Boxing At The Movies: Kings Of The Ring

Thursday 28 February 2013, 14:41

Danny Leigh Danny Leigh Presenter

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Looking through old family photos recently, I found one of me taken in the spring of 1982. That makes me 10, by which time I was already besotted with films.

But in the picture I'm nowhere near a cinema. Instead, with a look of earnest concentration, I'm reading an inky copy of the weekly magazine Boxing News.

I loved boxing then as I still do now, having grown up watching bouts from the Albert Hall or Wembley Arena on the BBC. And my two youthful passions came together in the boxing movie.

Danny Leigh 'The ring is where you stand alone to be tested'

 

So naturally I seized the chance to make Boxing At The Movies: Kings Of The Ring, a documentary that tells the story of the boxing film from the earliest days of the motion picture through the hardscrabble 30s, the noir 50s, on into the present day.

Given my age, my first big-screen experience would come with a definitively 80s flavour – Rocky III, with Sylvester Stallone's much-loved hero facing brutal challenger Clubber Lang.

But while I would see more critically admired fight films in years to come, I still remember the jolt it sent through the shabby cinema, the charge of emotion and adrenalin every boxing movie has in its make-up.

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Again and again filmmakers have returned to tales of the ring

Three decades later, I found myself filming at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at the foot of what are known around the world after their use by Stallone as the Rocky Steps.

Even at dusk the nearby statue of his most famous character had drawn a queue of visitors eager to have their picture taken with it, kids, grandparents and groups of muscle-bound dudes all hoisting their arms aloft besides the bronze Italian Stallion.

But for all Rocky's adoration, if the boxing film has a spiritual home, it's not Philadelphia – but 100 miles north in New York.

There, the cast of the boxing movie story includes gangsters, cinematic pioneers, political radicals, and everyone from Mike Tyson to Stanley Kubrick. And of course Martin Scorsese, creator of the peerless Raging Bull.

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Killer's Kiss: Kubrick was fastidious in capturing the people and Manhattan he already knew intimately

To make our documentary, director Angus McIntyre and I criss-crossed Manhattan from Harlem to the Lower East Side – and just as every writer, fighter or filmmaker we talked to wanted to discuss Scorsese's masterpiece, so everywhere we went, someone claimed a moment from it had been filmed where we stood.

An elderly attendant in a cramped parking lot swore blind to us that a major scene had been shot right there on the tarmac, though he seemed uncertain as to which.

Re-watching the movie for the umpteenth time that night in my hotel room, I confess I couldn't find it either.

Maybe I should look again – with a film this good, the search would never be a chore. And for old times' sake I might just look out Rocky III as well.

Danny Leigh is the presenter of Boxing At The Movies: Kings Of The Ring.

Boxing At The Movies: Kings Of The Ring is on BBC Four at 9pm on Sunday, 3 March. For further programme times, please see the upcoming broadcasts page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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