What Champion is that you ask?
There have been a plethora of boxing films made, too many poorly made and lost in ignominy, but the “Champion” refers to a 1949 release of an acclaimed adaptation of a Ring Lardner story starring Kirk Douglas that was one of the true fight film standouts.
“Champion” was a breakout film for Douglas and his first ever starring role. It garnered a slew of Academy nominations and one award.
Douglas plays a young impoverished man abandoned as a boy, Midge Kelly. He’s recruited into a gritty boxing gym where he is transformed from clumsy beginnings into an all action slugger in the mold of a Rocky Graziano who was a very popular middleweight champ of the era. Midge seduces or is seduced by several women whom he abandons while stepping on everyone he meets as he fights his way up to the championship. It’s a dark black and white period film with buckets of blood, mafia, knockouts, and heartbreaks galore.
The finale finds Midge hallucinating, suffering the after effects of a vicious bout he has to come from behind to win, dying from a brain hemorrhage on his training table. It happens that dying in the ring or shortly thereafter was an all too frequent occurrence in the 1940s, the highest ring fatality decade of all time by a fair number. Going into the 50s, things didn’t improve much.
Here’s Midge being transformed from two left feet into a slugger. Guess the theme music:
Here he’s a ruthless King of his World:
Realistically, the actual boxing in “boxing movies” is terrible with only few exceptions. Hollywood uses boxing movies as their reenactment of the fight business that gave Hollywood a business model and new technology that Hollywood transformed into the megalomaniacal pyrotechnics special effects recycled action series that we see today.
Fight movies as done by Hollywood are sorta like Civil War reenactments as if play acting lends true understanding to the horror of spilled blood and guts of dead and wounded, boys mostly, more than all the other American wars combined. I guess they mean well and can be interesting now and again.
So imagine my surprise to find that cartoon boxing movie, Rocky, was chosen to be on the National Film Registry list, and not Champion. Kirk Douglas was one of the finest actors ever and star of maybe the most inspirational combat movie ever, Spartacus.
Kirk Douglas turns 95 years young this year, so Happy Birthday Kirk!
I’ve already written an open letter to the NFR asking why the 1897 heavyweight title fight between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons was not chosen in their 2 decades long compilation of movies. It’s only the core history of film making the NFR are ignoring, but lest I digress any further, you can see my open letter here:
Any way, in checking the existent footage of Champion available on Youtube, naturally it’s easy to get distracted with suggestions of like-minded videos, and lo and behold, wouldn’t you know I got some great footage of Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali, two of the greatest champs ever, and then Jack Dempsey.
My inquiries are furthered with Kirk Douglas paying tribute to Rocky shortly after his untimely death by introducing some classic clips of Rock winning the title from Jersey Joe Walcott. Kirk recounts the funny story of when he first met Rocky when both were in training in an Los Angelas gym in 1949.
Then that led to the 1969-70 Murray Woroner Computer Super Fight that featured Rocky knocking out Ali in the final, but not many know an alternate ending was distributed in Europe where Ali stopped Rocky on cuts. I had never seen that footage, so what a thrill it was to finally see the alternate ending.
But then that led to a Howard Cosell interview of a 69 yr old Dempsey and Rocky along with a couple of boxing writers the following Saturday after Ali won his controversial rematch with Liston. Rocky was very astute in his observations but made it clear that he wasn’t in any position to actually know how hard the phantom punch landed. Dempsey was more direct, saying he didn’t bother to attend the fight because he thought some funny business was going on, and he agreed with Rocky that the punch seemed fairly weak overall.
So, I wanted to expand the appreciation of these great champs by including the clips.
Rocky explains how to beat Ali:
Basic Computer fight: These are actual filmed sessions between Ali and Rocky who trained hard to get into shape to break a long period of inactivity each had fallen into during this period. They became fast friends by the end.
Ali explains how to beat Rock:
Alternate ending: Angelo Dundee’s brother, Chris stops the bout!
Cosell interview of Dempsey and Rocky:
Cosell asked Walcott, the referee if he wanted to be on the show, but, naturally, he refused. His performance that infamous night was as poor as ever recorded out of a referee, maybe his last bout.
History as it was made, fantastic stuff and a Big Shout to all the gentlemen who put together these clips. Might want to check out their offerings at their main sites.