Michael B. Jordan (Creed, 2015)
Michael B. Jordan spent months training to play Adonis Creed, Apollo’s son, in Creed. The hightlight of his dedication to the role? A one-take fight at the center of the movie that Jordan and filmmaker Ryan Coogler choreographed and timed-out over the course of a month.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Southpaw, 2015)
Gyllenhaal put in the blood and the sweat to play light-heavyweight champ Billy Hope. It’s one thing to transform one’s body to pass as a pugilist. It’s an entirely different matter to deliver a punch with bad intentions — and take one. The Oscar-nominee delivers on both fronts and his performance in the ring is as credible as any in the boxing-movie pantheon.
Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter, 2010)
Wahlberg has tough-guy bonafides, and his performance as real-life brawler Micky Ward in The Fighter was one of the best of a career that includes an Oscar nomination (The Departed). The HBO camera crews that filmed the fight scenes used a minimum of camera cuts, raising the stakes for the fighters who couldn’t count on the editor to hide their weaknesses. Wahlberg’s slight flaw is relatively slow hands, but I wouldn’t care to test that theory with my chin.
CLASS: SUPER MIDDLEWEIGHT
Adam Carolla (The Hammer, 2008)
Carolla used to box, so the role of an aimless, underachieving 40-year old who once showed some promise as an amateur boxer wasn’t exactly a stretch. As he said, ”It’s more than semi-autobiographical. Sadly, it’s almost a documentary.” Though he might be more capable than many Hollywood superstars in the ring, there are several good reasons his character always competes with his shirt on.
Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby, 2004)
In the early scenes of Clint Eastwood’s movie, Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald looks to be in danger of losing to the gym’s heavy bag, but she eventually hones her skills enough to hold her own against actual opponents. Still, that Oscar wasn’t necessarily for Maggie’s left hook.
Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man, 2005)
Crowe dropped more than 50 pounds (after starring in Master & Commander) to play the Depression-era heavyweight champion, Jim Braddock. He trained so hard that he seriously injured his shoulder, delaying filming for six weeks, but the effort ultimately paid off. Crowe lumbers around the ring a bit, but he throws serious punches and he’s not afraid to take one on the chin.
Will Smith (Ali, 2001)
Smith had the unconventional task of gaining weight to play Muhammad Ali, adding 35 pounds of muscle to his frame. Smith then got in the ring with real professional champions — without a stunt double — floating and stinging like the Greatest himself. Though the film plods, the fight scenes are mesmerizing, in part due to Smith’s captivating presence and athleticism.
Michelle Rodriguez (GirlFight, 2000)
The Lost star’s first role established her persona as a tough-as-nails broad, and she looked natural trading punches in the ring. Her aspiring boxer is all force but no technique, says her trainer, and that seems about right. But she glowers with a champion’s eye of the tiger, and that’s something that can’t always be taught.
Denzel Washington (The Hurricane, 1999)
Washington only has one big scene in the ring, but he nailed the part of famed middleweight, Rubin ”Hurricane” Carter. The Oscar-winner dropped 44 pounds to look and move like professional. ”I told him to take a lot of photos,” director Norman Jewison said. ”I informed Denzel, ‘You will never look this good again in your entire life.’ ”
Daniel Day-Lewis (The Boxer, 1997)
Daniel Day-Lewis prepped for his role as an Irish boxer for about three years. Shocking, right? He even trained with former champ Barry McGuigan, who eventually considered his pupil a professional-caliber pug. Unfortunately, the film’s fight scenes feel so calculated and overtly cooperative that Day-Lewis’ dedication is shortchanged. He coulda been a contender.
Tom Cruise (Far and Away, 1992)
Cruise takes on the hungry look of young Irish scrapper, Joseph Donnelly, a Jack Dempsey style pug whose only strategy is to wind up and unload. But his bare-knuckle fights in Boston’s seedy beer-halls feel like nothing more than hurried eruptions of violent catharsis.
