistic brutality from the safety of a soft seat (while your mouth is wrapped over a straw that is attached to a large Coke and your hand encapsulated by a bag of buttery popcorn).
Hollywood loves boxing movies, and they seem to fall into two categories: tales of redemption (the underdog wins it in the 15th round) and bleak stories of downfall (the washed-up boxer who can barely speak).
And what’s especially tempting is that when it comes to boxing, filmmakers find it surprisingly unnecessary to exaggerate the melodrama. You don’t need special effects, It’s cheap to make, and there are is a vast array of stories to already choose from.
Take “Rocky,” for example. It should be categorized a documentary as it is based on the life events of Chuck Wepner, a Philadelphia-based fighter who went the distance against Muhammad Ali in 1975 before succumbing with 19 seconds left in the 15th round.
(Wepner knocked Ali down in that fight for the first time in Ali’s career, just as Rocky Balboa did to Apollo Creed).
True, sometimes boxing movies can push themes to less believable circumstances (“Rocky V” is a good example of that), but redemption, dissolution, heroism, and corruption are things you can witness in any fight.
There is no reason to invent a Stillman’s Gym, or dream up a Felix Trinidad, a Mike Tyson, or a Jake LaMotta.
And boxing still is reliably cinematic, especially when you put such fighter like Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti in the same ring, or have charismatic performers like Bernard Hopkins and failed personalities like Tyson.
And Don King is still around, by the way.
But that begs a question—why are boxing movies perennially popular while boxing no longer is?
Maybe it has something to do with pay-per-view broadcasts where someone can pay $69.95 to watch Tyson bite someone’s ear off, or $49.95 to watch Andrew Golota reconfigure another man’s testicular fortitude.
Whereas in the past, fighters like Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, and George Foreman could be seen on public television.
“It’s like any other business. Only here the blood shows,” said Kirk Douglas in “Champion.”
And the boxing “business” might be seeing a resurgence, with “The Contender” hitting the airwaves this past Monday on NBC, which was created by Stallone, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Mark Burnett (of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” fame).
The premise will be “Survivor”-like in that it “will follow 16 professional boxers as they come to a training camp to follow their dream of becoming a champion boxer.”
As stated on its website: “The canvas of the show gives viewers a firsthand look into the real life hopes, triumphs, and defeats of the contestants and how this single-minded, consuming commitment affects their families.”
In the end, two boxers will remain and fight at Caesar’s Palace in Sin City with $1 million on the line.
Really, it’s no surprise this kind of show would arrive to television—heck, boxing gyms across the globe see it everyday, so why not us?
Why not see the sounds and images that, although clichéd, have comforted many with their easy familiarity? The fresh-faced kid walking into a gymnasium for the first time, the nervous wife at ringside, the fighter slumping exhausted in his corner between rounds.
It really is an ugly, but magnificent, game.
And why is it so special? Because it is the embodiment of our desire to see the whole of human conflict stripped down to a single conclusive battle, and because of statements like this:
“It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either, ’Cause all I wanna do is go the distance,” Rocky explains to Adrian (Talia Shire) on why he wants to fight.
“Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

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