Real Steel, Hugh Jackman And Why We Like To Watch Men Punch Each Other In The Head

Screenwriter: “Hugh Jackman is a former boxer and robot boxing promoter, reluctantly convinced to train a championship contender.”

Producer: “Why does he need to be a robot?”

Screenwriter: “No, he promotes robot boxing.”

Producer: “Oh, well that’s OK then.”

That’s probably how the pitch for the upcoming Hugh Jackman film, Real Steel, went. Jackman (who, as Tim has pointed out to me, has the best pornstar name of any non porn actor) stars as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter turned small time robot boxing promoter.

I’m no Hollywood type, but when I saw this trailer, I thought: “Man is this movie going to bomb.” Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of boxing (and robot fighting) on the big screen as much as the next man. If there was a robot fight happening down the road, shit yeah I’d go and see it. But as a boxing fan, the whole premise rang hollow.

Not just because it’s Hugh Jackman, though it is kind of hard to think of The Boy from Oz as an former pugilist. And not just because it’s a movie about a boxing promoter (though they made one about Don King and I’d probably go to see Bob Arum: The Musical starring Brian Dennehy as Bob).

Real Steel doesn’t feel right because robot boxing just wouldn’t be enjoyable. As I said before, hell yes, you’d go and check it out once or twice; especially if it was in some crazy futuristic arena where everybody gets a floating platform, as the trailer seems to suggest will be the case.

But violence between machines simply doesn’t have the same appeal as violence between men. That’s why we watch boxing every weekend, and not robosaurus (though maybe you watch both, I’m not sure).

Thinking about this fact led me to think some half-arsed deep thoughts about the nature of our sport. The truth is, we all watch boxing to see people get hurt. Yes, the level of skill on show is often amazing, but it’s a secondary consideration.

Boxing’s drama is the boxer’s pain. His power and his vulnerability. In the best fights, both men hurt each other. In the worst, one man cannot hurt his rival or both refuse to hurt each other. Many of us dislike the Klitschkos, not because the heavyweight duo doesn’t hurt people, but because their style rules out the possibility of being hurt themselves.

It’s not just boxing fans. Bone-crunching slow motion replays are the highlight of many people’s football watching experience. Fights in hockey are almost part of the game. Soccer fans create their own violence to compensate for the lack of it on the pitch.

Not to mention that the behind the scenes human drama is a huge part of boxing fandom. Think of the recent focus on the death of Michael Katsidis’ brother, Anthony and Lamont Peterson sleeping in cars as young men or Manny Pacquiao’s escape from poverty.

Robots just couldn’t provide that (I find it hard to believe that I just typed that sentence). Though there did seem to be a touching sequence (possibly taken from a montage) in the trailer of Hugh Jackman teaching a robot to throw a left hook.

Maybe all this says something about human nature. Maybe not. I’m just a boxing writer. Will the movie tank? Who knows. Movies with worse looking trailers have done well at the box office. Maybe Hugh Jackman attracts a huge female audience, I don’t know.

Moreover, I didn’t know it when I watched the trailer, but the screenplay is loosely based on Steel, a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson (which was later made into an episode of The Twighlight Zone). Not to mention that Steven Spielberg is producing. So they’re pluses.

If there’s one good thing about the rise of MMA, it’s that it demonstrates that boxing isn’t going to get banned any time soon. Besides, I liked robots much better when they were gay.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.