A powerful depiction of one of boxing’s best comeback stories sends mixed messages.
Images via bleedforthisfilm.com
"Boxing world looks shiny from the outside." This is one of the closing lines to "Bleed For This", the newly released biopic about rugged Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza. This line encapsulates the film's gritty depiction of defeats and triumphs in the life of a boxer, and pretty much rings true throughout the rest of life as well. It also perhaps would have served as a better last line rather than the one actually used.
The film begins at a downturn of Pazienza's career, setting up at the weigh-in prior to his decision loss against Roger Mayweather. Within opening minutes, viewers get a quick portrait of the fighter—he is late to the weigh-in, he frantically saranwraps himself on an exercise bike to shed last minute pounds, he stays out late with his girlfriend gambling the night before and pays for it during the fight—it's readily apparent that Pazienza isn't the most responsible boxer, but probably an entertaining one.
After losing to Mayweather, Pazienza is rushed to the hospital due of dehydration and things aren't looking great for him. The media says he's washed up. Doctors are concerned for his health. His own promoter goes on television saying he should probably retire. Instead Pazienza employs Kevin Rooney, best known as one of the principle trainers of a prime Mike Tyson, to restart his career. The pair makes a bold decision to move up two weight classes and Rooney trains his charge in a that utilizing his newly acquired weight as punching power. Despite a number of obstacles facing Pazienza (including his own promoter hedging a bet against him), he redeems himself by winning a major title. This is only forty minutes into the film and they've already gone through a complete story arc that would have served most movies. But for a boxing movie, there isn't actually much boxing that takes place. Save for maybe the first fifteen minutes, and the last ten, the majority of the film is about Pazienza's long and harsh road to recovery from a serious car accident that left him with a broken neck and a seemingly broken boxing career.
Thus, the second story arc is set into place and here the film takes its time. It makes quick jumps at a slow pace, and does a good job of looking into the quiet moments of the pain, doubt, and patience involved with rehabilitation. There are a number of cringe-worthy scenes, not due to any sorts of odd or corny one-liners from the cast, but because the audio-visuals make it a visceral experience for the audience (i.e. the infamous scene where Pazienza has the screws removed from his head). But again in defiance of the odds, the stubborn Pazienza slowly trains himself back into the ring and lands a title fight against the boxing legend Roberto Duran. As one might have guessed, the Rhode Island native wins again to complete the film's final arc, metaphorically riding off into the triumphant sun.
One of the biggest criticisms about boxing films is that they will too often sacrifice the reality of the sport for a storyline that fits onto the screen. That is halfway true for "Bleed For This". First let's start with the accuracies.
It is true that Pazienza went to the hospital right after the Mayweather bout due to dehydration (and yes, Mayweather did floor promoter Lou Duva with a right hand after the bout). Pazienza did move up two weight classes later in his career to capture a major world title, and there was plenty of real footage featured in the film—from old fights to talk show appearances to when Pazienza was merely toddler with gloves. And perhaps most importantly, Pazienza did indeed rehabilitate himself from the broken neck to come back and fight again in the ring (the design of his body cast used in the film is actually very similar to the one in real life). The filmmakers do, however, take liberties with both the timeline and significance of the fights to make it more dramatic for the silver screen.
First is the appearance of the loss against Roger Mayweather and Pazienza's junior middleweight title triumph as back-to-back fights, when in reality there were three years, seven fights, and a toe-dipping bout at junior middleweight against Ron Amundsen, in between. Then there is the "comeback" against Roberto Duran, which the film depicts as the first fight Pazienza takes after recovering from his neck injury when the actual bout took place two years and six fights after his return to the ring. The film also overstates Duran's presence in the sport as by the time the two faced off in the ring, the Panamanian legend was well past his prime and fighting about 3-4 weight classes above his ideal weight. Saying it was a "title match" is also a bit of hyperbole; the two contested for the International Boxing Council championship, which is only recognized as a legitimate title for the purposes of a movie.
This is not to discount the feat of overcoming a debilitating neck injury and return to professional boxing against all odds, however. Beyond the embellishments of fact to better fit the storyline, "Bleed For This", asks real questions of the human spirit. In a moment during the film, Pazienza, handicapped and in bed, asks himself aloud what he should do with his life: "Go to the bar? Talk about how I USED to be a fighter?" It's the same dilemma many people go through when faced with the prospects of quitting: In the face of adversity, does one accept their circumstance or push through?
The film's answer to that question is a simple one: Don't give up.
Yet this is also one of the biggest criticisms against the film. The final line ends with Pazienza telling a reporter in a roundabout way that his path to recovery was as "simple" as just doing what you're told you can't do. All one needs is hard work, determination, and an unbreakable will. Though this may be true in the real life of Pazienza, there are a number of athletes who have not recovered from their own devastating injuries or have gone against doctor's order to only worsen their condition by re-entering the ring. I wonder what Paul Williams or Israel Vazquez would have thought about the film, for instance. Saying that such a recovery was "simple" is sort of a slap in their face.
Overall, the film stays pretty faithful to depicting the world of boxing, but it is the message that gets a bit confused. It shows the realities of the physical risks that fighters take in the ring, yet at the same time tells us to kind of ignore them. Sure, it's nice to believe that we can overcome anything with just our belief, but for anyone actually facing any sort of physical dilemma with potentially lifelong consequences, it might be better to weigh medical advice a bit more heavily than they did in the film.