With multi-awardwinning wrestling drama Foxcatcher out in early January, we count down the greatest portrayals in sporting biopics
Robert De Niro

10 Will Smith as Muhammad Ali
(Ali, 2001)

Michael Mann’s heavyweight biopic is a pedestrian affair, but no blame falls on Will Smith’s beefed-up shoulders. The former Fresh Prince comes damn close to capturing Muhammad Ali’s nuclear levels of charisma, as well as floating and stinging convincingly in fight scenes against real boxers (James Toney as Joe Frazier, Michael Bentt as Sonny Liston). ‘A’ for effort.

9 Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard
(Seabiscuit, 2003)

The film is a little too saccharine sweet for our taste buds, but this true-life tale of an undersized horse with an oversized jockey who continually won races against the odds benefits from a stellar cast (Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper). Tobey Maguire plays not the horse, but rather poetry-loving, prizefighter-turned-jockey Red Pollard. He’s bony, blind in one eye, but full of devilish pep.

8 Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar
(Invictus, 2009)

A (relatively) scrawny Hollywood leading man playing a South African rugby behemoth: this bore all the hallmarks of risible miscasting. Yet Matt Damon tackles the role with surety: rugged on the rugby pitch and convincing in his growing bond with Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). Also earns a bonus point for stoicism in not overegging the key scene where Pienaar stands inside Mandela’s old prison cell, letting the minuteness of the enclosed space wash over him.

7 Brad Pitt as Billy Beane
(Moneyball, 2011)

Brad Pitt’s job isn’t to perfectly mimic the mannerisms of ex-baseball player turned general manager Billy Beane. It’s to centre a film essentially about baseball + maths = success, yet still make it a fascinating watch. Pitt delivers, playing Beane with laidback, cocky charm as he and Jonah Hill’s economics geek implement ‘sabermetric’ scouting to turn the unfancied Oakland Athletics into winners.

6 Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig
(The Pride of the Yankees, 1942)

Two-time Oscar winner Gary Cooper learned to play baseball left-handed for this 1940s melodrama. No idea why, because it’s a boxing film. Kidding! Cooper really didn’t get to show off his new, lefty swing too often: this biopic about the New York Yankees icon who died aged 37 of a degenerative disorder is as much about his life and loves as it is about his magnificent baseball career. A moving tribute, all the same.

5 Daniel Bruhl as Niki Lauda
(Rush, 2013)

Chris Hemsworth charms as outgoing yet vulnerable playboy James Hunt. But Daniel Bruhl has more to get his (prosthetic, protruding) teeth into as Hunt’s polar opposite in this F1 epic. The German actor captures the determination that drove Niki Lauda to return from a near-fatal crash in double quick time, copying the Austrian’s accent so well that Lauda himself was impressed.

4 Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz
(Foxcatcher, 2014)

Two wrestlers, Olympic gold medal-winning brothers, accept funding from an eccentric millionaire – with tragic results. Mark Ruffalo is ideally cast as gentle Dave Schultz, but Channing Tatum takes centre stage as younger, more intense Mark: a bruising but damaged lug who loves his big bro but is keen to escape his shadow. Tatum slams the wrestling scenes as well.

3 Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell
(Chariots of Fire, 1981)

The story of the 1924 Olympics (where devout Christian Eric Liddell decided not to run on a Sunday, excluding him from his favoured 100m, only to win an unlikely gold medal in the 400m) is pure Hollywood. When not gurning on the track, Ian Charleson’s performance is a model of understated serenity. His humble speech about his faith to a Scottish workingmen’s crowd in the rain is every bit as stirring as the big-race finale.

2 Michael Sheen as Brian Clough
(The Damned United, 2009)

Chameleonic Michael Sheen makes a living slipping into the skin of others, but this one really fitted him. Sheen gives it both bloody barrels in this tale of Old Big Ead’s disastrous 44 days in charge at Leeds United, but keeps it just shy of caricature. There’s not a false move on screen. To misquote Clough: we wouldn’t say it was the best sporting portrayal in the business – but he’s in the top, erm... two.

1 Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta
(Raging Bull, 1980)

Forget the superficial marvels. Robert De Niro gained 60lb to play the middle-aged LaMotta! He lived with Joe Pesci so that they’d convince as brothers! He did research by time travelling to the 1940s in a DeLorean (probably)! What’s outstanding about De Niro’s portrayal (and it is, heart-and-soul, his film; De Niro talked Martin Scorsese into directing after reading LaMotta’s autobiography) is how he unflinchingly, unflatteringly occupies his character.

De Niro captures the roughhouse fighting style of the middleweight – all hunched crouches and twitchy forays forward – and the brutality that permeated his life. Many boxers find release for their violent impulses inside the ring, but De Niro’s LaMotta rages both inside and outside the ropes.

When the fires light behind his eyes and he starts a fight with his brother, his wife or the world in general, it’s as intimidating and relentless as any of the film’s exaggerated but innovative fight scenes. He’s easily the most dislikeable character on this list – yet also the most captivating. You just can’t take your eyes off De Niro’s car crash of a man, no matter how much your brain is telling you to look away.

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