I have a lot of fun pretending to be Rocky when I’m out for my runs. I cue the music in my head, and begin to huff and puff and throw feint left hooks with every other step. The colder it is outside the better to set the scene. It serves to make the run a bit less grueling, and adds some color to the monotony of training. But the montage ends when I enter the gym and step back into the ring. And in the back of my mind I believe it’s because sheer hard work gets the job done about as well as mowing the lawn with a pair of scissors. This is a sport that punishes going through the motions. You have to bring more than sheer brute strength to be victorious.
Historically, filmmakers have done their best to create caricatures of boxing that highlight the toughness of the sport. Because, after all, that is the most unique and eye-opening part of it all. I can imagine that as a casual fan it would be difficult to get past that. But films typically don’t focus on the calculating nature of the sport, which constitutes more than most people probably think that it does. Since the public image of boxing has been dominated by Floyd Mayweather Jr., we have had a modern precedent that matches exactly what I’m referring to. Money May is arguably the pinnacle of the refined chess game within a boxing ring. Even though it may not excite everybody all the time, it is undeniable that when it comes to adapting and winning, Floyd is on to something.
I am putting a lot of emphasis on the mental aspect of the sport, but I also need to acknowledge the brutality of it. Because boxing is everything people think it is and much more as far as that goes. So I suppose the bottom line is that movies go over the top with characterizing boxers in the light of a tough guy persona. Yeah they have a lot of bravado, but they’re not the quietly enraged cauldrons of hate like “Raging Bull” would have you believe. Not usually, anyways. If anything, involving yourself in boxing will demonstrate to you just how much most people despise confrontation: you’ll see facial ticks you’ve never seen before, a lot of transparent machismo, and erratic behavior in the heat of the moment. It all speaks to the discomfort people get when they’re faced with a potential threat. Of course, there are always those who truly lack the restraints of fear and reluctance that many people have, but that disinhibition alone doesn’t necessarily make someone a good boxer.
All the boxing greats are cunning, and even devious in their craft. They take away their opponent’s greatest strength and expose their most sensitive weakness, and they do it with impeccable timing. The way I see it, the subtext in a lot of boxing movies (Rocky series, The Fighter) is an uplifting one, in that the fight in the ring is a metaphor for life: you’ll never be completely down and out as long as you keep giving it your all. But while that is true, it is only part of the picture. To thrive, you’ve got to treat boxing like the war for survival it symbolizes rather than the symbol it actually is. It can’t be something where you figure, activity multiplied by number of hours equals results. You will get hurt if you do that. You’ve got to tap into your primal sense of intelligence in order to outfox your opponent. The ones who have the most honed instincts will come out on top in the sport of boxing.
The other side of that coin is that the predatory mindset can be hard to turn off. And when that happens, personal relationships can be strained. Speaking personally, David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” hit the closest to home. And to be clear, I don’t mean that other interpretations are necessarily incorrect. Nor is my experience as a boxer the end all be all. What I’m saying is that, in my opinion, the screen portrayal of Mickey Ward’s boxing tribulations are a more accurate reflection of most people’s experience with the pugilistic art. Setting aside the world championship titles, or course. The most iconic moment arrives at the beginning of the training montage set to the Red Hot Chili Peppers “Strip My Mind”, with Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams) looking on from a cheap apartment stairwell as Mickey Ward (Mark Whalberg) walks to his 6am training session in a cheap sweat suit. The significance being the fighter’s valuation of the sport on par with his love for his friends and family. That in turn is a reflection of just how much the sport demands of you: your heart and soul.
Simply put, movies understandably go with the most exaggerated story arch but fail to portray the double edged sword in every aspect of boxing. Learning to box is a lesson in tapping into your wits for survival. And though many boxing films may exaggerate aspects of fighting characters, they are correct in one area: the sport of boxing will always be a symbol of the trials and victories of life itself.