Boxing’s primal pull: a dance with death

Fight films resonate with audiences in uncertain times

Just to walk past the “Rocky Balboa” poster in the cineplex seems like deja vu all over again. The thick figure in that bulky gray sweat suit, black watch cap and fingerless woolen gloves, standing on the steps overlooking Philadelphia, one fist punching the sky in triumph: It ain’t ovah ’til it’s ovah.

What is it about Rocky, an unexceptional mug, none too bright, that’s captured the eager, hopeful imagination of audiences for 30 years now? And why has the bloody boxing ring, a savage atavism to many, perennially stood in Wagnerian fashion for the ring of truth — particularly when it’s almost always surrounded by a sea of corruption — so much so that the fight film has become an enduring subgenre?

Perhaps it’s because of the irreducible, blunt immediacy of a fight where character, to paraphrase Joe Louis, can run but it can’t hide.

“All sports are dramatic,” says Budd Shulberg. “Boxing is the most dramatic of all. It’s much more personal, one-on-one. An athlete in any other game can win or lose, but then there’s the next game. One fight can really change a man’s career and his life. It’s possible, like when Tunney fought Dempsey, that he’ll never be the same.”

Shulberg is a well-known Hollywood figure (his father B.P. Shulberg was one of the industry’s first moguls) who wrote the classic “On the Waterfront,” in which Terry Malloy’s thwarted physical courage in the ring ignites a moral courage in his life; and the novel “The Harder They Fall,” where Humphrey Bogart, in the film adaptation, bears ghastly witness as an onscreen reporter to how the mob has terminally ruined the life of a giant but guileless champion. Rod Serling did the same with Louis “Mountain” Rivera in “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”

Mob rule, in fact, has been a general rule about fight films, a conspiracy so malevolent that a fighter, already beaten before he climbs into the ring, has nothing to fall back on but his own scarred integrity. Robert Ryan’s worn face carries a sneer of cynicism through “The Set-Up,” but in his climactic fight he double-crosses his double-crossers by discovering and then refusing to surrender the irrefutable core of himself, knowing it will be at the cost of his life.

John Garfield does the same at the end of “Body and Soul,” throwing the kingpin fixer’s favorite line back in his face like an uncashed check: “Everybody dies.”

When fight films depict character as destiny, they sometimes reach the level of classic tragedy. Kirk Douglas’ brain hemorrhage at the end of “Champion” seems less of a mortally physical collapse than the fatal buildup of accumulated toxins from his powerfully venomous personality. Every ferocious ring success of Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” is the measure of his failure at real life, which mockingly eludes a man’s fists and the belligerent swell of his chest.

The subtext of every prizefight, like bullfighting, is death — every fighter who steps into the ring risks it, and every fight crowd is subliminally charged with the sense of its possibility. And if bullfighting has a sexual element — brute razor-sharp horns brushing by a man’s unprotected genitalia, or as Hemingway metaphorically put it, “his manhood” — there’s something orgasmic in the knockout moment as well, when the crowd rises to witness the money shot, the instantaneous, overpowering moment of a man (and frequently these days, a woman) being separated from his senses. And his total surrender.

Maybe that moment, like real sex, is incommunicable, or at least out of visual reach. Which may be why fight films tend to resort to clear heroes and villains (was Russell Crowe’s James J. Braddock ever less than noble in “Cinderella Man”?) or else carry a social context.

“The reason that there are more boxing movies than football or baseball movies is that boxing plays on the American Dream of Horatio Alger prevailing against the powers that be,” says Shulberg, who is coming out with a volume of his writings, called “Ringside.”

“The dream of glory is something deeply imbedded in the American psyche. I wouldn’t put ‘Rocky’ on my list of top 10 boxing films. It was like a fairy tale. But it attracted a lot of people who have no interest in boxing but were taken with the theme of the little guy overcoming obstacles.”

Journalist and HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant says boxing movies “are often compelling for the same reason that fights and fighters are compelling.

“They’re personal dramas on a closed stage,” adds Merchant. “No one can hide from who they are. They stand virtually naked in the face of physical and emotional danger. The ring is where we watch human beings under extreme pressure, in a story of who they are and how they got there that flows in and out of the fight.”

Merchant has seen an evolution in fight films, from the beefcake days of Errol Flynn posing as Gentleman Jim Corbett, when boxing, like horse-racing, was a mainstream sport, to “Million Dollar Baby,” “which shows the after-effects of a fight, something you seldom see.” In the meantime, “there’s been a built-up glamorous attraction between Hollywood and the subterranean world of the fight game.”

Fight films tend to crop up in response to periods of social consciousness and the stress of ungovernable history, where ordinary people feel, as poet Ezra Pound put it, “helpless against the systems.”

The ravages of the Great Depression, where government and big business failed the common man — and opened the field to organized crime — spawned a number of movies in which the average Joe was so up against it that he either grabbed a gun or raised his fists (as Jimmy Cagney did in “City of Light” ).

When “Rocky” came out in 1976, the country had been through a searing decade of war, assassination, racial and generational rage and cultural breakdown. The evils of the age had even snaked up into the Nixon White House.

“The movies were dominated by present-day cynicism, like ‘The Sting,’ ” says Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune. “‘The Godfather: Part II’ showed us how we got where we are today. Then ‘Rocky’ came along. It had been awhile since we’d seen a boxing picture. The ring is a great metaphor for human conflict stripped down to its basics. And class issues aren’t off the screen for long.

“… Boxing films owe a lot to Clifford Odets’ ‘Golden Boy,'” adds Phillips, “where an artist is forced into the unhappy choice by forces out of his control. And they played well in the postwar noir era. ‘Rocky’ offered a kind of physical therapy. People like to feel that it’s possible to win and to get your life back together.”

Maybe it’s just coincidental, but in our post-9/11 world, in which raging jihadists swear vengeance on the West and scheme to get hold of nuclear warheads, the British resurrect their national paragon of suavete and derring-do, James Bond, to show anxious audiences that fearlessness includes knowledge of how to shoot a cuff. In America, Rocky answers the bell once again. Time may wither and custom stale, but the little guy still stands tall.