What Is Your Favorite (Non-Rocky) Fight Movie of All Time?

(Because if Rocky movies were fair game, this column would just be all of us agreeing that Rocky IV was the greatest movie ever made.)

In an attempt to keep this column from quickly degrading into a list of Rocky movies, we agreed that none of them would be eligible for inclusion. What we ended up with is a list containing a few legitimate classics, a few cult favorites, and the formula for a damn good movie night with your fellow fight fans this weekend. At least for those of you who won’t be streaming War MMA’s inaugural event on Saturday night, obviously. 

John Hyams’s 2002 documentary The Smashing Machine

(Rather than pick just one memorable scene, we’ve included the whole documentary.)

John Hyams’s 2002 documentary The Smashing Machine is mainly remembered as a cautionary tale — a hard look at a hard sport, full of broken bodies, drug abuse, and predatory behavior of the physical and emotional varieties. And make no mistake, it should be remembered for all of that. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to watch the downfall of an incredible talent like Mark Kerr, an alpha male who was utterly chewed up by professional fighting.

But it also captures an incredible moment in time that will never, ever take place again. I’m speaking of course of the PRIDE 2000 Open-Weight Grand Prix — the greatest, most absurdly over-the-top MMA tournament in the history of the sport — which is captured in the second half of the movie. Among the competitors were old-school UFC legends who were already considered to be past their sell-by date (Royce Gracie, Kerr’s longtime friend Mark Coleman), international stars (Kazushi Sakuraba, Igor Vovchanchyn), and Kerr, whose career could have reached new heights in the tournament. Instead, it marked the beginning of the end.

Tournaments are inherently dramatic; it’s the reason why Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport are so often name-checked as the greatest martial arts films of all time. But fiction can’t hold a candle to real life, and The Smashing Machine was a perfect meeting of subject and style, full of cinematic moments that felt like they must have been scripted, but weren’t.

How about Renzo Gracie cackling manically as he introduces us to Ricardo Morais, reveling in Morais’s vow to show no mercy against Mark Coleman at PRIDE 8, as Morais swipes his arms along the water like some kind of nightmarish river monster?

How about Mark Kerr’s friends staging an intervention around his hospital bed after Kerr suffers an overdose, breaking the hulking wrestler down to tears?

How about Kerr succumbing to exhaustion in his epic battle with Kazuyuki Fujita — who rightfully earned his “World’s Greatest Chin” reputation that night — but successfully leaving Fujita too damaged to face Coleman in the semi-finals? In the end, Coleman advances to the finals and avenges Kerr’s previous beating at the hands of Vovchanchyn with a series of brutal knee strikes to the head, the same technique that Vovchanchyn used to stop Kerr the previous year. Sacrifice and redemption. You couldn’t write it any better.

May 1st, 2000, was a farewell to MMA’s prehistoric age. It featured the last great eight-man tournament in the sport’s history, and the first loss suffered by Royce Gracie. And while Coleman enjoyed the last heroic moment of his career, Kerr faded away. His most embarrassing losses were yet to come, and mercifully, the documentary ends before we get to see them.

(“Honey” Roy Palmer vs. “Hammerhead” Hagan: criminally overlooked when discussing the greatest movie fights)

“Fight movies” are a dime a dozen, and to say that most of them are nothing less than cinematic dumpster fires would be a compliment. But every so often there is a beacon of hope that makes us believe in the genre again. That guiding light is what keeps us coming back in anticipation of discovering another Best of the Best – or at least something entertaining like The Hammer – but mostly we end up disappointed with the film and then ultimately pissed off with ourselves for spending the cash, optimism or both in hopes that lightning could strike again.

All fight films should be approached like anything Sensei Seagal has ever made (except Executive Decision – because The Lawman dies early on in that one AND because Judo Gene wasn’t there, so Seagal wrecked John Leguizamo’s ass during filming. I can’t quantify which is more hilarious), but the overwhelming majority of them seem to forget that they’re fight films, and spend too much time on characters and subplots that absolutely no one involved cares even slightly about. The end result is that watching most of them is like taking a shit when you are REALLY sweaty. Whether it is from your occupation or the gym or an athletic competition; leaving a dump while you are fairly lathered up with perspiration rarely ends in a satisfactory fashion. Whether it’s the never ending wipes, the lack of toilet paper or swamp ass, there is almost always a complication. Either way, both dropping a sweat deuce and watching a fight movie almost always leave you in a bad mood with a longing for a hot shower to wash off the filth.

