As the second part in my favorite/best sports movies of all time, this chapter deals with the best fighting movies. Since they are all contact sports, I’ll throw them all in one basket. Right off the bat, one movie that stands out—which is the true-life story of a great middleweight boxing champion—is that of Raging Bull. Voted the best movie of the 1980s, Raging Bull is a gritty look at the seedy world of boxing during the 1950s. Not to mention the hardcore character of Jake LaMotta, who’s incredibly still alive today at 96 years old.
When considering fighting movies, I would have loved to throw in Bruce Lee movies. While his movies didn’t particularly center on any competition, the martial arts expert did have fight scenes staged where he would showcase his craft. A craft that has gone unmatched by anyone. Just imagine if Bruce Lee would have had the opportunity to fight in the UFC. Would anyone have defeated him?
It can be argued that the great Bruce Lee would have wiped out any competition in today’s MMA. In his movies, you’ll often see Lee applying an arm bar or various other moves. The Way of the Dragon, which includes a final fight scene between him and fellow martial artist Chuck Norris, was perhaps the greatest fight ever portrayed in such a movie.
Getting back to boxing, Rocky rivals Raging Bull for best boxing movie ever. Then we have Rocky II, III, IV, Rocky Balboa and finally Creed. On a personal note, I could watch the Rocky movies repeatedly—the exception being the third installment in the series—with Mr. T and Hulk Hogan. Awful, awful stuff.
So where do I begin ranking these? I’m sure fans will have movies I leave out or those that they don’t deem belong on my list. But as any ranking goes, it’s all opinion. Yet I can guarantee that if you watch any of my 10, you’ll be entertained! So let’s give it a whirl and spit out my 10 favorite fighting movies of all time.
10. Best of the Best (1989). Not a lot of great acting here, with Eric Roberts getting the main role. But the competitive nature of the film makes it interesting. Having seen it only once, I’d certainly watch it again.
9. Vision Quest (1985). Matthew Modine does a great job as the star wrestler in this high school sports movie, finding the determination to beat the local unbeatable wrestler that competes in his division. Some scenes are kind of cheesy but the story of determination and heart make it a must-see—even if just once.
8. Rocky Balboa (2006). When Sylvester Stallone wrote the original Rocky, he fully intended on being the star as well. In trying to sell the movie to a producer, he was told that another actor would take the main role. Stallone refused and continued on until he became the main character, Rocky Balboa. The rest is history. Winner of an Oscar for Best Picture in 1976, the movie was a smash. And who would have thunk at the time that there would be five more movies in the series?
I could have easily listed all six—including the final chapter Creed—where Balboa coaches up his old Apollo Creed’s son—who never got to know his father but only his story.
7. Million Dollar Baby (2004). A really, really solid movie. Clint Eastwood’s movies usually are quality flicks with great story lines. This one deals with women’s boxing, something you don’t see often—especially in the movies. And, this movie could probably even be ranked even higher.
6. Cinderella Man (2005). As I’ve indicated in the past, I really enjoy true story movies. Here we have another telling of the former heavyweight champion, James Braddock. Russell Crowe is excellent as the lead, and the movie depicts how big the sport of boxing was in the early 1900s.
5. Fearless (2006). As I really enjoy true stories, along comes another at No. 6 with Jet Li’s on-screen biographical of Huo Yuanjia—a master of Chinese Martial Arts and the founder as well as spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. Yuanjia’s life was short, reaching just 42 years of age. The fights in the film are excellent and aside from Bruce Lee, Jet Li is a lot of fun to watch. Not a sports movie, but Romeo Must Die is also a favorite of mine. And it’s one where you can see Li’s martial arts skills on full display.
4. Raging Bull (1980). This is the favorite fight film of all time by many. While indeed a great one, it’s dark—focusing the dark side of professional boxing—including a time when fights were fixed. Robert De Niro playing Jake LaMotta leaves you with the thought that LaMotta was not a very nice man. He was extremely jealous and had a nasty mean streak. Still, it’s a solid movie and gives fans an idea of the good and bad sides of the sport known as the “The Marquess of Queensberry rules.”
3. Gladiator (1992). Four more remain on my list and Gladiator the fight movie—not the one about the Roman empire—is a gritty and corruption-filled film which nearly mirrors Fight Club—which came out seven years later. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the flashy boxer who is highly-skilled while the “great white hope” James Marshall plays the part of Tommy Riley. Brian Dennehy plays Jimmy Horn, the scumbag owner of the underground boxing organization who in the end fights Tommy Riley bare-knuckled. In this movie, you’ll see how it can be in a low income neighborhood high school, among many other things.
