Sports Movie Champ

By Noah Graff

Last week, on November 21, it was the Fortieth Anniversary of the release of Sylvester Stallone’s opus, Rocky. The news brought on a discussion between my dad and me whether Rocky is the best “sports movie” ever. After reflecting on my short list of favorite sports movies—Rocky, Major League, Rudi, and Karate Kid to name a few—I’ve come to the conclusion that indeed Rocky is my favorite. My dad argues for Bull Durham, which I’ll admit is a well-done comedy and romance that celebrates the game of baseball, but I’ve concluded that film does not follow my criteria for what makes a great “sports movie.”

For me, a true sports movie revolves around a team or individual athletes trying to overcome a sporting obstacle, and in so doing, take control of their lives. At the center of a great sports movie there must be an underdog protagonist who inspires audiences to root for them with all their heart. Rocky is the perfect sports movie protagonist. He’s poor, he’s been discarded by his peers as a waste of talent, he even works as a goon for the local loan shark, Gazzo. Underneath all his superficial shortcomings Rocky has the biggest heart of any athlete I can ever remember in a movie. The pain he overcomes in his training and in his title fights is raw and authentic. When he gets knocked down in the ring and struggles to get up, I feel like I’ve been struck down and I’m fighting for my life too. When Mickey uses a razor blade to open Rocky’s shut swollen eye I cover my own eyes.

Rocky fights Apollo Creed in Rocky I

The reason I feel Rocky’s pain so much and root for him so hard is because I want to see him take control of his life and succeed in his life’s passion—it’s what we all wish for in our own lives and many don’t accomplish, and most people aren’t trying to become Heavyweight Champion of the World.

The night before his Title Fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky sits in bed and tells Adrian that his goal is not to win the fight. Even after all his training he still doesn’t think he can win. Instead, he states that “all he wants to do is go the distance,” to remain standing after 15 rounds with Creed. He says that nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed before, so if he can go the distance with the Champ and do something that has never been done before, he can know for the first time that he’s not just a “bum from the neighborhood.”

How can a viewer not want to live and die with a character who says that?


By Lloyd Graff

My vote for the best sports movie ever goes to Bull Durham. Rocky was brilliant in its own gut punching way, but Bull Durham was funny, poignant, erotic and smart in one amazing script. Also the acting by Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon is off the charts for chemistry.

The story is about a young, naive, sexed-up pitcher named Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, Tim Robbins, who has a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent brain. He has a 95-mile-per-hour heater that he is apt to throw six feet over the catcher’s head. He possesses the talent of a star, but no focus other than on the local ladies.

Crash Davis confronts Nuke in Bull Durham

The management of his minor-league team, the Durham (North Carolina) Bulls, brings in “Crash” Davis, Kevin Costner, a veteran of 12 minor league seasons, to tame the wild man LaLoosh, so he can get called up to the Show (the Major Leagues). Crash is a somewhat embittered philosopher catcher. He loves the game but is both resigned and resentful of his position in life. He knows his job is to provide life lessons and baseball knowledge to unworthy phenoms like Nuke, and he hates his fate. But he does it because he’s a baseball lifer.

Everything becomes more complicated and fascinating when Annie Savoy, Susan Sarandon, an aging but still attractive baseball groupie, designates Nuke as her Bull boyfriend for the season. Then Crash crashes the party and falls for Annie. She’s sexually attracted to Robbins’ young character, and the creator of the movie, Ron Shelton, makes it a playful, purely physical relationship. Ironically, the movie was the beginning of a 23-year marriage between Sarandon and Robbins, who had two children together. Crash’s job for the Bulls is to mature Nuke and teach him how to pitch, but he is angry and resentful, and his lust for Annie constantly gnaws at him.

I find the movie endlessly entertaining, even after seeing it 10 times. The characters are funny; the dialogue is witty and sarcastic, both underplayed and over the top.

The characters are profane yet also very kind and human. I think Crash’s soliloquies about “never messing with a streak” and that after 12 years in the Minors, he “doesn’t try out” as a lover, are as good as it gets in American movies.

