Until you become involved with boxing, whether as a sport or for the superb fitness training, you will never appreciate how long three minutes are. That’s the length of a round in the ring, with 30 seconds separating them.
In the gym you soon discover skipping is nothing like it was when you were a child, and building strength and stamina – and muscles – is hard but rewarding work.
To the uninitiated, boxing might look like two people punching the daylights out of each other, but it’s more than that; it’s about strategy and mental focus as well – something that comes up in just about every boxing movie, documentary or reality series you can stream on Showmax and Netflix.
Here are my top picks, in alphabetical order.
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes (Showmax)
During his career, Muhammed Ali appeared on the Dick Cavett show many times and the two built up a rapport, even becoming friends over the decades. Some of these clips can be seen in What’s My Name, where Ali’s charm and sharp humour shine through, so different to his pre-fight bluster and bragging, which is pretty much obligatory.
The HBO doccie is “Equal parts nostalgic tribute, even-handed biography and compelling sociopolitical history lesson, this brisk yet substantial documentary about the world-famous fighter who arguably fought his most important battle outside the ring…” says Variety.
“He was so startlingly intelligent,” comments an older Cavett, now 84 years old. Ali died in 2016.
Creed: Rocky’s Legacy (Showmax)
Rocky (1976), starring Sylvester Stallone in the eponymous role, is without a doubt a boxing movie classic, a story of the triumph of an underdog – one of which we will never grow tired. Who can forget that scene at the top of the 72 stone steps leading up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania?
They are now in fact known as the “Rocky Steps”, and tourists mimic the victorious raised arms as much as they replicate the Kate and Leo scene in Titanic. You know the one.
And what about Eye Of The Tiger?
Rocky spawned no fewer than seven sequels, including Creed. In this one, Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan), son of Rocky’s nemesis Apollo Creed, seeks out the retired Rocky for training.
This one is really old – 1992 – and to modern audiences it could appear cheesy and predictable. Because it is, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. A white Irish kid (James Marshall) who brawls on the street gets picked up by a boxing promoter (Robert Loggia) and put into a fight – with no training whatsoever – and he’s a natural.
He makes friends with a Latino guy (Jon Seda), and a black guy (Cuba Gooding Jr), and their friendships have to stand up to the ruthless owner of the fights (Brian Dennehy), who pays off the white kid’s father’s gambling debts and forces the kid to fight to settle the score.
Set in the world of female boxing, and in Cape Town, Jab was created by producer/director Lucilla Blankenberg and screenwriter Paul Ian Johnson.
Blankenberg trained as a kick boxer for many years and felt there was a diverse and interesting world to be showcased. “I’ve wanted to tell this story for years,” she said in an interview with me in 2016 when the series premiered on SABC1 and SABC2, “mainly because I found myself training and competing with kick boxers and boxers in a sport dominated by men dotted with a few women here and there – people who were interesting, rich and full of character. It made for good TV.”
The story follows Bee Sondlo (Vanessa Ntlapo), who gets a break in the ring after training at a gym for several years. Those fights are relatively easy compared to the personal drama. Jab is predominantly isiXhosa with subtitles available.
Fun fact: my very own trainer, Steve Newton, trained some of the actors.
Knuckle City (Showmax)
Mixing crime and sport, this movie written and directed by Jahmil XT Qubeka has a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. isiXhosa with subtitles, it’s the story of an ageing womanising boxer and his slick gangster brother taking one last shot at redemption but getting more than they bargained for.
It’s dark and gritty, and was South Africa’s submission for the international feature film category at the 2020 Oscars. “The film is as hard-hitting as its title suggests. It’s quintessentially South African but also a very universal tale and touches on so many themes making it dark and relatable all at once,” said National Film and Video Foundation CEO Makhosazana Khanyile announcing the selection.
Ray Donovan (Showmax)
Not exclusively a boxing series, but it does play a significant role. Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) is a fixer for the rich and famous of Los Angeles, but his family also owns a boxing gym that is run by his older brother Terry (Eddie Marsan).