Yet in the case of the 1992 boxing/con artist flick Diggstown, all parties entered the theaters (or more likely, their sofas before watching it on HBO or CineMax) feeling like they just did four miles of road work and dropped a deuce in a Porta Pottie, but then left feeling fresh as a daisy.

Even a quick glance over the cast will leave you scratching your head as to how this movie receives so little fanfare from non-fight fans. Prior to him being a plausible joke on Family Guy, multiple-time Academy Award nominee James Woods was doing real cinematic work (WATCH THESE, TATERS – Ghosts of Mississippi, True Believer and Salvador), and was cast as this film’s protagonist. Louis Gossett Jr. actually won an Oscar but got second billing to Woods and another Oscar nominee, Bruce Dern, was the antagonist; that means BAD GUY for you monosyllabic monkeys. The three main characters were ALL phenomenal actors, but if you throw in a young Roller Girl with Tex Cobb and the fat guy from Flatliners (who is god damn magnificent in his role), this is a virtuoso cast. Also, there is a small role for a very young Jim Caviezel in it. Ya remember him, right? He was JESUS CHRIST in Mel Gibson’s epic The Passion of the Christ – though in Diggstown he’s a boxer whose last words are “Fuck you Nigger” before he rightfully gets KTFO.

I am not going to give a plotline or a step-by-step retelling of what you will most certainly get off Wikipedia, but I urge the younger CP audience members to expand your horizons. Guys like ReX13 and me spread the word by passing along the VHS love of UFC during the early days of MMA and most of you are reaping the benefits. So take a little bit of “Get the FUCK Off My Lawn” advice from the old guys. Though it is not Enter the Dragon or Raging Bull – which are obvious choices that all you keyboard warriors will fault us for not choosing – Diggstown is pretty damn good. So, get on your new-fangled smartphones or tablets or whatever do-hickey you whipper-snappers are using nowadays and lookup Diggstown on NetFlix. You’re welcome in advance.

Long before most of us were born and any of us even knew what MMA was, The Harder They Fall was captivating audiences with its gritty portrayal of prizefighting. Obviously, parts of this 1956 classic are now laughably outdated; black-and-white televisions are incomparable to modern HD 3D TVs, mainstream ethnocentrism has been replaced by political correctness and the typewriter has been made obsolete by the computer. Yet to this day, despite the abundance of movies that have been made about fighting, there still hasn’t been a more honest portrayal of the fight business.

Perhaps the main reason why this movie’s successors- especially the ones about MMA – have mostly failed to be more than watered-down, bastardized Rocky clones is that they’ve gone out of their way to deny that professional fighting is a business. Fighting is not a vaguely philosophical practice of honor and discipline. It is not about “building character,” nor is it a battle between right and wrong. Fighting is a business – one that can be as ugly as any other.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to wait too long for things to get ugly for Toro Moreno, a none-too-subtle wink at Italian heavyweight Primo Carnera (To drive this home, the film casts Max Baer – who beat the tar out of Carnera during their title fight – as the heavyweight champ who destroys Moreno. Subtle!). It’s equally astonishing and tragic how much of this movie fight fans can still identify with almost sixty years later. Let’s see…blatantly fixing bouts? Check. A completely undeserving challenger bumped into a world title fight? Naturally (so the promoter can profit off of it!). A fighter being paid a disgustingly small portion of the money that he made for the promoter? You betcha. A reporter more concerned with earning a paycheck and staying on the promoter’s good side than publishing honest accounts? *puffs out chest* You better believe it. After all, exposing the business would mean losing a paycheck, and no self-respecting entrepreneur would willingly do that.

Ironically enough, critics once complained that the corruption on display throughout this film was “far-fetched” and “not convincing.” If you haven’t noticed, 1956 was a very naive time in our history.

