Screw Rocky. Forget the Raging Bull. Tell the Cinderella Man to go find his glass slipper. For my money the greatest boxing flick of the past forty years is John Huston's 1972 FAT CITY. It's an extraordinary piece of work--dark, brilliant, and haunting.
In all fairness, unlike ROCKY or CINDERELLA MAN (or even, to a lesser extent, RAGING BULL) it's not really a sports flick. It's a drama about boxers, and for all the interest it shows in fisticuffs, it could be a drama about guys who work at a factory. That's because unlike most every other boxing movie ever made, it's not really that interested in the mythology of the sport itself. It's interested in the people.
In that way, the movie it most reminds me of is Peter Yates's THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. That movie was a crime film that was wholly lacking in crime film cliches. It took its characters at face value and regarded criminal activity as another facet of capitalism. FAT CITY does the same thing with boxing. Here is a movie about boxers that doesn't lead up to "the big fight." There's an important, and brutal, battle toward the end but it's not the mythic fight that other boxing movies have programmed us to expect. FAT CITY doesn't present boxing as the romantic rite of passage for a stalwart hero (even RAGING BULL, for all its grittiness, contextualizes the boxing ring in religiously redemptive terms). Instead this film dramatizes boxing as a job done by poor men who supplement their income by working with itinerant workers in the lettuce fields. Nobody in this film was, is, or is ever gonna be the champion of anything. The best a boxer can hope for is a win and a manager who doesn't steal the whole purse.
The film is a masterpiece by one of the masters of cinema, and its cast is nothing short of remarkable. Stacy Keach--at the time an experienced stage actor but still a relative newcomer to movies--is astonishingly good. He seems to have wandered out of a Robert Wise B-movie from the fifties. Jeff Bridges is baby faced and innately sympathetic. And as Keach's alcoholic girlfriend, Susan Tyrrell gives as good a performance as any I've ever seen. And I've see a lot. There's a long scene in a bar between Keach and Tyrell here that is simply perfect. It should be plucked out and shown in film schools. This is how you write, shoot, and act a scene between two characters who are flirting and fighting and falling in (something like) love.
All of this is to point you toward a great article over at The Stacks called "How A Great Boxing Novel Got The Movie It Deserved." It's a fascinating look at how Leonard Gardner's novel found its way to Huston, as well as how the director brought it to the screen. Check it out. Great stuff.