2. Bloodsport (1988). We’ve got a true story here was well, one of martial artist Frank Dux, an American martial artist serving in the military who decides to leave the army to compete in a martial arts tournament in Hong Kong where fights to the death can occur. There have been articles on how factual the movie is in regards to Dux’s life, not to mention whether or not Dux actually accomplished the things he indicates he has. Either way, of all the movies listed here, this one focuses primarily on the fights themselves. And once again, Bolo Yeung appears, though much more intimidating in this one as the defending champion of the kumite. This is a movie I could watch many times over just for the fight scenes.
1. Rocky (1976). Everyone’s No. 1? Maybe… maybe not. But this is a classic. The complete underdog versus the world class champion. While only a fictional story, it’s a great story that has determination, heart, love, and blood and guts. Burgess Meredith did an outstanding job as the manager. Burt Young is absolutely fun as Paulie. Carl Weathers, the former NFL player, makes Apollo Creed a household name. Talia Shire teams with Sylvester Stallone to create what might be the finest love story in an ongoing movie relationship.
The soundtrack for Rocky and the remaining movies in the series all became extremely popular, of course. But the main song, Gonna Fly, has been used repeatedly by fans who need a little inspiration or motivation. As a teenager (17 in 1976), I remember working out to the soundtrack. I had the t-shirt, and went to see Rocky II at the local theater. While standing in a long line to get in for the premiere, some idiot comes out from the first showing and yells to the crowd waiting, “Rocky wins!” Gee, thanks. Still, the rest of the series is worth it.
So there it is. My personal top 10 but many, many movies could have replaced what’s above. But what would this article be without mentioning those Bruce Lee movies and some other honorable mentions?
The Way of the Dragon (1972). My first choice of three Bruce Lee movies that are on this list. Lee is arguably the greatest martial artist in history and it’s a shame he never had the opportunity to fight in today’s MMA world.
But on screen, he is our most exciting hand-to-hand combat star ever. Watching him handle the nunchucks (actually spelled “nunchaku” from its origin as a Okinawan weapon), is one of the most amazing and jaw-dropping spectacles to witness. Lee was the master of using the weapon, one that became his primary choice in combat. In The Way of the Dragon, he is pitted against Chuck Norris in one of the all-time great movie fight scenes. Bruce Lee movies could be listed multiple times in anyone’s list just based on his fight scenes alone.
Enter the Dragon (1973). Following his battle with Chuck Norris, Lee stars in Enter the Dragon—in which he fights in a tournament. It featured several martial arts practitioners including Bolo Yeung—who would star in Bloodsport—as well as Jim Kelly, John Saxon and Robert Wall. Lee whips everyone he faces in the movie and his complete skills are on full display.
Dragon, the Bruce Lee Story (1993). Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee) is the star of this movie. He does an outstanding job portraying the life of Bruce Lee all the way up to his untimely death. Word about the fight scene against the Chinese community’s hand-picked fighter pitting Lee against their top man is that it was a bit over exaggerated. However, the fight did take place and Lee did win. By doing so, he was permitted to continue teaching his craft—something elders in that San Francisco community did not want him doing to anyone not Asian. But the movie is very entertaining and insightful. I’ve seen it many times and it never gets old.
Game of Death (1978). Hey, Bruce Lee again! And in this one, you’ll see him applying an arm bar on the seven foot Kareem Abdul-Jabar. More of Lee at his best, as very few of Lee’s movies fail to entertain if you enjoy watching martial arts.
The Last Dragon (1985). If you’ve never seen this flick, it’s undoubtedly corny. However, something in the martial arts-themed movie will grab you. It stars Taimak as Leroy Green and Vanity as the primary female love interest. Again, a pretty ridiculous movie. But, it kick-started the solid martial arts film career of Ernie Reyes, Jr.
The Karate Kid (1984). The original version with Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita is more proof that you simply cannot remake good movie—as Will Smith’s son tried to do in 2010 with Jackie Chan. That said, the music in the first Karate Kid is pretty lame. The acting was also not so great, but the story was good and the movie is enough to make you want to watch it at least a second time. All the sequels following the first movie failed to match the draw that the original produced.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The theatrics in this martial arts and deep philosophical movie were a bit extreme to the point that they were hard to believe. High-flying bodies, traveling through the air at long distances; it was showy, no doubt, but just fails to make my list of best fight movies.
Fight Club (1999). Finally, right? If you like brutal beat downs, this is your movie. It comes off as kind of seedy and the characters make it hard to win you over, but it was certainly worth mentioning.