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Boxing's cinematic punch

Since the days of silents, moviemakers have been banking on the allure of the ring.

Although they call it the sweet science, boxing is really more of an art. Success depends not only upon how hard you hit, but where and when. As Muhammad Ali so famously pointed out, it's a dance in which one must float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Through the years, that fascinating ritual has inspired some of the most memorable moments in American cinema.

Who can forget Anthony Quinn going to seed in Requiem for a Heavyweight, or Sylvester Stallone going the distance in Rocky, or Robert De Niro going ballistic in Raging Bull? In each case, the protagonist faces challenges inside and outside the ring and is forced to come to grips with not only his opponents, but himself.

That the allure of boxing remains undiminished is confirmed by three new releases: The Hurricane, Play It to the Bone and Diamonds.

Denzel Washington is widely considered a certain Oscar nominee for his portrayal of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a boxer falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison but ultimately vindicated. Even though the film contains only a few boxing scenes, Washington embodies Carter with impressive precision.

In fact, the performance merits comparison to De Niro's Oscar-winning rendering of another real-life fighter, Jake La Motta, in Raging Bull (1980). Also, like Stallone's fictional Rocky Balboa, Washington's Carter has the toughness to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

Such is the stuff of boxing, a sport that gave the world such champions as Ali, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. And a sport that, despite controversy and hard times, continues to resonate in the American consciousness.

"More films have been made about boxing than about any other sport," said Bert Sugar, a boxing commentator, historian and author of numerous books on the subject. Because boxers tend to be underdogs, audiences find it easy to identify with them, he said. And the fight game lends itself to a wide range of cinematic approaches.

"On the canvas of boxing, you can depict anything," said Sugar, who was a consultant to Hollywood Heavyweights, a recent film series presented on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. "It can be a comedy, it can be a morality play, it can be Requiem for a Heavyweight."

Considering the innate appeal of the boxer, it's not surprising that some of Hollywood's most charismatic actors have put on the gloves. Errol Flynn, perhaps best remembered as a swashbuckler, channeled early champion James J. Corbett in Gentleman Jim (1942). Pretty boy Paul Newman was an appropriately gritty Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), and Elvis Presley rocked the ring as Kid Galahad (1962).

In Diamonds, veteran screen heavy Kirk Douglas plays a former boxer who goes in search of hidden jewels with his son and grandson. The film incorporates footage of a much younger Douglas from the 1949 boxing drama Champion.

But in terms of authenticity, it would be hard to beat Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of an Irish pugilist in The Boxer (1997), said Joyce Carol Oates, a novelist who is also a boxing enthusiast.

Not only was she impressed with Day-Lewis, who she said had the look and attitude of a boxer, but also with "the fights themselves. The audiences were very vividly depicted, and you just had a sense of the fighter's life."

Oates, who wrote the book On Boxing, said some boxing films are much too sentimental about the sport. She called Rocky (1976), which won the Academy Award for best picture and resulted in four sequels, "touching, but it had no more to do with boxing than E.T. has to do with outer space."

Not only are Stallone's Rocky films given to melodrama, Oates said, but in most of them the actor's physique is that of a bodybuilder, not a fighter. "Real boxers can't be heavy with their muscles," Oates said. "They don't train like weight lifters. So immediately you have the wrong physical type. It's just phony."

F.X. Toole, a fight trainer, said realism is indeed a problem in Hollywood boxing films, which often contain too much fist-flailing.

"Boxing isn't like that," said Toole, author of Rope Burns, a forthcoming collection of short fiction set in the boxing world. "Boxing is precise. You don't have time to waste any energy, and you don't have time to expose yourself to being hit _ because that other guy is firing back."

Play It to the Bone, a comedy starring Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas as buddies compelled to fight each other, gets his vote as the worst boxing film ever.

"The ring action is very sloppy. Very sloppy. They throw punches that could kill a mule. It doesn't work that way, and it really doesn't have to be portrayed that way. Ultimately, it's simply not believable."

It wasn't always so. Boxing films go back to the silent era. The earliest ones _ footage of actual bouts _ were popular in nickelodeons.

"When you see the early fights on film," Oates said, "you're seeing a primitive world in which a boxing match might be 100 rounds long, in the sun. They had no rules about a boxer going to a neutral corner when his opponent's knocked down."

By the Great Depression, the sport figured prominently in feature films. Indeed, that was the heyday of boxing films.

"In the Depression, people were looking for hope," Sugar said. "It was an era when this seamy, smarmy sport and the seamy life of America seemed to intersect. But most of those movies showed that somebody who was down on his luck could go on."

Among the boxing dramas of the 1930s were The Champ (1931), starring Wallace Beery in an Academy Award-winning performance as a fighter who must cope with a weepy young son played by Jackie Cooper; Winner Take All (1932), starring James Cagney as a brash prizefighter; and the original Kid Galahad (1937), with Edward G. Robinson as a boxing promoter.

Although in the ensuing decades boxing-themed films continued to be produced, they became less frequent as the sport waned in popularity, a victim of its violent reputation as well as the fierce competition from television that led to the closing of scores of boxing clubs in the 1950s.

When Warren Beatty remade the 1941 fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan as Heaven Can Wait (1978), the central character was changed from a prizefighter to a football player.

Still, those glory days when boxing was king survive on celluloid.

"Boxing's dropped off the edge of middle class society," Oates said. "Sometime in the 1950s it became associated with outcasts. But before that we had national heroes, like Joe Louis."