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Sugar Ray Leonard: Teaching Hugh Jackman (and a robot) how to box

The golden gloved champion helped the ”Real Steel” star get into fighting form

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In most boxing movies, a lone combatant nobly withstands withering punishment in the ring. In Real Steel, however, Hugh Jackman plays an out-of-work ex-boxer who directs robot pugilists by remote control. This came as a relief to the actor in question. If his character had engaged in actual fisticuffs with one of the eight-foot metal gladiators, it would have been like getting punched by a speeding SUV. ”I certainly couldn’t take that,” Jackman laughs. ”Maybe Wolverine could.”

Real Steel follows the gruff, if not outright heartless, former contender Charlie Kenton as he and the son he once abandoned (12-year-old Dakota Goyo) rebuild a battered junkyard robot named Atom as a last-ditch effort to earn some cash. Unlike Optimus Prime and other sentient robots we’ve grown used to, Atom can fight only if Charlie calls the shots with his remote, or literally shadowboxes moves for him to copy instantaneously in the ring. Jackman has thrown his share of punches on screen, but in this case boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard was brought in to ensure proper form. ”I said, ‘When you’re throwing those uppercuts, you got to feel it, really feel it,”’ Leonard says, thrusting his fist upward. ”After a few takes, he got it. You see it: the veins in his arms, the intensity. The punch had emotion. The punch had feeling.” (Anyone curious about Jackman’s technique got a preview when the actor turned up on WWE Raw recently and, in a bit of preplanned horseplay, landed a solid right hook to Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler’s claim that he suffered a ”hairline mandibular fracture” as a result was less convincing.)

On top of coaching Jackman, Leonard developed a signature style for each of the robots, teaching the fighters doing the motion-capture work famous moves from boxing legends. The hammer-fisted Metro, for instance, pounds like George Foreman — ”If you go back and watch Foreman’s fights early on, he was like a sledgehammer,” says the boxer — while Atom got Leonard’s own trademark: the swirling bolo punch. Mostly, Leonard says, he tried to convey what it takes to be a champion, which he believes is less about strength than weakness. ”When you’re stone, your heart is stone, and [the crowd doesn’t] feel it,” he says. ”But when you’re vulnerable, approachable, accessible — that comfort allows the public to come to you.”

As it happens, those were the very qualities that director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) wanted to amp up in the movie itself when he first signed on. During a meeting with DreamWorks partners Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider, Levy — who has previously directed only comedies — landed the job by talking about the significance of the father-son dynamic and lobbying for a movie that was more Paper Moon than Transformers: Dark of the Moon. ”I said, ‘If the movie only has to be cool robot action, I can write a list of 10 guys who can do that competently,”’ Levy recalls. ”’But if you want me, my movie will blend machine-based action with big-time human heart, and it’s not going to be embarrassed about it.”’ When the director had finished his pitch, Spielberg reached across the conference table, shook his hand, and said, ”That’s our movie.” Sugar Ray couldn’t have choreographed it better.