"Million Dollar Baby": A View From the Ring

21.02.05 - By Bernie McCoy: It was probably "Boyz ' N the Hood" that did it for me....the movie that ended my dependence on movie critics. I remember reading one breathless critique that called the movie the "most realistic look at life in the inner city." My problem with that assessment was that it was penned by the blond daughter of the famous movie star, Ingrid Bergman. It escaped me how someone brought up in the lap of luxury would know the first thing about life in the inner city.

Thus, when the initial reviews of the current movie "Million Dollar Baby" began extolling the film's virtues and praising it as an accurate portrayal of the sport of Women's boxing, my first thought was: what do middle-aged men and women, who spend most of their time in screening rooms rather than fight clubs or gyms, know about female boxers and their sport.

However, in the case of a movie about Women's boxing, I was sure I knew who did know: four women boxers who have toiled a collective thirty years inside the ring and who, together, have won 98 times against the top competition in the sport. It was those women I went to for a view of "Million Dollar Baby", a view from the ring.

Sumya Anani is generally considered the best pound/pound fighter in the sport, currently holding the IBA welterweight championship. Jane Couch is the most acclaimed female boxer in the United Kingdom and the uncrowned IWBF welterweight champion (Couch was stripped of that title as a result of having the temerity to contract an illness as she was preparing for a title defense last December). Lisa Holewyne is the GBU welterweight title holder, a former University of Texas pentathlete, who has fought every one of the top fighters in her weight class, some of them twice, as is the case with her two bouts with Anani. Kelsey Jeffries holds the IFBA featherweight title and is considered one of the most technically proficient boxers in the sport and is a fighter with the justifiable reputation of going anywhere, any time, to climb into the ring with anyone. These women know more about the sport of boxing than fifty movie critics of the "two thumbs up" variety and they know it from inside the sport, inside the ring. They know there's a big difference between "cut" as in "stop the scene" and "cut" as in "the ref is going to stop the fight."

Like most good boxing movies, "Million Dollar Baby" is only peripherally about boxing and the film's depiction of Women's boxing, at times, comes up short. Kelsey Jeffries wasn't particularly happy with the way the movie depicted the sport, "I suppose you can say it was good for the public to learn more about our sport, but I think they don't leave the movie feeling positive, given the dark ending." Jane Couch put it in more "real life" terms, "It's crazy, when you fight, none of these people [the mainstream media] can be bothered to cover the bout, but Hollywood makes their version of our sport and everyone goes crazy. Where are they when we're fighting?" Lisa Holewyne thought the movie relied too heavily on stereotypes and thought the film came off, on the whole, as "unrealistic."

Eastwood is a very talented filmmaker but I thought he did go a bit too heavy on the pro wrestling type villain played by real life boxer, Lucia Rijker. I also thought the portrayal of the main character's family went too far into a "trailer trash" stereotype and was needlessly ancillary to the primary story line. Eastwood, however, struck just the right cord with Morgan Freeman's wonderful voiceover narration of the short story prose of F. X. Toole (nee: Jerry Boyd).

Hillary Swank and her performance as "Maggie Fitzgerald" was of great interest to the four boxers. They experience, in "real life" gyms and boxing rings, all that Swank sought to capture on the screen. Did the women see Swank as a "boxer" or as an "actress playing a boxer' ? Was there a discernable difference? Sumya Anani snapped out a jab of an answer, "Of course, I could tell and anyone who knows boxing could tell it wasn't ' the real deal '. You just don't get to be a boxer or even look like one in the relatively short amount of time she [Swank] had to train; five months, that's barely training time for the Golden Gloves." Kelsey Jeffries concurred, "I feel she did the best anyone in her position could do." Jane Couch offered an analogy that some others have noted, "[Swank] did looks like she worked hard to get ready for the role, but I think a real boxer would have looked a lot more realistic in the ring. But as an actress playing a boxer she did well, certainly no worse than Stallone in "Rocky", in fact, I thought she was better than he was." Lisa Holewyne thought Swank got the "passion of a fighter" just about right, but in the ring, she was more "an actress boxing" than a "boxer".

Not surprisingly, in the full length shots of the ring action, there is too much punching of gloves and shoulders and I thought the needlessly loud sound effects of blows "landing" gave the fight scenes a bit of a "Rocky" cartoon feel.

