- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

For Christmas, we are being blessed with the sixth Rocky film, though it isn’t called Rocky VI. The title is simply “Rocky Balboa,” with Sylvester Stallone as basically an old, retired fighter who returns to the ring one more time to fight the current champion.

There were two real life inspirations for this installment — George Foreman’s comeback that resulted, at the age of 45, in winning the heavyweight championship again when he knocked out Michael Moorer, and the computer fight that took place in 1970 between an exiled Muhammad Ali and former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.

Since this will be Stallone’s sixth time in the ring on the screen (he never actually stepped in the ring in “Rocky V,” but did fight Tommy Morrison — “Tommy Gunn” — in the streets), which makes him the most veteran actor-fighter in film history. But it doesn’t make him the best actor-fighter.

Hollywood loves boxing (speaking of Hollywood, Great Falls’ favorite son, Jimmy Lange, who is right out of central casting, returns to the ring tonight in another boxing show at Patriot Center), so there is no shortage of performances by actors as fighters over the years. And all of them are generally over the top and not like the action in most fights (save for the three rounds of Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns). But some performances are better than others.

In the world of boxing, fighters are ranked, supposedly based on their records and abilities (although they don’t even try to promote that myth in the movies). But I am not for sale, and anyway, no one is buying, so here are my rankings for best performances by actors in the ring.

1. Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull” — It is not surprising that the greatest actor of his generation turned in the greatest performance as a fighter. DeNiro’s dedication is legendary, and so was his preparation for that role. The man he portrayed, Jake LaMotta, said at the time that he felt DeNiro had become such a good fighter that he could hold his own in the ring against real competition. That may have been a stretch, but he looked like the real deal in his scenes in the ring, and anyone who can gain 60 pounds just to play the older version of LaMotta as DeNiro did and then lose it has more dedication than most fighters today.

2. Russell Crowe in “Cinderella Man” — Again, it is not surprising that Crowe, another great actor, turned in a great boxing performance as James Braddock. And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Crowe has fighting in his blood, with his bad-boy reputation (he showed he could throw a pretty good punch without a telephone). He got the style of the era, trying to emulate Braddock’s left hand, down pat. He had help from legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, who helped train Crowe and was an advisor for the film. “I do think if he wasn’t an actor, Russell could have been a great fighter,” Dundee said. Now, that may have been the payroll talking, but the Australian may have been the next Joe Bugner if his life had taken a different turn. (Dundee was in the film, working as part of Braddock’s corner. He will be at Patriot Center tonight working in Lange’s corner).

3. Will Smith in “Ali” — It was a disappointing film, but then it may be impossible to do justice to Muhammad Ali in a movie, since he has been so exposed to us in so many ways over the years. But Smith transformed himself into a fairly credible version of Ali in the ring, the way he moved and fought, particularly in the scene where he defeated Liston to win the championship the first time. It is notable that he was trained for this role by a Washington area native named Darrell Foster, who has made a living in Hollywood teaching actors how to be fighters.

4. Robert Ryan in “The Set Up” — one of the great boxing films of all time, it features Ryan as a fighter named Bill “Stoker” Thompson, who is supposed to take a dive in a deal set up by his manager, but at the last minute in the ring he can’t bring himself to do it, and that leads to some brutal fight scenes pulled off by Ryan.

5. Paul Newman in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” — Paul Newman revived his career with this role playing former middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, a juvenile delinquent from the streets of New York who saved his life through boxing. Newman manages to come off as the tough New Yorker with relatively believable scenes in the ring, and, at the very least, pulls off the intensity of what it means to be in the ring.

You can’t count fighters who played fighters — Ali playing himself in “The Greatest,” and Morrison as Tommy Gun in “Rocky V,” because that is hardly a stretch. And fighters who play fighters in the movies don’t fare very well in the post-acting careers in the ring. Lennox Lewis came into his first fight against Hasim Rahman out of shape after appearing in the ring for the film “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then was knocked out in five rounds. And Rocky Balboa’s opponent in the new film, Mason Dixon, is played by former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver, who then came into his fight against Bernard Hopkins out of shape and was beaten badly.

The common thread, though, that may result in the best fight performances appears to be great directors. Martin Scorsese — “Raging Bull;” Ron Howard — “Cinderella Man;” Michael Mann — “Ali;” and Robert Wise directed both “The Set Up” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

Stallone is the director for “Rocky Balboa,” as he was for three of the previous Rocky films. So don’t count on a contender, at least not if you expect to see something resembling a fight.

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