To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rocky smashing into UK cinemas, FS magazine selects the greatest sports films to hit the big screen.
Sylvester Stallone wrote the first draft of the original Rocky script in three days, after watching the unfancied Chuck Wepner go 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali. The film cost $1million to make and earned over $225million at the box office, scooping three Oscars, including the coveted best picture.
Once we realised January signalled the 40th anniversary of its 1977 UK release, we immediately set about trying to compile a list of the greatest sporting films of all time. And after a lot of emails, meetings and fist fights (in the ring, naturally), we finally came up with this illustrious lot.
The majority of films mentioned on these pages came after Rocky, and that’s no coincidence. Balboa’s first outing immortalised the slow-motion training montage, helped to popularise the sports movie genre, and convinced Hollywood studio execs that the genre had a serious seat at the top table.
Now read on, enjoy our movie journey and watch them afterwards…
Happy Gilmore (1996)
“Just tap it in, just taaap it in, give it a little tappy, tap tap taparoo,” is one of many quotable lines from Adam Sandler’s best role, as the big-hitting but reluctant golfer who would rather be playing ice hockey.
Bill Murray as Ernie McCracken is brilliantly sleazy, and has a combover Trump would be proud of. His rival is Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), a one-handed former champion bowler. It’s dumb, gross-out, slapstick comedy, but done very well.
Teen Wolf (1985)
Marty McFly is the hairier-than-usual kid who uses his powers to become star of the school basketball team. Because wolves are notoriously good at sports, right? A classic comedy hit, and Coach Finstock is the greatest PE teacher ever.
Outlandish characters (Bill Murray is in peak bizarre mode), a young hero, a feelgood plot, and a gopher. Forget Happy Gilmore, this was the flick that made golf cool, as a competitive match is made fun by the wacky antics all over the course.
Breaking Away (1979)
Four working-class lads from a university town in America, led by Dave who is obsessed with Italian cycling, stick it to the posh rich students through the medium of a bicycle race. It’s a tricky sell, admittedly, but it ‘s Oscar-winningly feelgood.
Raging bull (1981)
When you’ve got director Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on top of their game, the result is always going to be incredible. Based on the life story of middleweight Jake La Motta, this is often hanging around the top of critics’ polls of the greatest films ever made.
It’s the iconic tale of Rocky Balboa’s quest to be more than “just another bum.” You try not getting emotional after Rocky goes 15 rounds with Apollo Creed and cries out “ADRIAAAAAN!”
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) proves girls can hit just as hard as boys, despite grizzled trainer Frankie’s (Clint Eastwood) doubts. It’s a story of determination to do that one thing you really want to do, despite the doubters.
Cinderella Man (2005)
The ultimate ‘one last chance to make it’ tale of a boxer who can’t fight because of an injury, but can’t support his family because of America’s Great Depression. Russell Crowe is immense
as James J Braddock.
When We Were Kings (1996)
It’s hard to top this documentary’s real-life drama of the Rumble in the Jungle between Ali and Foreman in 1974. A perfect example of why Ali was ‘The Greatest’.
The Damned United (2009)
The off-field action takes centre stage, as Michael Sheen does an excellent job replicating the ego of Brian Clough during the six tumultuous weeks he was in charge of Leeds. Watch it, then check out the clips comparing Clough with Sheen – remarkable.
Shaolin Soccer (2001)
Zlatan may be a blackbelt in taekwondo, but even he can’t hit a screamer into the top corner from the halfway line. Which is what you get if you cross Shaolin kung fu with football, apparently.
Gregory’s Girl (1981)
It might look like a film about a girl joining Gregory’s football team, Gregory falling for her, and spending a mad evening on a ‘date’ with everyone but her. But it’s actually a really good film about being a teenager and trying to neck on with girls.
Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001)
A brilliant mockumentary about the challenges a new England manager faces when dealing with players, the media, and expectations of the public. It’s worth a watch for the Benson & Hedges gag alone.
My name is Joe (1998)
If you like any Ken Loach films (Kes, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, I, Daniel Blake), then get onto this lesser-known classic. Joe manages the most rag-tag bunch of Glaswegian
Sunday league footballers imaginable, and struggles with raging alcoholism.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Fans of martial arts films get misty-eyed about Bruce Lee, and with good reason. Enter The Dragon isn’t a complicated film – man fights his way through to the big boss – but it showcases Lee’s incredible kung fu skills and athleticism.
