Southpaw and the Mythology of Boxing Movies

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“A fighter knows only one way to work.” So says Billy Hope, Jake Gyllenhaal’s champion boxer in Southpaw. It’s a terrific movie, propelled by taut direction from Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), an Eminem-produced soundtrack, and anchored by great performances from Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, and Rachel McAdams. But like the boxer himself, a boxing movie only knows one way to work, and you could put the plot of Southpaw alongside the likes of Rocky and The Champ and have practically the same story, scene-for-scene and bout-for-bout. For a sport that has fallen by the wayside in American culture, and can be particularly boring, why do movies keep going back to this same storyline? For whatever reason, movies have created a mythology out of the boxer, and this concept of a lone man (or woman, thanks to Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight) literally fighting the odds continues to resonate.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw

Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw

Some spoilers for Southpaw follow, but you either already saw it or figured it all out from the preview.

The story points of the boxing movie can be diagrammed out with precision, and very little variation. The early scenes of the movie showcase the raw talent of the fighter, before some kind of tragedy strikes. This tragedy prevents the boxer from living up to his potential, and he struggles until a kind-hearted mentor takes pity on him and helps hone the raw talent into actual structured skill. And of course, the personal tragedy is somehow resolved by the final fight, and the movie ends without any additional denouement. In Southpaw, Billy Hope is the improbably-named champion, whose primary talent seems to be letting himself get punched in the face. His anger issues lead to a fight in which his wife is shot and killed, and his spiral of substance abuse and violent outbursts costs him his career and custody of his daughter. Of course, he finds a benevolent trainer, cleans up his act with the help of a training montage, and wins a high-profile prize fight, which somehow makes it all okay. The movie is subtle enough to play with the plot points a bit (for example, Forest Whitaker’s trainer is given unexpected depth and his own rage and demons), but it never deviates from the overall map. Take these plot points, wrap them in a new shiny package and sprinkle with the tragedy of your choice, and you’ve got everything from Raging Bull to Real Steel.

This boxing mythology is a disproportionate percentage of successful sports movies. Six of the top ten highest-grossing sports dramas involved boxing, compared to two for American football, one for baseball, and one for horse racing. The only sports movies to ever win Academy Awards for Best Picture have been about boxers (Rocky and Million Dollar Baby), and the Oscars showed love for Raging Bull, Ali, The Fighter, and The Champ. This extends beyond movies, to the point where TV Tropes has an entry for “The Boxing Episode”, where an unrelated work uses boxing as a plot point for an episode or two. One of the best examples of this being done well was Battlestar Galactica’s “Unfinished Business”, which used a boxing tournament as an extended metaphor for relationship conflict, and let Katee Sackhoff and Jamie Bamber beat the hell out of each other.

Apollo (Jamie Bamber) and Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) take the ring

Apollo (Jamie Bamber) and Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) take the ring

Taking all this into consideration, we see a well-worn but clearly repeated narrative that continues to remain successful and influential. But why? What lessons does this teach us? The way I see it, there are three important points, and they’re just as important in the movies as they are in life.

  1. Individualism, or at most, a small tight-knit unit, is the key to success. This manifests itself in at least two different ways, the first being the obvious fact that boxing is not a team sport. Instead of focusing on a group of players, the sole focus can be a single person, alone against his opponent. The second, and more subtle way this plays out is through the boxer’s support staff. The hero always has just his grizzled mentor in his corner; the opponent is surrounded by dozens of lackeys in matching tracksuits. The wise mentor is far more valuable than the anonymous entourage.
  2. Raw talent is not enough. In the case of Southpaw, Hope’s talent at taking a beating and landing the knockout blow has taken him far in life, but it left him incapable of dealing with a genuine challenge. The same theme appears in most of the Rocky films, particularly Rocky IV, and carries over to Ali and Raging Bull. If the movie is optimistic, the answer is to train to the breaking point, learning the actual skills involved and dropping all pretense of arrogance. If it’s a pessimistic movie, the failure to learn or adapt is the character’s breaking point.
  3. Sometimes, you just have to fight. This is the biggest contribution of the boxing movie, and when you consider the fight as a metaphor for any conflict, this becomes even more inescapably clear. Training and determination can only get you so far, but ultimately, you have to step into the ring to win.
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