The Fighter, released in UK cinemas last week, is a biographical sports film chronicling the turbulent life and times of hard-nosed boxer Micky Ward.

The Fighter is a contender

It shows Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) struggling to win a world title whilst dealing with his wildly dysfunctional and excessively large Irish American family, fronted by his domineering mother (Melissa Leo), and cocaine using trainer and half brother Dicky Eklund (portrayed by an animated Christian Bale).

Thrown into the mix are numerous sisters and half-sisters sporting huge haircuts and combative attitudes, and a girlfriend-cum-waitress who competes spiritedly with the family for Ward’s affections. Cue shouting matches, punch-ups, slap-ups, hair-pullling, tears and tantrums.

In the midst of this familial chaos, Ward has to find a slice of serenity in which he can concentrate on winning a world title. Many chipped teeth and broken noses later the film reaches a dramatic conclusion, one which not here be divulged out of respect for the age old principle of not spoiling the ending.

Watching the film raised broader questions in my mind, namely why the sporting genre has generated so many regrettable films, and yet why boxing has shone as an exception to this sad rule.

Typically sports films become mired in cliche and predictable formulas, or spend far too much time recreating sporting moments, except with world-class athletes replaced by sporting incompetents (fingers pointed at recent rugby film Invictus).

The list of cheesy, miserable sports films is a long one. A brief sample includes The Replacements (a banal, feel-good American football film starring Keanu Reeves), Wimbledon (a film about the tournament so implausible that it actually has an Englishman winning it), and Mighty Ducks III (a film about adolescents learning important lessons through ice hockey).

Sports doesn’t seemed primed to generate fine cinema. The exception to the rule however, is boxing. A list of the greatest sports films ever made is dominated by it. Rocky I, the ultimate underdog film with the classic encapsulate-it-all tagline: His whole life was a million to one shot, which projected Sylvester Stallone to fame.

When We Were Kings, a documentary about the legendary heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, shot in the heat of Zaire.

Million Dollar Baby, a Clint Eastwood film which subverts the standard boxing formula by starring a woman (Hilary Swank) as the fighter.

And then there is Raging Bull, a film which sometimes sits atop the list of the greatest films of any genre. Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, it tells the story of the violently self-destructive Italian American Boxer Jake La Motta.

Why then does boxing make for great cinema? It is because the best sports films focus not on the playing of the sport itself, but on the inner lives and emotions of the participants. And boxing is the supreme character sport. It is more elemental, more atavistic than other sports.

Boxing has more emotive features than any other sport: the violence, the courage, the desire, the fear, the toughness and the loneliness. Such elemental forces are the key ingredients of art, and therefore cinema. Boxing has them in abundance. As Clint Eastwood puts it in Million Dollar Baby: ‘It is the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.’ It is less convincing to say that of badminton.

The Fighter is an honourable, if not exceptional, addition to the growing list of boxing epics. A contender, but not a champion.  

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