The Raid (2011)
An Indonesian film made by a Welsh director with hardly any special effects – just a team of police storming a tower block full of bad guys who all kick ass at martial arts. The big final fight is breathtaking.
Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003)
This dropped a lot of jaws when it was released. It made it into our list of top picks by demonstrating that stunt doubles and wire work are no match for a load of actors who know martial arts.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Sand the floor. Wax on, wax off. Daniel and Mr Miyagi became the Yoda and Luke of the martial arts world, as the guru taught the youngster all he knew. Throw in epic fight scenes, and it’s clear that The Karate Kid is the best around.
Drunken Master (1978)
Jackie Chan aficionados often consider this early ‘comedic kung fu’ flick his best film. A young fighter must learn Drunken Fist Kung Fu, which imitates the unpredictable movements of someone who’s had one too many.
Cool Runnings (1993)
The scene where they nearly set a blistering time on the final race, only to crash and carry their bobsleigh over the line must melt even the iciest heart. “Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, it’s bobsled time!”
The Mighty Ducks (1992)
Coach Bombay (Emilio Estevez) takes charge of a rag-tag bunch of ice hockey players and manages to lead them to glory, with Joshua Jackson leading the way. That triple deke still brings a tear…
Slap Shot (1977)
The most fun Paul Newman ever had making a movie was on the comedy Slap Shot. And it shows. Set in the world of minor league ice hockey, it follows the fortunes of player/coach Newman’s team of no-hopers who find a recipe for success: ultra-violence.
Kurt Russell plays Team USA (You! Es! Ay!) ice hockey coach Herb Brooks in this stirring, patriotic retelling of the 1980 epic Cold War duel between America and Soviet Russia. Essentially, it’s Rocky IV on ice.
Downhill racer (1969)
OK, it’s not original – a coach trying to instil some discipline into a loose cannon competitor – but we all want to look as cool as Robert Redford as he slaloms down the slopes. “You ski fast, but you’re reckless.”
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Two high school basketball players hope to go pro in the NBA one day, but first they’ve got to make their name in the college leagues. This won all kinds of awards, and is the sports documentary all others should aspire to.
One of those documentaries that make you head straight to YouTube for clips. It’s an absolutely gripping ride through the life and untimely death of one of the world’s most naturally gifted racing drivers. The on-board last lap footage is incredible.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Good v evil; arrogant champ v plucky underdog. Steve Wiebe tries to become the Donkey Kong world record holder. Not ‘sport’ in the traditional sense but there’s competition, obsession and the will to win.
This wheelchair rugby flick focuses on the rivalry between USA and Canada. Some of the non-sporting bits, like stupid questions they get asked about life in a wheelchair, steal the show. Watch it, then go watch the sport!
Pumping Iron (1977)
Best known as the film that gave the world Arnie, it’s also a fascinating insight into the world of professional bodybuilding and the quest for the perfectly muscled torso. Also, Arnie psyching out rival Lou Ferrigno over breakfast is brilliant.
The Champ (1979)
Even psychologists have described this as the saddest movie ending ever ever ever (maybe not in those exact words). Ricky Schroder is the child star whose father, played by Jon Voight, returns to the ring to help provide a better future for his boy. What could possibly go wrong?
Field of Dreams (1989)
When a voice in his head says, ‘If you build it, he will come,’ Ray (Kevin Costner) interprets it as ‘build a baseball stadium in your back garden.’ But by the time he gets to play catch with the ghost of his father, there ain’t a dry eye left in the house.
Rudy isn’t good enough to play American football for his beloved Notre Dame college team. Heck, he’s not even good enough to study there. But when his best mate dies in an accident, he decides to hell with it all, and follows his American dream anyway. “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!”
Remember the Titans (2000)
Based on a true story, a racially divided American high school football team matures with the help of their coach, become champions and teach their bigoted town the meaning of tolerance. You’ll laugh, cry and shout but will never walk away disappointed.
The Blindside (2009)
Like many good tearjerkers, this constantly treads the line between emotional and saccharine, and just about manages to stay on course. It helps that the source material is the real-life story of Super Bowl-winning offensive tackle Michael Oher.
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