12 Underrated Boxing Movies You Need To See

Boxing has always transferred well to the screen because it is an individual sport with individual stories. Boxers may have family, friends, managers, and a training corner, but aside from ringside yells of "cover-up!" and "go to the body!" these fighters are on their own. This isn't tennis or golf, and the stakes are higher than returning your opponent's serve or knocking a small white ball into a hole. This is boxing, a game of rules-based violence that sanitizes aggression into a test of speed, power, tactics, and strategy.

It is not just the ring that's fertile dramatic ground, either. Much of the intensity comes from these fighters' lives, which are often marked by crime, poverty, and hardship. It is no wonder that cinema has seen so many boxing films in its 120+ year history, producing a great deal of wheat but also a fair amount of chaff. To help you navigate this broad oeuvre, here are 12 underrated boxing movies you need to see.

Jawbone (2017)

"Jawbone" is a meat and potatoes boxing film that treads familiar territory but does so through a harsh social realist lens. It follows Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris), a former fighter whose success in the junior ranks has become a long, distant memory. Now a man of around 40, Jimmy stumbles along London's South Bank, drunk and aimless. He has no job, no life, and soon no house, as an eviction notice has been issued on his late mother's flat, where Jimmy lives alone.

After a fracas at the welfare office and a clash with the police, Jimmy makes a tentative visit to William Carney (Ray Winstone), a gruff gym owner who offers him a place to train, providing he stays off the booze. However, Jimmy needs more than shelter and routine, he needs money, so he reaches out to Joe (Ian McShane), a dangerous underground fight promoter who arranges a white-collar bout that will likely send Jimmy to the hospital or the morgue. This premise might sound like old rope, but "Jawbone" transcends expectations with strong performances and ⁠— most importantly ⁠— a potent blast of kitchen sink realism. Much of this aesthetic can be attributed to cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, who shoots the film with stark and tangible harshness. Director Thomas Napper uses this to maintain a sense of pain and danger that relates not just to Jimmy's upcoming fight but his looming alcoholism as well.

The Boxer (1997)

"The Boxer" seldom features in retrospectives of Daniel Day-Lewis's career, let alone the boxing genre. It was the third collaboration between Day-Lewis and director Jim Sheridan and is set during the waning days of the Troubles, which ravaged Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until 1998. The film opens with Danny (Daniel Day-Lewis) shadow boxing in the yard of an imposing Victorian prison, which he is about to leave after a 14-year sentence for his role in the Irish Republican Army. The shot establishes a cold, desaturated palette that casts a bluish hue over Belfast's pebbledash walls, brutalist tenements, and foreboding military checkpoints. However, Danny returns to this harsh milieu in good shape and with a clear mind. He's not a strident pacifist nor is he a stubborn ideologue. Instead, Danny's priorities lie in humanity, compromise, and Maggie (Emily Watson), his old flame.

Danny maintains his quiet sense of purpose with boxing, which he practices dutifully at the Holy Family Boxing Club, a non-sectarian space that he runs with Ike (Ken Stott), a heavy drinking trainer. Soon, Danny and the Holy Family become a force for solidarity, thawing interfaith relations much to the disgust of Harry (Gerard McSorley), a bloodthirsty IRA fanatic. Meanwhile, Danny stirs further trouble with his love for Maggie, whose reciprocations could prove deadly. The threads of faith, love, and hate weave to spin an adequate yarn, mixing effortlessly strong performances with a stark sense of place and a high-impact series of fight scenes.

A Prayer Before Dawn (2017)

"A Prayer Before Dawn" concerns Muay Thai, not boxing, but Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's film is among the most potent fight films in recent memory. It is based on the memoir of Billy Moore, a British boxer from Liverpool, England whose childhood was marred by poverty and abuse from his alcoholic father. By age 16 Moore was committing burglaries and numerous drug-related crimes, earning himself lengthy stints in Britain's prison system. After cleaning himself up, Moore escaped this life and moved to Thailand, where he worked as a teacher, boxer, and stunt man. However, a relapse into drugs and drug dealing soon attracted the Thai authorities, who sentenced Moore to three years in prison.

Much of this character detail comes not from "A Prayer Before Dawn" but from History vs. Hollywood, a useful fact checker. This reflects the film's aesthetic, which eschews narrative detail in favor of mood and ambiance, excelling in both. "Dawn" has a meticulous visual and aural style that is engineered to engross and oppress, whether it's the scuzz of the city, the frenzy of the ring, or the sweaty rabble of the prison. It is an electric sensory experience. The performances are good, too, as Joe Cole assumes the role of Billy Moore with tooth and nail, giving a performance that's fierce yet relatable to an English-speaking audience, owing to the cast of Thai gang members who speak without subtitles, forcing us to join Moore in making sense of their sinister gestures.

