Fun fact: I actually got into boxing and combat sports as a whole by way of a Japanese comic called Hajime no Ippo. The sequence of events that ended with me becoming a fight writer and certified official came about because I am, at heart, a gigantic nerd.
And now, with a lack of real action to blunt that nerddom, I’m inflicting it on all of you.
Our own Lewis Watson offered some quality book recommendations this past weekend, and as I’m nothing if not shamelessly eager to follow trends, I thought I’d churn out a list of my own. I also decided to include MMA stuff, since we’re stuck inside for a while and I figure too much content is better than not enough content.
Word of warning: there will be anime on here, but I’ll give fair warning before launching into that spiel.
Fight Night: Champion
The last and greatest boxing game still holds up. Those looking to play it are stuck doing so on either their old consoles or the Xbox One and the multiplayer servers are long dead, but how much do you really miss fighting jab-spamming Isaac Frosts?
Isaacs Frost. Whatever
Whether testing your mettle against fighters two weight classes above or, like me, using Joe Frazier to pummel Anthony Mundine for stress relief, it’s hard to find a sports game that feels this damn good to play. The revamped Total Punch Control makes slipping-and-ripping a delight, and though they sadly toned down the truly grotesque level of swelling you could inflict in previous titles, the visuals remain brutally engrossing.
It’s far from a perfect game, of course; the AI’s ability to recover stamina between rounds is flat-out ludicrous and it’s stupidly easy to rack up a 50-0 (50 KO) record in career mode by investing everything in body punching and making foie gras out of their digitized livers. Still, I’ve yet to find a game that can scratch my biffing itch the way Champion did.
Four Kings by George Kimball
Tommy Hearns was my first fighting idol, thanks in no small part to the Ippo character who boasted a stylized version of “The Hitman’s” signature Philly sharpshooting, so it’s no real surprise that this was my first taste of true boxing literature.
Beyond Kimball’s gripping accounts of the legendary quartet’s fights, his book is chock-full of history and asides that layer on the drama with additional context. It also includes some of my favorite tidbits of all time, from Vito Antuofermo scoring the greatest KO of his career against a rioter during the Marvin Hagler-Alan Minter brawl to the time Roberto Duran punched out a horse.
Terrific subject matter and a learned, capable writer with plenty of first-hand knowledge make for an excellent read.
The Last Great Fight by Joe Layden
If you’ve ever looked at Tyson-Douglas and asked yourself how the hell something like that happened, this is essential reading. Layden perfectly presents both the circumstances that led to the greatest upset this sport has ever seen and the aftermath that saw the conqueror fade away and the conquered struggle to reclaim what once was his.
I want to give particular credit to his characterization of Douglas, a man strangely unknown beyond his single moment of absolute triumph. Layden makes a compelling case for Douglas not simply being in the right place at the right time to catch a plummeting “Iron Mike,” but being a mercurial underachiever who, for one perfect moment, finally lived up to his incredible potential.
It’s hard to walk away from this book free of heartbreak and anger; maybe not the best emotions to nurture during a pandemic, but you should read it anyway.
Those of you affronted by the used of elbows, knees, kicks, and assorted grappling shenanigans in combat may wish to turn away. Even if MMA isn’t your thing, Warrior is a goddamn gem and it still pisses me off that it floundered at the box office.
Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play Brendan and Tommy Riordan, two brothers who grew up wrestling under the tutelage of their alcoholic, abusive father, played to gut-wrenching perfection by Nick Nolte. Having not seen each other since Tommy escaped with their mother, the pair wind up on opposite sides of the bracket in an MMA tournament, Brendan needing money to take care of his family and Tommy needing it to give to the widow of one of his fellow soldiers.
It’s got the standard combat-sports-movie disclaimer of “this only happened because the ref is incompetent,” but the fight choreography is excellent, aided by the use of actual MMA fighters to fill out the tournament roster and a director who clearly knows the subject matter. At its core, though, it’s a brilliantly done story about family, aided by the music of one of my favorite depressing bands in The National. “Manly tears” may be a cliche at this point, but show me someone who doesn’t choke up at the ending and I’ll show you someone with a heart of stone.