Rocky is Stallone’s masterpiece. Bull Durham is an even better movie.

Question: What are your favorite sports movies?

Clip from Rocky – “All I want to do is go the distance”

Clip from Bull Durham: On the Mound Convention

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26 thoughts on “Sports Movie Champ

  1. Tony

    Two of my all time favorite movies. Since I’m a baseball nut I have to go with Bull Durham but I’d like to throw another name into the ring (Did you catch that boxing tie in? Subtle huh?)
    The Natural. Roy Hobbs seems to fill Noah’s criteria for the perfect underdog protagonist.

  2. Chuck Schultz

    On behalf of motorsports fans I vote for Gran Prix as the best sports movie of all time. Multi-level plot line plus, for the time, unprecedented action sequences make it very watchable to this day. On the baseball front, my opinion of Bang the Drum Slowly is highly influenced by my love of the other books in the “Author” Wiggens saga; a rare look into 1950s baseball before it became bi-coastal. My brother and I saw Rocky in an unadvertised pre-release showing at our neighborhood theater. Our dad claimed to have had the shortest career in Golden Gloves history [8 seconds of round one] but he still loved the “sweet science.” A great movie. true, but not the greatest.

  3. Mark Rollinson

    Well, I JUST watched “Eddie the Eagle” last night and that certainly is a great story and Eddy was definitely and underdog protagonist.

    Just my 2 cents

  4. Mike

    All of the movies listed above are very good and i enjoyed watching multiple times. I think “42” and “The Express” deserve consideration too.

  5. Tony

    Sorry, but Field of Dreams is a way better Baseball movie than Bull Durham. I would also respectfully submit the following to be in the top 10 best Sports Movies:
    Breaking Away (the ultimate underdog protagonist)
    Eight Men Out (true baseball)
    A Sunday In Hell (true bicycling)
    Oh, and “Gus”

    1. rick

      When talking about Hockey and overcoming adversity my vote is for:

      “Slap Shot”

      The Hanson Brothers are legends…

  6. Another canuck

    As a Canadian, you know the answer is Slap Shot. The Hansen brothers attacking the “Coke” machine is an absolute riot to watch and Paul Newman telling the opponent’s goalie his wife is a Lesbian crack me up every time I think about them. Go Chiefs!

  7. Lloyd Graff

    Noah, you may have turned me with that brilliant clip from Rocky. But let us not forget the magnificent Hoosiers with Gene Hackman, Remember the Titans with Denzel Washington, and Chariots of Fire. If you want to see a great film clip go to You Tube and watch
    ! Bull Durham and Kevin Costner’s “I believe” statement, uncensored. It’s fantastic, but it was a little to spicy to quote in the blog.

  8. Lloyd Graff

    Regarding The Natural, Robert Redford was too pretty to be Roy Hobbs. I never totally accepted him. Field of Dreams, I have tried watching it many times but never got past 45 minutes.
    Let us not forget Raging Bull. Could not watch it to completion. It gets kudus because Scorcese directed it.

  9. Bob Ducanis

    Caddyshack tops my list. Has more one liners that everybody knows than any other movie.

    Tin Cup wasn’t bad either. I’ll toss in Bad News Bears as my baseball movie.

  10. Lloyd Graff

    Ah, Tin Cup, another Ron Shelton Kevin Costner, and mature beauty Renee Russo, flick. The climactic scene with Costner sticking out his arm asking for a 10th ball is a movie classic.
    And Caddyshack with Bill Murray is in my Hall of Fame. Bad News Bears is worth watching at least once a year.

  11. Lloyd Graff

    And we cannot forget Shelton’s other great movie White Men Can’t Jump with Woody Harrelson. Hoop Dreams is in my basketball Hall of Fame, too.

  12. Tim G.

    Cinderella Man with Russell Crowe. Not only a boxing movie that shows the struggles Jim J. Bullock but also demonstrates pride and values that are rarely seen today.

  13. Maury

    I enjoyed Chariots of Fire and The Natural very much, but the riveting action of Rocky puts it on top, for me.


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