It’s the ugliness of the movie that has made it hold up so well over time, and allows me to genuinely appreciate it. It’s not another bullshit “Guy dreams of being the best ever and he trains all day all guts no glory so he can be recognized as the greatest fighter and get to bang hot chicks and earn the respect of his fellow meatheads through punching other dudes VIRTUE and SACRIFICE and AFFLICTION SHIRTS AND TRIBAL TATZ AND NEVER BACK DOWN BRO!” flick, like most modern MMA movies. It doesn’t fall into the “underdog is automatically the good guy, cheer for him instead of his more talented, far more interesting opponent” rut that even great fight movies like Warrior fall into. No, this is an honest look at a deceitful business. Name one consumer who can’t appreciate that.

Few movies have influenced a generation as much as Newt Arnold’s Bloodsport. Before NHB fighting arrived on American soil, Jean-Claude Van Damme lit up the silver screen, exposing thousands of impressionable adolescent males to the world of underground fighting through his role as Frank Dux and his quest to win the prestigious mixed martial arts tournament known simply as “Kumite.” This was the beginning of an epoch in which everyone and their brother got enrolled in Karate class at the local strip-mall dojo. Unfortunately, for many kids like me, my parents were too poor to afford formal training from a Sensei [Ed. note: That might not have been such a bad thing…]. As a last resort, I replayed my grandfather’s VHS of the movie until I could reenact the fight scenes with my eyes closed and often practiced the moves learned on my less than enthused sisters. Hey, it worked for GSP, right?

Besides its cultural impact on America’s youth, Bloodsport showcased almost everything there is to love about martial arts competition – amazing knockouts, brotherly love for training partners, authentic bad blood between fighters from opposing camps/styles, and a fighter launching himself off the referees back to execute a flying kick, just to name a few. The fight scenes from the Kumite are some of the most memorable for any guy between the ages of 25 and 45. You know what I’m talking about. Remember Dux doing the splits and then punching the rotund Japanese man in his sushi roll? What about the guy who strutted around like a monkey and somersaulted himself to victory? Still need convincing that Bloodsport is the greatest fighting movie of all time? Fine, just let me borrow your hammer, because I’ve got the final coffin nail for this debate. Above all else, Bloodsport is about honor. In the opening scenes, we’re shown a young miscreant named Frank Dux who breaks into a guy’s house in an attempt to swipe his Katana. Little did he know the old man was Ninjutsu master Senzo Tanaka. Dux apologized and fessed up, prompting Tanaka to take him under his wing and train him. After a premature death of Tanaka’s son, Shingo, Dux takes his place in the Kumite to honor Tanaka. Fast forward twenty minutes of the most awesome fighting montage with great 80′s music and you reach the summit – Frank Dux has become the first Westerner to win the Kumite and brings great honor to a man who went out of his way to mentor him. Much hespect, bro.

(“The secret of his rage…can be revealed!“)

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. Yes, Missing in Action II was a shameless and unapologetic rip-off of Rambo. But biting is pro forma in Hollywood, especially when it comes to martial arts movies. Who among us, while watching Never Back Down, didn’t realize they were witnessing an updated version of The Karate Kid? The only differences were modernity and the indubitable fact that Daniel-san actually deserved many of the beatings he received whereas Jake did not.

Unnecessarily harsh? Consider the facts: not only did Daniel boldly move in on Johnny’s bitch, but he hosed down the Cobra Cai whilst they were puffing a J in the bathroom stall, and he wore that ridiculous red jacket to pick up Ally at the country club. You just don’t do that kind of shit if you’re looking to keep your ass unkicked, especially when you’re the new kid in town.

Anyway, rip-off acknowledgment aside, let that not diminish the greatness of Missing in Action II. This cinematic masterpiece begins with a helicopter going down in enemy territory during the Vietnam War – which must have been an indescribably sickening feeling. Colonel James Braddock, faced with the horrifying decision to either die in a fiery crash or become a POW, instructs his men to jump, where they are captured and imprisoned in an underground pit by the evil Colonel Yin.

Braddock had a lot to deal with aside from being stuck in a POW camp that no one besides Francois and some crazy Australian photographer even knew existed. As the leader he had to volunteer for the old rat-in-a-bag-attached-to-your-head-while-hanging-upside-down-with-your-hands-tied-behind-your-back torture routine, watch as one of his men – bitch-ass Nester switched sides to become Yin’s cabin boy, suffer the indignity of being told his wife was getting tagged by another man, and if all that wasn’t enough he had to deal with Mazilli’s incessant whining the entire time.