The Set-Up (1949)

"Don't you see, Bill? You'll always be just one punch away," pleads Julie (Audrey Totter), the wife of Bill "Stoker" Thompson (Robert Ryan), a journeyman boxer. Julie has seen Bill get hurt too many times, yet he insists that success is just "one punch way." This is the exploitative reality of many fighters who compete in what is perhaps the hardest and most dangerous sport for very little at all. They're often lined up like bowling pins to show off the next big prospect, who knocks them out to the glee of heckling spectators. "The Set-Up" director Robert Wise creates a terrific ringside atmosphere. A beautiful shot shows Bill walking through a stadium tunnel and observing an undercard fight. It's a sequence of exquisite lighting and thoughtful framing that also confronts Bill with his audience, whose cries of "kill him!" make no secret of their bloodlust.

Dejected but dignified, Bill returns to his dressing room, where he prepares for his match against Tiger Nelson, a tough young fighter. Four rounds into the action, Bill is informed that the fight is fixed and that he must hit the canvas., but Bill has other ideas. After all, as he explained to Julie, "If you're a fighter, you gotta fight." The pugilistic scenes have greater physicality than you may expect of a film entering its seventh decade. In fact, the fight between Bill and Tiger may have too much physicality, as they pummel each other like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.

Hard Times (1975)

Let's make one thing clear: the fight scenes in "Hard Times" are not good. Charles Bronson may have been lean as a whippet, but he is let down by a rather Batman-esque orchestra of "WACKS," "KAPOWS," and other dodgy sound effects. Consider the context of this Walter Hill-directed neo-noir, though. It's the Great Depression and "Speed" (James Coburn), a bare-knuckle fight promoter, is hustling across the Deep South. Just as Speed's man gets knocked out in a railway yard, Chaney (Charles Bronson) appears from the shadows, intrigued by what he's observed. After reaching a deal, Chaney proceeds to end his opponent with one punch, much to the delight of Speed, who has dollar signs in his eyes.

Again, "Hard Times" may pull its punches, but there is much to enjoy in the film's location work, its sense of period, and the rakish charm of James Coburn, who, with those famous teeth of his, plays Speed with garrulous charisma. Bronson, meanwhile, is typically hard-boiled as Chaney, a man too tough for bravado. According to director Walter Hill, these performances were extensions of the actors' personalities. "Bronson was a bit of a character," Hill recollected, "Very angry guy. Didn't get along with a lot of people ... He thought there was a cosmic injustice when he was not a movie star at 35 ... he didn't get there till 45 or whatever." Coburn, by contrast, was a gregarious presence who "everybody liked and got along with."

Knuckle City (2019)

"Knuckle City" is a grim urban drama not from Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or the East End of London but from Mdantsane, the boxing mecca of South Africa. Our protagonist is Dudu (Bongile Mantsai), a boxer who enjoyed success in his youth but is now washed up and middle-aged, a "tin can" barely worth a spot on the undercard. Defiant, he looks to make a comeback with the help of his brother Duke (Thembekile Komani), a livewire mobster whose boss controls the local boxing scene.

This may sound trite at face value, as crime, poverty, and bloody-minded ambition constitute the spine of many boxing films. Yet Jahmil X.T. Qubeka's movie puts a fresh spin on the genre through the conviction of its performances, the beauty of its presentation, and the sheer high drama of its narrative. Yet this potency has not found an international audience for "Knuckle City," which has a mere 103 user votes on IMDb.

Chuck (2016)

Who inspired Rocky Balboa? Some may assume it was Rocky Marciano. However, it was actually Chuck Wepner, a hardy New Jersey fighter who went 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali, knocking the legend down in the ninth round. Wepner lost the fight but his defiance made for a great underdog story, compelling Sylvester Stallone (then a bit-part actor) to pen the most famous boxing script in Hollywood history. The only problem is that no one quite realized it. "My name is Chuck Wepner," narrates Liev Schrieber, who nails the titular role, "You don't know me. Well, you do know me but you don't know you know me."

This is the crux of what "Chuck" is all about: a man's search for recognition. As the eighth-best heavyweight in the world, Wepner has his admirers in Bayonne, New Jersey, but it's not quite the attention he's looking for, especially when they call him "The Bleeder," a moniker he hates. Things are on the up for Wepner, though, and his chances positively boom when he gets the fight with Ali, giving him a taste of fame that will ultimately condemn him. Wepner needs to be played by an actor with both presence and physicality, and "Chuck" gets one in Liev Schrieber, who drives the film with charisma and vulnerability. This is not a hagiography, though. Wepner may be fun, friendly, and workmanlike, but he's also a selfish lover who gets lost in a drug-addled pursuit of validation. 

Out of the Furnace (2013)

Simultaneously a war film, fight film, and Rust Belt drama, "Out of the Furnace" is a mixed bag. It centers on Pennsylvania brothers Russell (Christian Bale), a steel mill worker, and Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq veteran. Their relationship may appear to be a familiar dynamic, with Russell serving as the grounded elder who clears up Rodney's mistakes. Yet it is Russell who's just served time for vehicular manslaughter, bringing another twisted complexity to the film's dark, dysfunctional world.

