IN an era when heavyweight boxing has been dominated by white men from Eastern Europe, interest in the division faded for many fans west of Ukraine and Russia. This might suggest that the boxing fan is more colour blind than many people perceive? Debatable perhaps; but as far as Hollywood goes, the line is very clear: filmmakers are still obsessed with unveiling new white hopes.
Boxing is the film industry’s love affair when it comes to sport; no other sport comes close to matching the Sweet Science for the amount of film and TV dramas made. Whilst for boxing fans that’s a good thing, there is also the issue of honesty in the depiction of the sport. Films about black fighters are few and far between and the injustice in that is pretty obvious considering who has dominated boxing over the years. If films about swimmers or darts players featured predominantly white starring roles then there wouldn’t be any question marks about that; but from Somebody Up There Likes Me (Rocky Graziano biopic 1956) to Raging Bull (Jake LaMotta biopic 1980) to a TV series like Lights Out (Patrick Leary fictional character 2011) the amount of films featuring white boxers has been way too lopsided.
After the success of the Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund biopic The Fighter which grossed $130 million at the box office, the search, as ever, was on for the next boxing blockbuster. First Stallone and De Niro put the gloves back on in 2013 for the enjoyable and light-hearted comedy film Grudge Match. With a $40 million budget it grossed $44 at the box office and is doing well in DVD sales. The theme of Grudge Match was of an Irishman and an Italian who were light-heavyweight world champions from the 1980s; which is about as believable as two 60-year-olds settling the score 30 years later and having a classic barnstormer.
In December 2014 the media published pictures of a pumped up muscle bulging Jake Gyllenhaal for his role in the not yet released film Southpaw. Gyllenhaal’s character being the appropriately named ‘Billy Hope’ is a fictional tale of a boxer who fights his way to the top whilst struggling with personal issues. A white underdog fighting against the odds is Hollywood’s favourite boxing story and has been for years. Step forward Rocky Balboa though it is worth noting that Lennox Lewis said of the Rocky franchise “To be honest I wasn’t worried that he was white, I just identified with the character’s will to make it and succeed so actually I identified with the film.”
On the Internet Movie Data Base, it lists the 100 most notable boxing films – of which only 18 don’t feature a white fighter as the star (the 18 ‘non-white’ films include Far Eastern movies as well as documentary features of Louis, Tyson and Ali). From the 1940s to now, the Irish American boxer is what the film industry considers the biggest box office draw. In America, the Irish are the biggest white ethnic group and appealing to that demographic is still number one priority. In the first decade of this century the highest grossing boxing movies were 1. Rocky Balboa whose character was Italian American. 2. Million Dollar Baby in which Hillary Swank played the Irish American Maggie Fitzgerald. 3. The Fighter, the story of Irish American’s Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. 4. Cinderella Man the story of Irish American James J. Braddock.
Irish and Italian Americans have not had that much success in the boxing ring in the past few decades, but in the TV and Film industry they are still the undisputed champions of the boxing world.
So obsessed with the white boxing star, that even the Jewish female promoter Jackie Kallen had a film biopic made of her life titled Against The Ropes and starring Meg Ryan. Whilst welcome in itself as an interesting film idea, it still very much emphasizes that Hollywood would rather make a film about a white promoter – as opposed to the charismatic black stars of whom Kallen would liked to have promoted.
The three most notable and famous films about black fighters were biographical. In 1970 The Great White Hope was adapted from a stage play and starred James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson. In 1999 Denzel Washington starred as Rubin Carter whose career was sabotaged by a miscarriage of justice. Carrying a budget of $50 million, the Hurricane made $74 million at the box office, which perhaps proves that the public can be colour blind for boxing films. In 2001 Will Smith was handed the impossible task of being ‘The Greatest’ in the film Ali. The film made $88 million at the box office (around the same as Cinderella Man) but because of the large budget ($107 million), it relied on video and TV sales to make profit.
In 1996 The Great White Hype came out which starred Samuel Jackson as a corrupt promoter. Jackson’s character was on the lookout for a money drawing contender and he had two main conditions: white and preferably Irish! The film and TV industry still carry the same key searches when looking for the next boxing film star. If the brothers Mickey Ward and Dicky Eklund were black then one has to question whether or not The Fighter would have been made.
Matthew Bazell is the author of ‘The Greatest Fights That Never Were’.