Hajime No Ippo Is The Perfect Underdog Anime Story

There is nothing like a good underground story, especially an underground boxing story. There is no thrill quite like watching a boxer becoming stronger, facing adversity, and eventually being the last one standing in the ring.

There are many great sports anime about virtually every sport out there, from association football and volleyball to ping pong and more. But if you want an underdog sports story that mixes the heightened reality of anime with grounded animation, real-life techniques, and a rare story that moves beyond the typical high-school setting, there is none better than "Hajime no Ippo."

The show follows Ippo Makunouchi, a soft-spoken, gentle puppy of a guy who gets bullied at school because of how well-mannered he is. Things change when he meets a professional boxer named Takamura, who teaches Ippo about boxing. What starts as a way to defend himself and gain confidence evolves into a passion and a career, and the greatest anime underdog story ever told.

What makes it great

An anime about boxing is bound to have a lot of fights, and even 22 years after its premiere, "Hajime no Ippo" looks stunning. Studio Madhouse ("Perfect Blue," "One Punch Man," "Hunter x Hunter") ensures each fight feels realistic and every punch has weight to it. The '00s aesthetic and grainy sort of look also aids in the grittiness of the fights.

Something that makes the show stand out is how grounded it is, even within the heightened world of anime. Sure, Ippo's signature move, the "Dempsey Roll," is portrayed with steam emanating from Ippo's movements, and the sound of a jet engine activating to indicate Ippo is breaking the sound barrier with each supersonic punch. But that, and virtually every major power move in the show is rooted in real-life techniques, and the anime spends its time explaining the long history and tradition behind the techniques. This ends up making the show feel accurate and realistic, even if it does have ludicrously funny moves like The Look Away.

And then, what is a boxing story without a great soundtrack? If Ippo is anime Rocky — complete with his tendency to block punches with his face — then he needs an anime Bill Conti. Thankfully, the show's got it in Imahori Tsuneo. The composer uses jazz and plenty of guitar solos to explore the isolation and the electric excitement in Ippo's head. Plus, the songs are just pure hype-builders, especially the "I can't believe it's not Bill Conti's 'Gonna Fly Now'" track "Stand Proud."

It's about more than strength

Despite the spectacular, blood-pumping, bone-crushing, mouthpiece-dropping air-fist-rising fight scenes, "Hajime no Ippo" makes it a point to show boxing is about more than just pure strength. Like the best episodes of "Haikyu!!," which highlight the importance of each member of the team, "Hajime no Ippo" spends a lot of time showing how external factors influence a fight, from sheer luck, to pressure from the audience, to anxiety, to the bond between boxer and trainer, to psychological warfare — like a champion who hides his pain and tricks the challenger into thinking his punches aren't working.

Because this is a solo sport, there is no need to spend time with the other team players because there aren't any. Still, we get to know the other characters as much as we know Ippo, from his friends and supporters to his rivals. One of the biggest joys of the first season is watching the bullies that tormented Ippo grow into his biggest fans. As for the rivals, each one gets their own tragic backstory, their own special technique, motivation, and arc. You might get into the anime for the fights, sure, but it is the stuff outside of the ring, particularly the day-to-day life at school or the gym that makes this a special show worth following.

What it adds to the conversation

Indeed, the secret to why this is such a great and long-lasting show is how it focuses on the career aspect of boxing, and the effects such a career would have on someone's life. We learn about the economics of a sports career and the hardships most boxers on the show go through when there is little money to be made out of getting possibly-permanent brain damage every few months.

Worse yet, the show explores how fragile a boxing career is, with one prominent character being dropped by his gym for losing two fights, causing his income to be insufficient to take care of his sick mother, who passes away.

Likewise, as cool as it is to see Ippo beat the everloving crap out of someone while blocking every punch with his face, "Hajime no Ippo" doesn't congratulate him for his reckless behavior. Characters (mostly Ippo's trainer Genji Kamogawa) constantly talk about the real dangers of boxing, reminding both the characters and the audience that boxers have the shortest careers and lifespans out of sports athletes. There are also painfully poignant talks and even portrayals of the kind of permanent injuries that afflict boxers and the brain damage that is the end of many a boxer's career.

One, perhaps not intentional, theme that quickly sneaks up on you is how Ippo's eternal underdog status translates to self-deprecation and imposter syndrome. No matter how much success he achieves, Ippo lacks a killer's instinct because, again, he is a puppy in the body of a young man, and he lacks a mentality that focuses on winning at all costs. He is always praising his opponents and talking himself down, which makes any time he actually celebrates a victory all the sweeter.

Why non-anime fans should check it out

The first season is a straight-up masterpiece and a classic of the genre. There is a reason the "Hajime no Ippo" manga is still going strong after 30 years. If you want an anime version of "Rocky" with an underdog you want to root for, grounded yet still fantastical fights, an awesome soundtrack and a story full of heartbreak and fist-bumping excitement, "Hajime no Ippo" is for you.

With Michael B. Jordan declaring himself a fan of this anime, and also taking directorial duties for "Creed III," we can dream of a Dempsey Roll, some inner monologue in the middle of a fight, or perhaps even a Takamura cameo in the near future.

Watch This If You Like: "Haikyu!!," "Megalobox," "Rocky."

The first season of "Hajime no Ippo" as well as the first OVA are streaming on RetroCrush. Seasons one and three are also streaming on Crunchyroll.