You might not think that Real Steel, the sci-fi action flick about a washed-up boxer and the junkyard robot he trains toward a fictional fighting championship, would carry much boxing credibility. But that’s where Sugar Ray Leonard comes in. The Hall of Famer was recruited by director Shawn Levy to choreograph the robot fights and most importantly, to advise the filmmakers on how to establish a humanistic relationship between the movie’s beleaguered trainer (Hugh Jackman) and Atom, the robo-underdog he takes on, that audiences will want to root for.
In anticipation of the Steven Spielberg-produced film’s release, Leonard sat down with Movieline to explain why Real Steel will bring people to tears, how his relationship with trainer Angelo Dundee inspired Hugh’s performance and the realism of Rocky.
So congratulations on Real Steel!
Thanks. It’s a great movie that I think everyone is really going to love.
What originally appealed to you about the idea of choreographing a robot boxing movie?
I didn’t know that this movie would be as complete as it turned out to be. It covers everything though — the physicality, the power and the intrigue of boxing in general. It also covered the emotional attachment and drama between the father and his son and the robot and the trainer. There’s such a mixture of emotions that are so present in boxing. It’s a sport that demands your attention. It’s really touching.
You mentioned that you didn’t know Real Steel would be so complete when you first signed on. Were you concerned about being part of a boxing film that might misrepresent the sport?
Well, after talking with Hugh Jackman and Shawn Levy, not at all. I wasn’t too sure about the whole story and the premise of the movie. Even though I read the script, I still didn’t feel it. It wasn’t until I was on set with Hugh choreographing this one robot. It was important for me that Hugh felt an attachment to Atom, the robot [he trains] because with trainers and fighters, there is an intimate connection there. I wasn’t concerned with his use of punches — because that looks good anyway — but I wanted him to show on his face that look of a passionate trainer. He pulled that off.
It’s so much more than that boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s that association between that little kid and his dad, and the dad and his fighter.
How did you establish the importance of that fighter-trainer connection with Hugh?
I kept stressing the importance of that relationship in my fights. I kept telling him stories about back in the day, when I was losing a fight and my trainer Angelo Dundee was shouting at me, “You’re blowing it, son! You’re blowing it!” He knew to say the perfect soundbite and look at me this certain way — not desperate but with a sense of urgency that was real. He looked at me that way, and Hugh had to have the same attachment to Atom, a robot. That was not easy to do, but he did it because he’s such a great actor. It’s so much more than that boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s that association between that little kid and his dad, and the dad and his fighter. Those connections there are most important.
You make it seem like that relationship between the fighter and trainer is almost more important than the skills and punches being thrown in the ring. Have you seen other boxing films that really got that fighter-trainer relationship right?
You see that in most fights, but films never really captured that the way that Real Steel has — and with robots, too! That’s a whole different arena. A boxer has so many emotions during a fight and Shawn Levy had to draw those emotions out of a robot. I took my wife and my mother-in-law and my kids and they all loved it. My mother-in-law and my wife cried because they felt that attachment. They cared about the people in this movie.
Do you envision that the future of boxing will involve robot fighters like Real Steel?
I really hope not, but phew! Boxing has taken a few black eyes in the recent past. The thing that bothers me about boxing is that there are just too many self-governing bodies. Champions don’t fight champions like they used to. To prove you’re the best, you have to fight and beat the best. I understand the way the sport operates now from a business standpoint, but at some point you’ve got to come to grips and compromise.
Who knows what can happen in the next 10 or 20 years from now? I look at this little gadget here [points at an iPhone], and I remember that I had one of the first cell phones and it was this huge thing with the huge base and antenna. Now look where we are. I could never have imagined this.
Does it scare you that people may no longer be stimulated by the amount of violence in human boxing and will need to see machines literally tear each other apart?
We have a younger generation of people who want instant gratification. We want action! We want entertainment! Hopefully that will be awhile before we get there.
Aside from Real Steel, do you have a favorite boxing movie?
The movies that I truly enjoy watching are The Champ — that’s one of my favorite films — and Million Dollar Baby. Was that good or what? Raging Bull and The Fighter — The Fighter because I was a part of that history. There’s been some movies that have really hit home because they’ve resonated with fans because of that emotional context and involvement between the fighter and the trainer. People love to see people overcome the odds. And come on! Rocky! I saw Rocky the day before my first professional fight in Baltimore.
What do you remember about that experience?
It was the night before my first professional fight, and I was not the underdog by any long shot. But that movie was so inspirational and Rocky — or Sly — did these little things, these idiosyncrasies that real fighters do. That egg thing — drinking the raw eggs — I probably did that two or three times before I just said, “I don’t need this.” That was a well-scripted movie that really captured the life of a fighter.
And then years later, you had the chance to work with Sylvester Stallone on the television show The Contender.
I know. Can you believe that? All those years later, I got to work with Sly. You know, my life and my career have been amazing. Now, these 30 plus years later, I’m working with Hugh Jackman on a movie that I know is going to be a hit because it captivates the audience.
Do you have any aspiration to get back in front of the camera like you did on The Contender or more recently for The Fighter?
Not really. I’m at a point in my life where I enjoy doing this type of stuff. I’ve had my day in the sun. I’ve had a good life. I’ve done that. I don’t need that anymore. You can find me behind the scenes.