It’s Time to Retire the Boxing Movie

By  · Published on November 16th, 2016

Those blows to the head are really starting to add up.

Close your eyes and picture a scene from a recent boxing movie. Maybe you think of Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg standing head-to-head in David O. Russell’s The Fighter. Maybe you see the battered face of Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man. And maybe you see Will Smith’s massive figure dancing around the ring in Michael Mann’s Ali. Each of these three films tell the story of the underdog, the outsider, the man who stepped into a boxing ring with nothing but his pride and a desire to win. And in each case, the film ends with our hero’s hands held high above their head.

Hollywood has always loved their come-from-behind sports dramas, and boxing movies offer Hollywood just the right mix of wide audience appeal and prestige accolades. The Fighter, Cinderella Man, and Ali received a total of twelve Academy Award nominations between them; each film also represented a passion project for a director at the height of his power, joining the ranks of Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby among the all-time great boxing movies. And what’s more, the boxing film has also become an opportunity for Hollywood stars to show off their physicality on camera. Just in the past two years, Édgar Ramírez, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael B. Jordan, and now Miles Teller have each starred in their own boxing story, with each actor going to great lengths to transform themselves physically. It’s probably fair to say that boxing films are the closest thing the action genre has to Oscar bait.

Here’s the problem, though: for all the warm fuzzies these movies make us feel, sports biopics rarely show the long-term health risks of their industry, especially when acts of barely controlled violence are involved. Cinderella Man’s James Braddock spent his entire life suffering from a terrible case of post-traumatic arthritis brought on by his actions in the boxing ring. In 2010, Micky Ward, the subject of the award-winning The Fighter, announced that he would be leaving his brain and spinal cord to Boston University to aid in the continued study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition believed to be caused by repeated brain trauma (Ward admitted in the piece that he often struggles with his memory). And, of course, in 2016, we lost Muhammad Ali – a sports legend and a titan of the civil rights movement – to Parkinson’s disease, an illness often linked to the brain injuries he suffered while boxing. These are the third-act plot twists that will never find their way into the uplifting biopic.

And now we get Bleed for This, the true story of boxer Vinny Pazienza who, against his doctor’s wishes, fought his way back from a broken neck and four screws in his head to become the middleweight champion of the world. It’s a powerful story of determination and the endurance of the human spirit; it’s also a movie whose ending has not yet been written. At the age of 53, Panzienza seems more reminiscent of Jake Lamotta than James Braddock, a fighter whose health continues to hold steady even as his personal life struggles around him. Even setting aside the injuries that Panzienza overcame to box again, there’s still no way to know if the former boxer faces any neurological or physical reactions to his years in the ring. It hardly matters; young sports fans won’t remember that part of Panzienza’s story. They’ll only remember Miles Teller, bloody but unbowed, bouncing back dramatically from injury and keeping his body fat below six percent in the process.

Sports movies and health risks are a button of mine. About a year ago, I wrote a piece on the then-unreleased Concussion and why it was important for that film to accurately capture the long-term health risks of playing football. Similarly, I think it’s time for us to think about how we depict boxing in film. Despite the provocative headline of this piece, I certainly don’t think answer is to do away with boxing films entirely – they are plenty fun when done right, and many of them focus on individuals and communities normally avoided by big Hollywood productions – but with new information about the risks of boxing comes a new standard by which these movies could be judged. Should we teach our children to aspire to a trade where they are repeatedly bludgeoned in the head in the name of entertainment? Or is it better to fold in a bit more of the long-term risks involved?

Kids probably need to be protected from their own parents’ sense of boxing nostalgia. Back in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement discouraging parents from letting their children get involved in the sport. “Because of the risk of head and facial injuries,” the statement read, “the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society oppose boxing as a sport for children and adolescents.” Of course, most professional boxers began as youth; much like football, the amateur ranks are littered with those who took all of the damage without any of the financial rewards to show for it. This is the regular problem faced by sports: if someone is going to succeed as an athlete, they have to begin young, but violent sports like boxing should require an understanding of the long-term tradeoffs they are making in the sport. A twelve-year-old cannot be expected to understand that fifteen years of amateur matches could lead to neurological issues when they hit middle age. They need their parents to be able to make that call on their behalf, and if Hollywood pumps them full of glory and fame, it can be a seductive path to send your children down.

Thankfully, one of the most iconic fake boxers of all time – Sylvester Stallone – has tried to address both sides of the equation with his work in the Rocky franchise. During publicity for Creed, Stallone admitted that he often feels “responsible” for the brain damage that boxers so often encounter, at least giving lip service in the film to the long-term effects on mental cognition. Boxing can be an exciting and noble sports, but no matter how well you fight, the effects adds up, and Hollywood owes it to its audience to remember the years of pain and reduced cognitive functions that result from those fleeting moments of triumph. Kids may be too young to know what’s best for them, but parents should certainly have their kids’ best interests at heart; that image of arthritic hands or devastating headaches may make them think twice before signing their little ones up for an adolescent boxing class. For the vast majority, that’s probably not a bad thing.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)