10) Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) – “On The Waterfront” (1954): Say whattt? Yes, “On The Waterfront” is a crime classic, but a boxing movie? No, it wasn’t—but clearing the cobwebs one will remember that Brando’s portrayal as a promising boxer, who throws a fight early in his career to show sibling loyalty, did set the tone for a film—which earned 12 Academy Award nominations and Brando a Best Actor nod, by the way.
9) Jack Johnson (Himself) – “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” (2005) – Arguably one of the best documentaries produced by the great Ken Burns, Johnson’s true story makes him one of the few non-fiction characters on the list. His rise to the top amid Jim Crow laws and social injustice proved that the influence of boxing goes far deeper than just in the ring.
8) Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington) – “Hurricane” (1999): Widely regarded as one of Washington’s paramount roles, this true portrayal of boxer Rubin Carter shed light on a troubling story. Carter, a former middleweight boxing champ, was convicted for a triple homicide in a New Jersey bar – an act which turned positive when he was eventually freed with the help of a Brooklyn teenager. Washington easily intertwined the mix between anger and pride to give Carter a human face on film. Roger Ebert gave the ultimate compliment stating Washington’s performance was “on a par with his work in Malcolm X.”
7) Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale) – “The Fighter” (2010): This biography of “Irish” Micky Ward put Wahlberg in his comfort zone in a gritty sports drama that took place in a location very similar to his real hometown of Dorchester, Mass. Bale must be mentioned because the relationship between these brothers (talk about compelling personal doubts and loyalties) made the movie. Wahlberg was probably pushed harder in this role, considering he and Ward are real-life buddies.
6) James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) – “Cinderella Man” (2005): No question, one of Crowe’s pinnacle roles. His portrayal of heavyweight champion James Braddock was both emotional and powerful—so powerful it earned Crowe a Golden Globe nomination. Crowe’s presence as a blue-collar former boxer, who returns to see success in the boxing ring after falling down on his luck, was casting genius.
5) Johnny Walker (Mickey Rourke) – “Homeboy” (1988): A bit of a cult classic, “Homeboy” played to Rourke’s real-life persona as a tough guy with a big heart. Rourke plays a rough-around-the-edges boxer who (unknown to himself) could face critical brain damage if hit one more time. He eventually falls under the spell of his promoter and must choose love over thug life. This movie won zero awards—it was simply Rourke at his best (and before plastic surgery).
4) Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) – “Million Dollar Baby” (2004): Talk about intensity mixed with feel-good moments (and Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in one film). But Swank put a stamp on her career with this role-of-a-lifetime. Balancing the determination and sensitivity of Fitzgerald’s character, Swank did a stand-up job making sure that her character’s transition from underdog to professional was told well. In interviews, she said it was similar to her own story as well (in the acting world, of course).
3) Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) – “Raging Bull” (1980): A contender for one of the best boxing films of all time – De Niro interestingly came into this role by reading the autobiography of American middleweight boxer Jake Lamotta when on the set of “The Godfather.” Lamotta’s angry mix of sexual jealousy and rage played to Deniro’s sometimes real-life imposing demeanor. After mixed praise early, now Raging Bull is thought to be among the greatest films of all-time.
2) Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) – “Rocky” series (1976-06): What more can be said? Any film series and character that spans 30 years is not only among the best, but maybe the best character in cinematic history. Yet Stallone’s portrayal of the tough Balboa, the Italian underdog who continually gets knocked down and finds a way to fight back, could not have been played by anyone else. For all of the bad roles Stallone has done, this role will forever make him a favorite in America.
[amazon_link id=”B002M9WW30″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Rocky: The Undisputed Collection (Rocky / Rocky II / Rocky III / Rocky IV / Rocky V / Rocky Balboa) [Blu-ray][/amazon_link]