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Boxing in Cinema: The Harder They Fall

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Boxing in Cinema: The Harder They Fall

It had been many, many years since I had first seen Humphrey Bogart’s cinematic swan song, The Harder They Fall; just one year after the film’s 1956 release, Bogart (a heavy smoker) died of esophageal cancer at the age of 57. I recently revisited the film and I was floored by how relevant the film remains to the world of boxing. 

Great artists seldom end their careers on a high note, but I consider The Harder They Fall to be Bogart’s finest performance. As a suddenly out-of-work newspaper writer who becomes a PR man for a boxing manager named Nick Benko (played by an astonishingly venal Rod Steiger), Bogart’s Eddie Willis comes face to glove with the seedier side of the fight game and is forced to make a choice between financial gain and basic human decency. 

We learn quickly that Benko is backing Toro Moreno, a huge, Primo Carnera-sized fighter from South America who, due to his simple nature, is easy to control and exploit. Trouble is, while Moreno is physically imposing and looks great on a billboard, he cannot throw or take a decent punch. We find out early just how ill-equipped Moreno is for the ring during a sparring session in which Moreno’s partner George (played by Jersey Joe Walcott) gives Moreno free shots that barely faze him, but when George opens up with blows of his own, Moreno is left staggering to the canvas every time.

Benko gets around Moreno’s lack of skill by fixing his fights while Eddie works to hype them. It all goes relatively smoothly for a sizable stretch, but when the moment comes for Moreno to take on heavyweight champion Buddy Brannen (played by former champ Max Baer), the tall, lumbering fighter takes a vicious beating. 

The history of boxing is littered with fixed fights, shady managers and promoters, and fighters who don’t belong in the ring. What’s so remarkable about The Harder They Fall is how applicable it still is to the sport more than 65 years after its release. While truly “fixed” fights may not be as prevalent as they were in days of yore, the way that fights are fixed now is through matchmaking.

Think of how seldom we see the top fighters in any division fight one another. Just like in The Harder They Fall, hype and matchmaking can be so absurd in modern boxing as to be nearly comical (were it not for some poor overmatched sap getting hit in the face). You can’t lay all of this at the feet of the promoters, though. Too many fans are just here for the show, and what The Harder They Fall exposes is that the show has been going on for a long time, and it can be a harsh and unforgiving scene.

Just before Moreno fights Brannen for the title, he takes on former champion Gus Dundee, who has not recovered from a recent knockout loss to Brannen and has no business entering the ring, even against a soft puncher like Moreno. The fight carries forward despite Dundee being clearly diminished and complaining of a headache that won’t go away. Tragedy ensues, but even Moreno’s guilt and desire to quit won’t allow him to escape his own brutal date with Brannen. 

We still see this type of set-up today. If you’ve ever seen the video of Meldrick Taylor speaking just a few years after losing to Julio Caesar Chavez, and finding him so unintelligible that ESPN had to run subtitles at the bottom of the screen, you know what a life in boxing can lead to. The thing is, Taylor was fighting in that condition and no one was standing in the way of that happening.

A very salient point made throughout The Harder They Fall is how disposable fighters are. “Managers go on forever, fighters only last a short time,” a washed up homeless boxer tells a TV reporter in the film. Few movies have ever made that fact so clear as this one. One of the most painful points in the film is when that same man argues for boxers’ need for a pension after their time in the ring is done.

As we all know, boxing is big business, but not always for the boxers—while a very few fighters clean up, a great majority end their careers without any money or marketable skills to take to the outside world. Yet, here we are today, in the year of our lord 2022, with no real retirement plan. The state of California has a pension plan, but it is poorly funded with a treasure chest of just $5.3 million and the hurdles to qualify for it are substantial. The WBC announced a pension plan in 2012, but as of 2020, the plan had only $2.2 million in funding. A paltry sum considering the depth of the need. 

In almost every other major sport (NBA, NFL, MLB), some kind of safety net, created by the league, exists for athletes who play the game for a certain duration. But you don’t “play” boxing, you fight, and that’s all the more reason for there to be a plan for retired fighters—be they broken down or otherwise—to have some kind of reliable income when they leave the sport. 

As the film comes to a close, we see Eddie’s journalistic ethics finally kick in, and he can no longer abide the scam. He helps Moreno escape the country, gives the big man his share of the profits earned from Moreno’s beating, and sits down at his typewriter to write a new story that will expose the sordid world of boxing he has just left behind—one that he is driven to scribe not only for the man he has seen being taken advantage of, but also to restore his own sense of humanity. It’s an uphill fight that he is undertaking, and one that is sadly under-fought today.

At one point, there is a suggestion that the only way boxing will ever look after its bloodied and bruised combatants is through an act of congress. As painful as it may be to suggest that our largely dysfunctional political bodies should step in to support the bodies of the fighters who have given up so much both physically and cognitively for our entertainment, I think the argument for congress to intervene remains the only possible way to regulate the sport and extend substantial benefits to fighters. Boxing owes them that much. Hell, it owes them everything. And because the sport lacks the moral compass to pay by choice, it should be forced to. 

The Harder They Fall is a truly great boxing movie with a perfect performance by Bogart at its center. The film works both as a cracking story and a cautionary tale, but what is so heartbreaking about it is that if it were remade today in a modern context, the filmmakers would hardly need to change a thing.