As far as the gym scenes, the movie and Swank came off a bit better with the fighters. Holewyne thought those scenes were the most realistic part of the movie, "They got the characters in the gym just right; there's the loudmouth, there's the guy who doesn't belong, the boxing ' lifer ', and all manners of ' hangers on '. They've been in every gym I've ever been in and I've been in a few." Jeffries agreed, she thought the gym scenes were "realistic...the gym work and training were represented very well." Anani gave the scenes a "so/so",,,, all we saw her (Swank) really do was hit the heavy bag and the speed bag, there's a lot more work in the gym than that." Couch was much harder on this aspect of the movie, "I don't think it was realistic in the least, it was fine to the untrained eye, but when I'm in the gym, I work hard all the time and push myself to the limit and spar hard. So I thought the movie was a bit tame. It would have been great to see her really hammer the gym work and show how hard the top women fighters in the sport really train."

I thought the gym scenes were the strongest part of the movie, mainly because Morgan Freeman carried the scenes in the gym and he hits one perfect note after another as the quintessential "gym rat" who simply, in another one of Toole's wonderful, loving lines, "can't get enough of the stink" of the sport.

The biggest negatives, by far, from all the fighters, came from the series of first round knockouts that "Maggie Fitzgerald" scores at the outset of her career. Couch explained, "All those first round knockouts, if only it were that simple." Holewyne pointed out that even after eleven wins, all KOs, "the character didn't seem to get a whole lot better, from a technique standpoint; after the eleventh fight, she didn't seem to have much more skill than she did going into her first bout." Anani added, "I don't think the succession of first round knockouts rang true; in the real world, the first thing boxing people would be thinking was 'mismatch' ".

I realize that while the KOs were intended to "hurry the plot along", (the cinematic boxing equivalent of pages being torn off a calendar), I thought it to be unrealistic and I certainly never got the point of Swank's character, after each KO win, going back to her corner and sitting on the stool, almost as if she had another bout coming up.

Another "false note", for the four women, was the "title fight" featuring "Maggie Fitzgerald's" showdown with Lucia Rijker's "The Blue Bear". Holewyne said, "I hated the ' Mike Tyson ' act by Rijker; that wouldn't last thirty seconds in a real ring." Couch added that "Rijker isn't a dirty fighter (Couch dropped a eight round decision to Rijker in June ' 03) but that was the role she played." Jeffries noted that any referee "would have disqualified Rijker's character, it was totally unrealistic." However, as an actress playing a boxer, Rijker gets better notices from her colleagues. "She is a very gifted lady, in and out of the ring," said Jeffries, "I thought she did a great job." Couch added, "She did a good job in the role and you could definitely see she was a boxer, a real boxer." Holewyne demurred when asked to comment on Rijker's performance, still disturbed over the fact that Rijker had backed out of a fight with Holewyne last April on the undercard of a Vitali Klitshcko title fight (Anani stepped in as a late replacement and won a six round decision in a bout that won bother boxers plaudits: Anani for taking the fight on short notice and Holewyne for living up to her commitment with an even tougher opponent). Not surprisingly, given her own history of trying to get Rijker into the ring, Anani commented with the sharpest combination, "I think Lucia has a striking presence on the screen....she did a great job....I hope she gets a lot of recognition from the movie [but], I did think 'Oh sure, she'll fight the 'Million Dollar Baby' from Missouri, but she won't fight the 'Island Girl' from Kansas."

Holewyne was more inclined to talk about getting into the ring with "Maggie Fitzgerald", "She kept her elbows too wide, all the time. I didn't think she ever really got past the 'green fighter' stage. If I was in with her, I give her lots of movement and angles and probably be able to pick her apart." Couch added that she thought "Fitzgerald" could be "outworked" and promised, laughingly, "I'd take her places she'd never been."

As far as the overall effect of the movie, all four women agreed that "any publicity is good publicity" and "Million Dollar Baby" will probably provide some useful exposure for the sport of Women's boxing. However, the fact is that a movie, even a good movie such as "Million Dollar Baby", can't adequately depict, in slightly over two hours, just how hard it is to get to the level of athletic ability that the top women boxers achieve; boxers like Sumya Anani and Jane Couch and Lisa Holewyne and Kelsey Jeffries. Training runs along the ocean are about as few and far between as long strings of first round knockouts. A boxing career is long stretches of "ups and downs", success and disappointment, low pay and dingy venues and cold gyms and small crowds and, finally, be sure to throw in the criticism endemic to all female athletes, particularly female boxers, in this, the "enlightened" twenty first century. "Million Dollar Baby" got some of that right, it didn't, by any stretch, get it all right. As far as advancing the sport, I wouldn't count on a movie. Success for the sport will come from fighters like Anani and Couch and Holewyne and Jeffries and many others currently honing their skills. That's who'll lead the sport into the rarefied atmosphere of television exposure and financial success. It won't be a movie, certainly not Hollywood's version of the sport, but success, when it comes, will come as fighters such as these four women receive the long overdue recognition that their elite skills deserve.

Article posted on 20.02.2005

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