Braddock finally decided he’d had enough after Yin administered a hot-shot of opium to his buddy, Sergeant Franklin and commenced to set him ablaze while he was still alive. Lighting a dude on fire is just a real shitty thing to do and goes against every rule of decency known to man. After that, Braddock went on his killing spree, easily taking out enemy soldiers, even flame-throwing a couple guys in an act of heinously poetic revenge.

Add to all this the fact that Braddock actually went back a decade later (in part one) to kill some more motherfuckers and rescue the remaining POWs and we can only conclude that the man was not only fiercely dedicated to his cause, but just took great pleasure in slaying him some Cong.

Chuck’s superhuman martial arts skills are put on display as he chokes the blood out of Nester’s traitorous throat with his leg chains, disposes of Yin’s soldiers with the one-punch awesomeness of any quality action flick, and finally at the end when he beats the ever-loving shit out of Yin with minimal effort – even letting go of a lethal choke to deliver a little more pain.

Sure, no one was going to be winning any Oscars for their performances, but the Academy has long ignored the value of martial arts in film, even when it’s as socially significant as Missing in Action II. Yet a stupid piece of shit like The English Patient gets nine statues. But such is the way of that Hollywood douche-bags.

And, it’s Chuck man. What other martial artist is a walking meme? Websites, coffee mugs, t-shirts with such brilliant taglines as “Wrong MC Hammer, Chuck Norris CAN touch this” has been created in his honor. Hell, even Bruce Lee can’t say that.

(Two full movies in one article. Looks like you won’t be accomplishing anything at work today.)

I know, I know. Why would anyone in their right mind pick a Jackie Chan movie that wasn’t The Legend of Drunken Master? And Rumble in the Bronx? That’s, like, the Black Album of Jackie Chan movies YOU UNEDUCATED ILLITERATE HACK GOD DANGA I HATE YOU WITH THE FIRE OF A THOUSAND SUNS.

If my choice didn’t already alienate the lot of you, this next fact probably will: I am a child of the 90’s. Although I was born just outside of the decade that bestowed us with such cultural gems as Suburban Commando, Thunder in Paradise, and Santa With Muscles (and those are just the made-for-TV, Hulk Hogan vehicles), I was as influenced by the content of the decade as much as anyone. I wore light up sneakers. I collected Pogs. I listened to Infectious Grooves (but definitely not Oasis. Fuck Oasis.). And while frequenting the video store in my town that doubled as some sort of redneck petting zoo, I shit you not, I stumbled upon Rumble in the Bronx, the goddamn greatest fight film of all time.

It was there that my journey into the genre of “fight films” began. I started with the other obvious Chan choices; Drunken Master, Operation Condor, First Strike, Who Am I?, then began broadening my horizons with the Bruce Lee films, the Chuck Norris films, hell, even a Seagal film or two (and you can take that to the bank!). In short, Jackie Chan and Rumble in the Bronx was the catalyst that would eventually lead me to the early UFC tapes, to CagePotato, and to the man with the greatest bar fighting tips of all time.

Personal reasons aside, why is Rumble in the Bronx the greatest blah blah blah of blah blah, you blah? Well for starters, it is one of only two films to date that successfully pulled off a “one man vs. an army” sequence (the other of course being The Protector). Secondly, aside from truly introducing Jackie Chan’s death-defying, environment-based and often brilliantly slapstick style of martial arts to a wider audience, Rumble in the Bronx also introduced me to the following:

1.) Multiethnic, Cartoonishly-Characterized Street Tuffs


3.) The Use of a Ski as a Deadly Weapon

4.)The Greatest Stuntman (and the greatest stunt) of All Time

5.) And last but certainly not least: Francoise Yip & Tiger Cage Strip Clubs

In conclusion, Rumble in the Bronx is the greatest fight movie ever, not only because of the nostalgic effect it has on me every time I watch it, but because of the unmatched fight choreography, Jackie Chan’s still unmatched ability to sacrifice his body in the name of art, the five star acting/dubbing, and the giant hovercraft.

Honorable Mentions: Surf Ninjas, Over the Top, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, Hard Times

So what fight movie was your personal favorite? Let us know in the comments section.