Still, despite that terrible occasion, Russell is a rock for his troubled brother, who has run up a debt with John (Willem Dafoe), a scuzzy loan shark. Rodney pays him back by fighting in bare-knuckle boxing contests held in old factories and warehouses. Money becomes so desperate that Rodney joins a fight hosted by Harlan DeGroat, a loathsome criminal played with visceral evil by Woody Harrelson, whose performance alone is reason enough to watch this film. Harrelson is joined by five other Oscar nominees, three of them winners. "Out of the Furnace" is a real actor's film, yet the Academy paid it no mind back in 2014 and the critics were oddly harsh, too. Granted, it's not an original piece of work, owing much to "The Deer Hunter," but Scott Cooper's film is a real nuts and bolts affair with great performances and a memorable ruthlessness.

Journeyman (2017)

"Journeyman" may be the bleakest film on this list. After all, it was directed by Paddy Considine, whose debut film "Tyrannosaur" ranks among the most viscerally powerful dramas of the last 20 years. His directorial follow-up titled "Journeyman" puts Considine in front of the camera as Matty Burton, the world middleweight champion. Approaching middle age, Matty defends his title against Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh), a brash young opponent who puts him through his paces. Absorbing some of Bryte's biggest shots, Matty wins the grueling fight and returns home with his championship belts. However, as he rests on the sofa, Matty is struck by a terrible headache that causes him to faint. Found by his wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker), Matty is rushed to the hospital to undergo life-changing brain surgery.

What ensues is a film that will put a lump in your throat and more than a tear in your eye. Matty is no longer the man he once was. His thoughts are slow, his speech confused, and his movements sluggish. He cannot recognize his infant daughter or hold a conversation with his wife. It is such an acutely depressing scenario that MMA fighter Michael Bisping cited the film as an influence on his retirement.

Grudge Match (2013)

If you've just been wrecked by "Journeyman," then may we suggest "Grudge Match"? Not the best film on this list, it's formulaic, predictable, and overlong, yet Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro's chemistry will have you laughing with fairly satisfying consistency. As Henry "Razor" Sharp, Stallone plays the gruff, miserly straight man, while De Niro lays the groundwork for "Bad Grandpa" as Billy "The Kid" McDonnen, the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed old goat. Arch enemies, the Pittsburgh brawlers fought twice, each scoring a victory. However, before the score could be settled in a third fight, Sharp retired inexplicably. Thirty years later, McDonnen continues to bay for Sharp's blood, but Stallone's character is adamantly against any rematch. This changes, of course, and the build-up to the so-called "Grudge Match" unfolds with plenty of mud-slinging and boomer jokes about social media, iPads, and moobs.

A host of supporting players are thrown in, the best being Dant Slate Jr., a boxing impresario played by Kevin Hart with typical high energy. Alan Arkin appears as Stallone's trainer, giving the sort of "I'm too old for this s**t" routine that you would expect. That stuff's fine, but the narrative is bloated by the presence of Sally (Kim Basinger), Sharp's estranged girlfriend, and B.J. (Jon Bernthal), McDonnen's estranged love child. To detail any further would be a waste of time. The familial schmaltz may inject 25 minutes of needless bloat, but "Grudge Match" remains a fun and easy watch that will meet modest expectations.

Champion (1949)

Boxing noirs often tell the story of an exploited fighter, the victim of a gangster, promoter, or both. However, the opposite is true in "Champion," the 1949 drama that made an icon out of Kirk Douglas, who stars as Michael "Midge" Kelly, a drifter, deceiver, and double-crosser.

Hitching rides and riding freight trains, Kelly has a shotgun wedding with Emma (Ruth Roman), a wholesome California girl, before leaving her for Los Angeles, where he visits an acquaintance at Haley's gym. Kelly proves to be a natural in the ring and tours the country, getting ever higher from the crowds, whose attention he craves. For Kelly, there is a positive correlation between success and immorality. The bigger he gets, the more abusive he becomes, and it all culminates in a boxing showdown that ends the film in true noir fashion. Douglas earned an Oscar nod for his performance, which begins in a somewhat jarring happy-go-lucky manner only to improve as his character gets darker and angrier.

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Another Mark Robson picture (the first was "Champion"), "The Harder They Fall" was Humphrey Bogart's last film before his premature death at the age of 57. A beautiful production with strong performances from Bogie and Rod Steiger, it's a classic boxing noir about greed and corruption. Bogie stars as Eddie Willis, a broke sportswriter and acquaintance of Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), an amoral boxing promoter pushing the enormous Argentinian Toro (Mike Lane) as the next big thing in the heavyweight division. While Toro may tower over his opponents, his size is rendered useless by plodding hand speed and bovine ring smarts. He simply cannot box. 

Still, there's a carnival quality to Toro, whose brawn and exotic backstory sell plenty of tickets. All Benko has to do is fix the fights. After some bargaining, Eddie agrees to help Benko in this endeavor, yet he begins to defy the will of Benko and his gang of affiliates, whose attitude is, "Fighters come and go, managers stay on forever." The film is made by its leads. Steiger is a bullish presence, stiff, abrasive, and utterly irritated by anything that obstructs his success. Bogie isn't so much of a villain, the opposite in fact. Eddie may be street smart and vaguely unscrupulous, but he retains a strict sense of fairness and defends the ingenuous Toro from the sharks who all want a piece of him. This is charming, old-fashioned cinema.