There’s something curiously seductive about boxing. Whether it’s because there’s a great deal of respect for the sport due to the strength and commitment required to be good at it, or simply the fact that audiences love to watch people punch each other in the face, there’s pretty much an entire genre of film dedicated to the sport. Boxing films often differentiate themselves from other martial arts films, either through the general story arc, or by the presentation of the sport. People often present boxing merely as the preferred method of combat for anybody looking to pick a fight, with little detail given to the years of dedication and training to become the best. Hollywood loves to undermine the difficulty of becoming a great boxer, and tends to shy away from the more gory details of the fallout from such a career. For the release of Journeyman on March 30, which looks to be remedying Hollywood’s light touch when it comes to the long-term damage of boxing, we’re going to take a look at Hollywood’s somewhat unrealistic portrayal of boxing in general.
Boxing as a sport has been around for thousands of years in various different forms. The earliest record of boxing in the Olympics, for example, was in the 23rd Olympiad, 688 BCE, where instead of being held in rounds, fighters would go at it until one could not carry on or admitted defeat. However, while the history of boxing is clearly a long one, and there’s a great deal of tradition and discipline to the sport, people often ignore this and revel in Brad Pitt’s style of street boxing in the likes of Snatch (2000). Even films that aren’t preoccupied with the gritty fighting element of boxing don’t tend to depict the sport in the most accurate light, often glamorising the fallout of having a career in such a brutal and dangerous sport.
Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004) is perhaps one of the more accurate portrayals of boxing and the potential perils involved. Not only this, but it also happens to follow a woman’s career, one of the few successful films to do so (the less said about Girl Fight the better). Now, in reality, whilst the popularity of women fighters in both the UFC and other martial arts platforms and mediums is increasing, women’s martial arts is still nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of participants and audience – at least, not in comparison to men’s boxing anyway. This could either be because it’s not an inherently ‘feminine’ sport – meaning that it doesn’t necessarily appeal to most women’s sensibilities. Not a sexist statement, just a realistic one. Or it could be because women often aren’t as strong as men, meaning that there’s less chance of a knock out, and therefore the fights aren’t quite as entertaining. Either way, it’s a simple fact that women’s boxing is not nearly as popular as men’s. Which is why a film like Million Dollar Baby, which presented a woman’s rise to the top in a sport dominated by men is highly refreshing.
What makes Million Dollar Baby resonate is Maggie Fitzgerald’s determination, and the fact that the film truthfully and authentically shows that she isn’t the best, which is why she had to work so much harder than everyone else around her, despite her natural ability. Most people never make a career as a fighter, and even if they do, they inevitably have short careers due to age or injury, something that’s common within the martial arts world, but not necessarily one that has been portrayed realistically by Hollywood. Rather, films romanticise and glorify both the training and the fighting in films such as the Rocky series, which is where people tend to gain most of their knowledge of the sport. Hollywood tends to shy away from the danger in a way that Million Dollar Baby didn’t.
For anyone that’s already seen Million Dollar Baby, you’ll remember well the fateful and heartbreaking scene where Maggie Fitzgerald gets knocked out at the end of a round, breaking her neck on a stool and becoming paralysed. The portrayal of the accident, and the horror of Maggie’s life in the aftermath, is where Million Dollar Baby succeeds in driving home the message it had been trying to make all along. In that moment, the audience is suddenly able to understand Clint Eastwood’s resistance to give Maggie the title fights, and his guilt over the outcome. At the end of the day, Eastwood’s Frankie knows that boxing is a dangerous sport, and that terrible accidents do happen in the ring. That’s why Hollywood’s penchant for portraying the glory and the physical elitism of boxing is actually an incredibly dangerous message. It’s ok to show the bright side, but such enthusiasm should be tempered by the potential fallout of a career in boxing, which at last brings us to the Rocky series.
Undeniably the most famous boxing series, Rocky is problematic when considering Hollywood’s portrayal of boxing. Even though the films are undoubtedly iconic, is it fair to say that Rocky is perhaps the least realistic portrayal of a boxer’s career of all? Spanning nearly four decades, the series follows Rocky Balboa as he takes his first fight (picked at random) against the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. The later films, appreciating that Rocky, suffering from brain damage, probably isn’t in the best shape to continue fighting, shows Stallone training a new generation of young fighters. Creed (2015) shows the rise of Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis ‘Donnie’ Johnson, as he accepts a similarly unrealistic and fortuitous offer against the world champion. And here’s the problem: it’s so unrealistic that you can’t watch this with anything other than a pinch of salt. Whilst any publicity for the sport is good publicity, it’s almost unfair to use these fictitious fighters as a benchmark, because this simply couldn’t and wouldn’t happen, and it’s actually a pretty dangerous message. Let’s put it this way. Would you take someone with only a few months of ski lessons under their belt and enter them into the winter Olympics? Nope, because they’d probably die on the slopes, which is why Rocky’s beloved portrayal of boxing is a dangerous one. It’s the kind of portrayal that breeds arrogance. Inspiration may be good, but it has to be clear as to what is achievable, and what can be achieved safely. Boxing is not a sport to be messed around with.
Creed wasn’t particularly accurate in its demonstration of how one becomes a fighter. Although they show the grueling training montage, Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) still manages to get there in quick sharp time, and all riding on the back of daddy’s success. In reality, he wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) have been given a shot against a world champion, and would likely have been killed if he had. But in Hollywood, Donnie goes on to win the fight. And that’s because Hollywood loves to give the idea that anyone can be the best – and rightly so, as this is a message that inspires people. But unfortunately, that’s also Hollywood’s mistake. Most people don’t get there, and whilst filmmakers are good at portraying the sacrifice, they’re not good at showing the full physical and mental impact of being a fighter. Not everyone can be a fighter, and not everyone makes it – in fact, a very small percentage do, and even then their time in the spotlight is usually short-lived. Not only is it a dangerous message, that anyone could become a fighter, but it’s actually rather an insulting one. Hollywood essentially undermines the hard work that it takes to become a great fighter by making it look like any kid who can hold their own in a scrap could become the world champion. In reality, Creed should have been looking at ten to fifteen years of martial arts experience and a multitude of undercard fights before even stepping into the ring with a champion. Sure, that wouldn’t have made for a less exciting film, but it’s time that Hollywood stopped shying away from the real dangers and hardships of the sport.
Journeyman, however, looks like it’s about to give us an accurate depiction of the life-changing effects of boxing. Written, directed and starring Paddy Considine, Journeyman tells the story of the end of Matty Burton’s (Considine) boxing career as, after one devastating blow, his personality is altered and his memory begins to fail. Demonstrating the tragic aftermath of an unfortunate hit, Journeyman is sure to be a harrowing watch, but one that is sometimes needed to bring us back to the unfortunate reality that people do get seriously hurt when partaking in any combat or full-contact sport. The film is unlikely to be as far reaching as the likes of the Rocky series, but perhaps it only takes a few films on the topic to remind people of the dangers.