Hollywood has long benefited from the unscripted drama, courage and inspiration that is commonplace in the sport of boxing. Now, more than ever, boxing needs to benefit from Hollywood.
The release of “Cinderella Man” may give boxing a much-needed boost among the mainstream sports fan. The movie, starring Russell Crowe as former heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, has garnered outstanding reviews thus far.
“I guarantee you we need this movie right now because we're in trouble in boxing,” said hall-of-fame trainer Angelo Dundee, who was the film’s boxing consultant and played one of Braddock’s cornermen. “We haven't got a heavyweight we can hang our hat on. We haven't got something to excite us.”
The cliché reminds us that “As the heavyweight divisions goes, so goes boxing.” Well, the heavyweight division isn’t going anywhere right now. While Chris Byrd and Vitali Klitschko are earnest champions, they do not inspire the sporting public like Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Ali, Tyson and Holyfield.
“The heavyweight division, there is not a man mountain there at the moment,” said Crowe. “There is not one guy who we can say: ‘There is the man.’”
Crowe, Dundee and director Ron Howard spoke to the media this week during a conference call to promote the film. Each of them hoped the story of Braddock will help the sport that made Braddock famous.
“I hope the movie stimulates a lot of excitement about the sport,” Howard said.
“This is so great for boxing; it's getting everybody juiced up,” said Dundee. “I'm so happy to be a small part of it.”
Added Crowe: “I just liked the guy [Braddock]. His legacy was respected. I liked him before he was a champion. I liked who he was when he was a champion. I liked who he was and what he did after he was a champion. He didn’t have to go around being a champ the rest of his life because he just was. He was a champion man. To me, it was a wonderful successful American life and that was why it is so important to tell the story. He was on the positive side of boxing, the true side of boxing.”
The trickle down effect from boxing fantasy to boxing reality has happened before. Some fighters and fans who grew up in the mid-1970s have cited the original “Rocky” movie as their entree to the sport of boxing.
Once, after assessing his long, rollercoaster career, multi-division champion Vinny Pazienza commented that many of the peaks and valleys of his boxing life paralleled that of Rocky Balboa. He found that ironic since it was “Rocky” that inspired him to fight. “I don’t know if I owe Sylvester Stallone a debt of gratitude or a beating,” he laughed.
It seems that boxing has never been more prominent in the arts. “Cinderella Man” follows four-time Oscar winner “Million Dollar Baby” on the big screen. There have been two extraordinary and high-profile documentaries in the last year, “Unforgivable Blackness” on Jack Johnson and “Ring of Fire,” on the fatal Emile Griffith-Benny Paret fight.
Plus, the small screen has given us the reality series “The Contender.”
While Dundee has his star turn in “Cinderella Man,” last season’s boxing trainer du jour was Hector Roca, who prepared Hillary Swank for “Million Dollar Baby.”
“When we started working together,” said Roca, “I told her to make this film successful, you have to make it as realistic as possible. So I told her, you are going to spar. You are going to get hit. You are going to train like I would train anyone else. And she did it. I was very proud of her. The movie was realistic, that’s why it was so successful.”
Indeed, but does the public favor Hollywood’s boxing reality more than the reality of boxing itself?
“By the very nature of its basic simplicity and the inherent risks so unique to the sport, boxing has always held the dramatic spotlight in sports literature and film,” said Ron Ross, the author of the Bummy Davis biography and a featured interview subject in “Ring of Fire.” “But I do not believe this will carry the sport back to mainstream acceptance. Perhaps on a very temporary basis, such as the college coed going to see ‘Cinderella Man,’ and then beseeching her date to take her to see a real prizefight because it seems to be such an ‘in’ thing.”
Ross, who is working on a Griffith biography, said that Castle Hill Productions just inked a six-month option on his Bummy Davis book.
Perhaps Hollywood will continue to bring us reel-life boxing dramas and raise the profile of this sport until its real-life participants find a way back into the spotlight.