The Screen Science: In honor of ‘Southpaw,’ Sergio Mora names his top boxing movies

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With Jake Gyllenhaal’s “Southpaw” coming out in theaters today, it’s the first of what promises to be a big run for boxing movies. Slated for later this year are the biopics “Bleed for This” about former two-division champion Vinny Pazienza and “Creed,” the latest in the deathless “Rocky” series. Next year brings the Roberto Duran biopic “Hands of Stone,” with Robert De Niro playing Duran’s trainer Ray Arcel.

Peter Quillin, Selenis Leyva and Daniel Jacobs

Peter Quillin and Daniel Jacobs pose with actress Selenis Leyva at the Southpaw premiere in New York City on July 20.

It’s a windfall for boxing fans, and it hasn’t been too shabby for PBC fighters, either. Edwin Rodriguez will play Duran in Bleed for This, while Peter Quillin stands in for Roger Mayweather. Creed’s Michael B. Jordan trained at Virgil Hunter’s Kings Boxing Gym alongside Andre Berto and Amir Khan. Quillin and Daniel Jacobs got to hobnob with the stars of Southpaw at the movie’s New York premiere.

But before you head out to the theater for your first taste of the ring on the big screen since 2013’s Grudge Match, we caught up with resident PBC movie buff Sergio Mora while he was preparing for his August 1 tilt against Jacobs in Brooklyn, New York, (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) to break down his favorite boxing movies of all time.

9 Diggstown, 1992. James Woods, Lou Gossett Jr. Director: Michael Ritchie

The titular Diggstown is so boxing crazy that scam artist Gabriel Caine (Woods) bets the richest guy in the city that his fighter Honey Roy Palmer (Gossett) can knock out 10 opponents in a day.

“It’s a cool story,” Mora said. “It’s a cheesy story, but it was cool.”

8 Ali, 2001. Will Smith, Jamie Foxx. Director: Michael Mann

Smith takes on the daunting task of portraying Muhammad Ali from his rise as heavyweight champion with a win over Sonny Liston through his refusal to submit to the draft to his reclaiming of the title in the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.

“I thought it was a great boxing movie, great storytelling,” Mora said. “Michael Mann did an amazing job. The music score was awesome.”

7 The Great White Hype, 1996. Samuel L. Jackson, Damon Wayans. Director: Reginald Hudlin

The only comedy on the list (and one of the few boxing comedies overall), Hype starts with promoter the Rev. Fred Sultan trying to build up Terry Conklin (Peter Berg) as a way to capitalize on racial tension, pushing a fight as a battle of the races between the black champion James Roper (Wayans) and the white challenger Conklin.

“It hits all the elements right on the nose,” Mora said. “It embellishes all the bullshit in boxing and makes it kind of a cartoon. As a boxer I laugh my ass off because everything was ballooned and overexaggerated, but it tells the truth.”

6 Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956. Paul Newman, Pier Angeli. Director: Robert Wise

Directed by one Academy Award winner and starring another, Somebody Up There Likes Me casts Paul Newman as real-life fighter Rocky Graziano in a flick based off Graziano’s autobiography.

5 Snatch, 2000. Brad Pitt, Benicio del Toro. Director: Guy Ritchie

As much of a crime movie as it is a boxing movie, Brad Pitt plays Irish bare-knuckle boxer Mickey O’Neil while Turkish (Jason Statham) takes charge as O’Neil’s promoter. They both get in deep when O’Neil continues to fail to deliver fixed fights.

“It’s funny, it’s well written, it’s well acted,” Mora said. “Brad Pitt looks the part.”

4 Million Dollar Baby, 2004. Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank. Director: Clint Eastwood

The Best Picture winner was a surprise hit that quickly took over critical and box office top spots. Eastwood plays the haunted trainer Frankie Dunn, while Swank is Maggie Fitzgerald, who forces her way into Eastwood’s orbit. She climbs the ranks, but is paralyzed during a title fight when she falls on a stool in the corner.

“I always thought female boxing was never going to be big in a male-dominated sport, but in 2004 when Million Dollar Baby hit, [Swank] did an amazing job,” Mora said. “Hillary Swank converted her body, she made a believer out of boxers, she looked good boxing. She’s a hell of an actress. It wasn’t all about the boxer. It was about the trainer, his struggles with God, his personal struggles with his family, himself.”

As for the ending, Mora doesn’t have any issues with that inconveniently placed stool.

“I’ve been boxing a long time, and I haven’t tripped and fell on a stool, but it happens three times a fight that trainers have trouble getting that damn stool in. I could see in some weird way that can happen.”

3 The Champ, 1979. Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway, Ricky Schroder. Director: Franco Zeffirelli

Long before Hollywood became remake-crazed, the 1979 version of The Champ updated the 1931 movie of the same name with a pre-Silver Spoons Ricky Schroder as T.J., the son of down-and-out boxer Billy Flynn (Voight). Trying to dig out from gambling debts, Flynn takes a comeback fight that ultimately kills him. Schroder bawls appropriately.

“I love that movie because of Ricky Schroder,” Mora said. “‘Wake up Champ! Wake up Champ!’ It makes me cry. My trainer made me watch that, and I could never get Ricky Schroder out of my head when Voight was dying. It pulled heartstrings early in my boxing career, so it’s really going to stick.”

2 Raging Bull, 1980. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci. Director: Martin Scorsese

Another boxing biopic, one of the best ever made, stars De Niro as Jake LaMotta, the man defined by his immortal clashes with Sugar Ray Robinson. The movie traces LaMotta’s stupendous fall precipitated both by the mob and his own personal failings. It also features the most savage boxing scene ever put to film, one that future directors will be hard-pressed to ever top.

1 Rocky, 1976. Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire. Director: John G. Avildsen

The one boxing movie even people who don’t like boxing movies have seen, Stallone is Rocky Balboa, the ham-and-egger who gets an improbable title shot from the champ, Apollo Creed.

If you don’t remember that Rocky didn’t actually win the fight, you wouldn’t be alone. The character said all he wanted to do was go the distance to prove he wasn’t a bum, and he pulled that off. Creed is loosely modeled after Ali, and Rocky is a squint-eyed amalgam of Joe Frazier, Rocky Marciano and Chuck Wepner, who unexpectedly lasted 15 rounds with Ali in 1975.

“I don’t think it’s the best boxing movie of all time as far as the boxing goes,” Mora said. “If you really just want to talk about movies, of course it’s Rocky No. 1.”

So what makes for a good boxing movie? Mora said the characters have to be believable, the story has to be good and the boxer has to look the part. Which explains why Rocky V didn’t make the cut. Tommy Morrison, who played Tommy Gunn in that flick, was an actual boxer, but one out of three isn't going to cut it.

“Those lines like ‘I’m gonna do this for my brother or whatever?’ No, we don’t say that,” Mora said. “The person you have to blame for that is Stallone. Those lines worked in 1976, and those lines really worked when action movies were barely becoming popular. We don’t do that. I think Jake Gyllenhaal did a good job learning the moves [for Southpaw], just like Usher [as Sugar Ray Leonard in Hands of Stone]. It’s kind of stiff, but it’s pretty impressive he got that part considering he never boxed. He looked the part … kind of.”

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