Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Boxing Champions Beaten by Hollywood

Boxers have been the subject of many great Hollywood films and the sport of boxing is perfect for the emotional rollercoaster ride that a film can be. Fights, like films, are viewed for a set amount of time and take us on a journey that can be brutal, emotional, heart-warming and sometimes boring: If you’re watching the wrong one.

The likes of Rocky (1976) and its many sequels, Cinderella Man (2005) and The Fighter (2010) have all attempted to capture the essence of boxing. Some are more successful than others, but many actors and directors have walked away with Oscars and plaudits from critics and fans alike. Sylvester Stallone will always be remembered as The Italian Stallion.

What doesn’t always get recognised however, is the appearance of boxers in movies. Sometimes they are playing themselves in a cameo (like Sugar Ray Leonard in The Fighter or Roy Jones Jr. in Devil’s Advocate) and other times they play characters in films, like 70’s heavyweight contender George Chuvalo in 1986’s The Fly or former three weight world champion James Toney, who played Smokin’ Joe Frazier in Michael Mann’s Ali biopic in 2001.

In most cases, the fighter is doing his part to help out the film or to raise his profile and it usually doesn’t affect their career. But there are four examples of fighters who went to Hollywood for a film role, and their ring career suffered as a result.

Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko


There is only one example where two fighters starred in a Hollywood film that subsequently saw them fall in the ring shortly after. Lennox Lewis was undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in 2001, with Wladimir Klitschko the heir apparent. When the two were asked to play opposite each other in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake, they jumped at the chance. It gave them the chance to hang out in Vegas with the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney, and it also gave them the chance to size each other up in the ring. They were rivals, after all.

Lennox Lewis was due to meet the massive underdog Hasim Rahman in a routine title defence in South Africa in April, and while Rahman was training and acclimatising to the humidity and the heat of Johannesburg, Lewis was pretending to box Klitschko in a Vegas Casino fight that is cut short when the power is cut and Danny Ocean’s men hit the casinos.

Two key rules in boxing: 1) Protect yourself at all times, and 2) Never underestimate your opponent. Lewis broke the second rule first, turning up for the fight in less than peak physical condition. He broke the second rule when a Rahman right hand laid him flat out on the mat in round 5. Lewis was embarrassed and relieved of his title. But he did get to hang out with Julia Roberts in Vegas.

Lewis avenged the defeat in November of the same year by 4th round knockout, but boxing purists will always say: Wouldn’t it have been better to have done that the first time, and knocked the Hollywood cameo on the head?

Wladimir Klitschko’s downfall wasn’t as immediate, but you can argue that his ‘rising star’ image and HBO backing in America was making the Ukrainian champ a little too cocky. In March 2003, Klitschko turned up to fight South Africa’s Corrie Sanders, a hard puncher but past his best at 38. All the talk was of a Lennox Lewis fight for real this time. Klitschko looked past Sanders, but didn’t get past him. He was bludgeoned to defeat in two rounds, suffering four knockdowns in under four minutes.

What was the second rule again?

Roy Jones Jr

Roy Jones Jr. had earned the nickname ‘Superman’ after winning world titles from middleweight right up heavyweight, beating John Ruiz in 2003 to become WBA heavyweight champion. That summer, the Matrix Reloaded was released to huge hype, with Jones playing a small part as Ballard. Boxing and Hollywood were the Pensacola born fighter’s oyster.

However, by the time the Matrix trilogy came to its end the following year, Roy Jones was looking less like superman and more like Clark Kent. Instead of staying at heavyweight for lucrative fights with Lewis or Mike Tyson, Jones decided to boil himself down to light heavyweight to defend his old title against the cocky and brash Antonio Tarver, who was on a mission to goad his fellow Florida native into fighting him.

After winning a razor-thin decision in the first fight in November 2003, but having looked more vulnerable than ever in the ring, Jones accepted a rematch with Tarver, after Tarver cried robbery. Tarver left no doubt in the rematch, knocking Jones out in the second round. Jones went from unbeatable to mere mortal in just six months, and lost three in a row after Tarver landed the knockout blow. The Hollywood career never truly took off for Jones, and his boxing career was never the same.

Antonio Tarver


Although Antonio Tarver proved that superman was very much a mere mortal like the rest of us, he also came across the Hollywood curse that fighters sometimes have to ensure.

Sly Stallone was looking for authenticity for the sixth and final Rocky film in 2006 and who better to play Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon than the mighty mouthed light-heavyweight champion of the world? Full of confidence and with more charisma than most, Tarver got the job and put in a solid performance as the untested champ who has to face Rocky Balboa to prove himself.

In the same year, Tarver defended his light-heavyweight title to Bernard Hopkins, one of the greatest middleweights of all time who was looking to jump two divisions to win the title. Tarver underestimated how difficult it was to get back to 12st 7lbs after putting on pounds to play the heavyweight Hollywood champ, and was lethargic and poor in the Hopkins fight, where he was dominated over 12 rounds.

These fighters are all great fighters and in the cases of Lewis, Klitschko and Tarver all became world champions again (Klitschko still is and has defended his titles more than any other champ other than the great Joe Louis and Larry Holmes). But sometimes even greatness takes a detour, usually when Hollywood comes a-calling.

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