Louis Gossett (Diggstown, 1992)
Gossett dropped 42 pounds in 14 weeks to play 48-year-old Honey Roy Palmer, who takes up a challenge to defeat 10 opponents in one day. But Gossett is no middle-aged knockout specialist, like George Foreman. Give him an A for effort, but he’s not a serious contender.
Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull, 1980)
De Niro spent more than a year training to play rugged middleweight Jake LaMotta by sparring with the actual LaMotta. He insisted they always wear headgear, though — to protect the boxing legend! Still, he gave the aging LaMotta three black eyes and a fractured rib. On-screen, De Niro paced and pounced like a tiger, delivering ferocious combinations that equaled Martin Scorsese’s stylistic camerawork.
Ryan O’Neal (The Main Event, 1979)
O’Neal’s ”Kid Natural” is far from being either, but the actor’s footwork in the ring isn’t half bad. Still, there’s absolutely no sting to his punches, making the interminable fight scenes seem like gonzo ballroom dancing. O’Neal was once considered for the role of Rocky Balboa, but this screwball comedy was a much better fit for his skills, in and out of the ring.
Jon Voight (The Champ, 1979)
Maybe Voight spent months in the gym to play Billy Flynn, the washed-up boxer who makes a comeback so he can provide for his young son. Maybe not. Voight is in fair enough shape — for anyone who isn’t a boxer. Throwing him in the ring and demanding credibility may have worked in 1979, when the actor projected the aura of an Oscar-winning leading man. Years later, however, he looks like your 40-year old neighbor in shorts.
Clint Eastwood (Every Which Way But Loose, 1978)
Technically, Philo Beddoe isn’t a boxer; he’s a bare-knuckle fighter. And Eastwood, who boxed a bit when he was younger, doesn’t seem intent on showcasing his technique. He just exchanges haymakers that land repeatedly — to little apparent effect — and occasionally he or his opponent might dodge a blow. Still, it’s Clint Eastwood.
Sylvester Stallone (Rocky, 1976)
Though Stallone later became a pile of freakish muscles, his Rocky 1.0 was a heavy-footed brawler easily hit and easily bloodied. But his giant heart kept him moving forward, and even though his talents pale in comparison to Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, the most graceful fictional pugilist ever filmed, Stallone’s skills and commitment get the job done.
Stacy Keach (Fat City, 1972)
Keach’s memorable performance as a sauced palooka will break your heart, and no boxer has ever captured the glossy gaze of a spiritual and physical beating better. So he has that going for him.
James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, 1970)
The climactic heavyweight title match between Jones’ Jack Jefferson — based on famed champ and black pioneer Jack Johnson — and his white challenger is difficult to watch. And that’s not because there’s brutal carnage. It’s simply because neither man looks like he’s ever worn gloves before.
Paul Newman (Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956)
Paul Newman was a lover, not a fighter. Playing legendary middleweight Rocky Graziano was his big career break, but his pugilism skills were primitive, to say the least. He paws at his opponents and swings wildly like a novice. Newman doesn’t land one devastating punch — and that even includes his jailyard bout with Dragline in Cool Hand Luke 11 years later.
Kirk Douglas (Champion, 1949)
Douglas plays Midge Kelly, a young go-getter full of moxie, but he’s really just playing Kirk Douglas. He moves more like a gymnast than a brawler, and any boxer would crave a shot at an opponent with a chin like his. Champion did have some impact on the genre, at least, utilizing, if not perfecting, one of the first training montages.
Robert Ryan (The Set Up, 1949)
Though it’s one of the best films ever made about the pungent cloud of larceny that lingers around the sport of boxing, The Set Up takes its action cues from professional wrestling (”You hit me for awhile; then I’ll hit you for a bit”). Ryan handles himself okay — even after he suffers a dirty low blow — but at no point do his punches look menacing.
John Garfield (Body & Soul, 1947)
“You must’ve hit him awfully hard,” says a boxing official after Charlie plasters an opponent into unconsciousness. Not likely, but just as in the film, the fix is in and everyone with eyes can see it. The most dangerous blow he ever delivers is when his buddy shakes him awake from a vivid boxing dream. Chances are Garfield’s Charlie got knocked out in his sleep too.