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IN PORTRAYAL OF BOXING, 'BABY' IS A CUT ABOVE

Editors' Note: Sports reporter Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News. The Academy Award-winning boxing movie "Million Dollar Baby" has been controversial since its opening last year for a number of reasons, including the question of authenticity of the boxing scenes in the film. The following is Graham's view of the movie from a boxing perspective.

The first boxing scene is flawed. So is the last one.

Scrutinize any film in which actors and screenwriters try to replicate situations from the sports world, a place where athletes require years to perfect their craft and every replay is dissected with telestrators and slow motion and reversed camera angles.

There will be inaccuracies and implausibilities.

"Million Dollar Baby" is no different. But the 2004 Academy Award winner for best picture separates itself from most other boxing films.

Despite a couple niggling mistakes, the action between the ropes is realistic enough for this hard-boiled fight fan to consider "Million Dollar Baby" the greatest film - boxing or not - he has seen.

Better than "Requiem for a Heavyweight." Better than "Rocky." Even better than "Raging Bull."

A boxing film, at its core, really isn't about boxing. It's about overcoming personal struggles, or - more often than not - failing to.

I saw "Million Dollar Baby" for the second time recently, and Clint Eastwood's tragic tale about a trailer-trash female prizefighter and her grizzled manager was as powerful as it was on opening night, when unsuspecting viewers first walked into the storyline's hairpin turn as if it were a roundhouse haymaker.

That it can be every bit as provocative the second time around is testament to the screenplay and cast, the combination of which is nothing short of perfection. The gravity of this film doesn't rely on the gimmickry of a startling plot twist, just as Joe Frazier's competence wasn't nearly limited to his trademark left hook.

But the film's credibility plops into the spit bucket if the boxing elements don't add up or the characters can't effectively carry themselves in the ring.

"Million Dollar Baby" was born in Southern California's gritty gyms, adapted from a pair of short stories by F.X. Toole, the pseudonym of late cutman and trainer Jerry Boyd. The characters of trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and former contender Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman) are tightly based on Boyd and his boxing mentor, Dub Huntley.

The film feels like boxing. The script is soaked with the sport more than a cornerman's towel after 12 rounds.

It's difficult to say if any boxing experts voted for the Academy Awards, but one can assume Hilary Swank wouldn't have won for best actress had she looked like a novice once she laced up the gloves.

As Maggie Fitzgerald, a thirtysomething waitress who moves to California to chase her dream of becoming a prizefighter, Swank appears better on celluloid than a good portion of real women boxers do in the ring.

Maggie maintains a fundamentally sound southpaw stance, keeps her chin tucked and throws a crisp jab. Each time she delivers a punch her opponent responds with that headsnap straight out of Stuntman 101, but the give and take seems unforced, almost graceful.

Lucia Rijker, perhaps the world's greatest female fighter, effortlessly plays the gnarly champion in the big showdown scene. Unlike other boxing films, there's no gratuitous bloodletting.

The action in "Million Dollar Baby" far surpasses anything found in the ridiculous scenes from the "Rocky" franchise. I have yet to see a fighter leap into the air after absorbing a punch in the gut.

Any inaccuracies in "Million Dollar Baby" are ancillary to the bouts.

In the opening scene, a ringside doctor threatens to stop a match unless Frankie, the cutman played by Eastwood, can stop the bleeding on his fighter's cheek. Bouts don't get stopped on cuts unless vision is impeded from swelling or blood trickling into the eyes. A gash on the cheek would do neither.

And the big showdown didn't go according to Hoyle.

Although women's boxing became a novelty act in the late 1990s, there has never been a $1 million purse. Yet Maggie and the champ agree to split that figure down the middle to put the fight together.

The event is shown on TV, but the ring announcer, with all the flair of wet cardboard, doesn't declare the fighters' records during an introduction that lasts all of five seconds. The bumbling referee is straight out of the WWE directory.

I have spoken to a few casual fight fans who insist the title bout was too outlandish and never could have transpired the way it did.

There also were people who chastised "Field of Dreams" because Shoeless Joe Jackson is portrayed as a right-handed hitter, when he actually was a lefty. Never mind that Jackson has been dead for 53 years and just walked out of an Iowa cornfield to play baseball with a bunch of other ghosts.

Maybe I'm able to ignore the minor flaws in "Million Dollar Baby" because I have seen my share of blockbuster boxing events in which far more astonishing incidents transpired.

I saw a man with a parachute and a giant fan strapped to his back land in the front row of an Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe fight.

I was seated ringside when Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield's ear and spat it on the canvas.

I witnessed Oliver McCall literally break down in tears and stop defending himself in the middle of a world title bout against Lennox Lewis.

There's fact, there's fiction and then there's boxing.

The great journalist A.J. Liebling once called boxing "the sweet science." The sport is every bit as brutal as it gorgeous, as bizarre as it is riveting.

"Million Dollar Baby" captures that spirit and delivers it full force like a punch in the gut.

TOP 10 'FIGHTERS'
The News' Tim Graham ranks the Top 10 boxing films:
1. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
2. Raging Bull (1980)
3. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
4. Body and Soul (1947)
5. Rocky (1976)
6. The Set-Up (1949)
7. The Harder They Fall (1956)
8. Unforgivable Blackness (2005)
9. Fat City (1972)
10. When We Were Kings (1996)

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com