This Blindfolded Punch-Out!! Speedrun
If you’re not familiar with Games Done Quick, it’s a week-long marathon where video game players beat games, well, quickly. I don’t just mean that they play well, though; I mean that they can take games apart in minutes or seconds with careful exploitation of the games’ geometry, logic, and even memory storage. Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick regularly raise millions for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and other excellent charities by offering incentives, prizes, or just the happiness of donating to a good cause.
The Punch-Out series is a staple of these events, but zallard1 took it to the next level by absolutely demolishing the Wii version blindfolded. If you’ve ever felt bad about yourself for not being able to stop the Bull Charge or good about yourself for being able to stop it, enjoy some new perspective.
As a bonus point, here’s zallard and a friend beating the original NES game while sharing a controller. Also blindfolded.
WARNING: ANIME CONTENT BEYOND THIS POINT. ENSURE YOUR HAZMAT SUIT IS AIRTIGHT AND SUBMIT TO DECONTAMINATION UPON YOUR RETURN
I wrote about this show a couple years back and it remains excellent. If semi-cyberpunk boxing with a great soundtrack, beautiful backgrounds, compelling characters, and hyper-slick pugilism sounds appealing, give it a watch.
I’ll admit that I haven’t watched much of this series, but I’ve heard really good things about it. Like Megalo Box, Levius revolves around the concept of augmented boxing, but where the former takes place in an aggressively class-stratified near-future, Levius is steampunk to the core. The titular character, a war refugee trying to care for his ailing mother, attempts to rise to the top with a significant handicap: only one prosthetic arm, the other flesh-and-bone.
What I saw looked solid, and the CGI animation really isn’t that janky once you get used to it. Could be a decent binge.
A word of warning: if you Google this series, you will see bits from its animated adaptation. Do not watch the animated adaptation. It is Not Very Good (tm).
The staple trope of fighting series is the tournament arc, and no form of media has ever done it better than Kengan Ashura. Despite some rough art in the early going, once it hits its stride, this is the best piece of fighting fiction I’ve yet seen.
The framing device sees hapless salaryman Yamashita Kazuo happen upon a fistfight between a massive Yakuza and an odd young man; predictably, the latter wins in a wipeout, and soon finds himself in a world of corporate-sponsored fisticuffs that I like to think of as “Bloodsport after getting its degree and a job at its dad’s company.” After a few tussles to set the stage, it’s on to the 32-man Annihilation Tournament that comprises the remainder of the series.
Part of what makes this series stand out is that at least 28 of those 32 fighters have deep, detailed backstories, engaging personalities, and unique fighting styles; they’re far from generic fodder, and they remain in the picture even after their defeats. This deep characterization also leads to some wholly unexpected results, as several competitors that any other story would treat as central protagonists/antagonists find their victories far from assured.
The other big aspect that stands out is the ebb and flow of each individual fight. I am a huge sucker for good fight choreography, and Kengan Ashura’s constant momentum shifts and moments of shock are definite highlights. The author is a longtime professional fighting fan and it shows; it’s far from “realistic,” as you’ve got a characters like the German muscle machine who can compress a barbell into a bar-ball with his bare hands, but it’s grounded enough that nothing feels like an ass-pull, and the superhuman elements make things more engaging.
If you can stomach reading manga, take the leap.
CRITICAL LEVELS OF ANIME APPROACHING. ONLY LEVEL 9 CLEARANCE AND ABOVE PERMITTED
Here it is, my guiltiest of guilty pleasures. If Kengan Ashura was “Bloodsport after yadda yadda,” Baki is “Bloodsport after snorting its entire medicine cabinet.” A bloody, ludicrous cavalcade of ridiculous characters, faux-historical fighting philosophy, and fights so obscenely gory they go straight from gruesome to hilarious.
Don’t go in expecting anything other than po-faced insanity, so earnestly over-the-top that it’s actually charming. Sadly, they’ve yet to animate some of my favorite bits, such as the fistfight between a clone of Miyamoto Musashi and an eight-foot unfrozen caveman who beat up dinosaurs.