Baby brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok, who used to date Alanis Morissette) spends a lot of time there too, and it’s where he met his wife Teresa (Alyssa Diaz), and where they lived with their baby daughter for a while.
Many family meetings take place at Donovan’s Fite Club, secrets are revealed, and sometimes people got shot. When Mickey Donovan’s (Jon Voight) son Daryll (Pooch Hall), half-brother to the other Donovan men and a professional boxer, turns up, there are several sparring, training and fight scenes and story arcs.
Ring of Lies (Showmax)
Ring of Lies is a South African telenovela that follows the story of a bare-knuckle boxing champion who gets scouted by well-known manager Mandla (Masoja Msiza) on the dusty streets of rural Limpopo. Neo’s (Mpho Sebeng) parents disapprove of his dream to become a boxer, so he runs away during the night to follow his dream of becoming a champion in Johannesburg.
Bare-knuckle fighting is no joke. We saw Brad Pitt do it in Snatch and Fight Club; truth is stranger than fiction because there is actually a real-life boxing champion called … Brad Pitt. He’s Australian and won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
The record for the longest bare-knuckle fight is listed as six hours and 15 minutes for a match between James Kelly and Jonathan Smith, fought near Fiery Creek, Victoria, Australia, on 3 December 1855, when Smith gave in after 17 rounds. Australians, right? Nowadays, bare-knuckle matches are five rounds of two minutes each.
Southpaw (Showmax, Netflix)
This superb film (although one has to admit, somewhat predictable too, what with Hollywood endings and all) stars Jake Gyllenhaal as championship boxer Billy Hope, who falls apart when he loses his wife (Rachel McAdams) in a tragic accident, and then his daughter to the welfare system. His redemption is in the form of starting at the bottom and training with Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker).
The pedigree is pure gold: written by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and directed by Antoine Fuqua (who was also behind What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali). Fun fact: Sutter was inspired by rapper Eminem’s real-life struggles and he was the first choice to play Billy Hope. Gyllenhaal is outstanding, however, so the right guy got the job.
Of the popularity of boxing movies, RogerEbert.com says: “It’s because of the intrinsic relatability in fighting for something—getting in the ring and trying to defeat not just an opponent but personal demons.”
The Contender (Showmax)
From the Mark Burnett stable comes this reality competition series; Season 5 is available to stream. It’s the standard fare of personal lives and drama against the foreground of elimination-style boxing bouts until the last man is left standing.
This incarnation is more respectful of boxing than was the case in earlier seasons, said Sporting News. “Fights are shown in their entirety. In episodes 1 and 2 (which have been available for media screening), the game show ambiance of earlier years is gone. The cinematography is excellent.
“Those who loved The Contender in the past will find the revival satisfying. Think in terms of someone who likes McDonald’s hamburgers. There might be a slight variation in the product from time to time, but the basic burger remains the same.”
What’s My Name Muhammed Ali (Showmax)
Antoine Fuqua directed this two-part HBO documentary and it’s a wonderful tribute to The Greatest. Rock n roll had Elvis; boxing had Ali.
This film follows his career from beginning to end, from when he began training at the tender age of 12 to winning gold at the Olympics in 1960, from being born Cassius Marcellus Clay to giving up his slave name and becoming politically active as Muhammad Ali, his friendship with mentor Malcolm X, his stupendous victories in the ring, and then sadly, his decline in health (Ali had Parkinson’s, something that is not genetic or preventable, although of course many commentators blamed it on boxing).
Music and spoken-word pieces add further richness. Oh yes, did you not know? Ali sang too. “As the credits roll on part one, Fuqua chooses to play Stand By Me. Oh dear, I thought, he has chosen an outtake of Ben E King singing off-key. But no. The credits reveal that the singer was one Muhammad Ali. In one area of life, at least, the Greatest had feet of clay,” says The Guardian.
What’s My Name is filmmaking at its most beautiful, uplifting and poignant as it celebrates one of the greatest athletes of our time. Highly recommended, and I’m not ashamed to say it moved me to tears.