My Top 20 Sports Movies Of All Time

Three weeks ago I wrote a post titled 100 Greatest Sports Movies?, where I took a look at the top 10 of someone else’s list of sports movies and had some commentary on them. At that time I said I was going to have my own top list of my favorite sports movies because, well, I just felt left out of that other list.

When you put together a list like this, you have to take certain things into concern. First, you have to select movies that you’ll watch more than once; I’ve done that for every movie on this list except one, and I’ll explain that one. Second, it has to have some kind of meaning for you. And third,… well, third is that you just had to enjoy it, whether it was important or not. For instance, I’ll tell you early on that the first 3 Rocky movies are on this list, but you’ll be stunned at the order I put them in and, after putting my list together, I even surprised myself that the first Rocky movie isn’t the highest rated one for me.

Does this movie lean American; oh yes, yes it does. No soccer, no Olympic sports, though there is one movie here that’s not quite a sports movie, yet it portrays something that was supposed to be a sport so I’m including it.

Without further ado, let’s get this debate on!

20. Rollerball – Rollerball isn’t really a sports, but it was supposed to portray a futuristic version of roller derby, which some still don’t think is a sport. I’m talking about the original version here, with James Caan, and this was just great movie making that was compelling for a nonexistent sport. They don’t put this one on all that often, but if I’m ever lucky enough to catch it I watch it every time.

19. Bad News Bears – This was a movie I could identify with because I was young at the time it came out, though older than most of these kids. It was funny as sin, about baseball, and starred Walter Mathieu and Tatum O’Neil.

18. North Dallas Forty – Folks missed the reality of this movie, thinking of it mainly as a comedy. Some thought it was loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys, and that could be somewhat true, but it was really an indictment of what professional football is really about. If any of you read Tim Green’s book The Dark Side of the Game, you’ll realize just how true that movie was to reality.

17. Fear Strikes Out – While most people thought the crowning glory for Anthony Perkins was his performance in Psycho, I went a different direction and thought his portrayal of Jimmy Piersall, a baseball player with immense talent who had a mental breakdown because of the pressure put on him by his father, was some of the best acting I’d ever seen.

16. The Longest Yard – Forget the Adam Sandler version of this movie and look for the Burt Reynolds performance instead. This movie came out of nowhere and instantly became one of my favorite movies. It’s about a former professional football player who was thrown out of the game for accepting gambling money to throw games, ends up in prison for stealing a car, creates a prison football team to play against the guards, then has his integrity tested again for a chance to earn himself some favors. It’s gritty and sexy and way before its time.

15. Ali – Man, who know Will Smith could pull this off? His performance garnered him an Oscar nomination, and many people saw a side of Muhammad Ali that they may never have known existed. But there’s a surprise on this list; wait for it.

14. Space Jam – Okay, it’s Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, but it’s still basketball and, well, it’s Michael Jordan AND Bugs Bunny!

13. Rocky – This movie was great, gritty, realistic, and no one saw it becoming as popular as it did. It was based on a true story that many people didn’t recognize, that being the life of Chuck Wepner, who had a shot at fighting Muhammad Ali for the championship. That a movie this great ended up at #13 on my list, as much as I enjoyed it, means that the movies ahead of it must mean something more to me.

12. The Hustler – This movie starred Paul Newman and a different Jackie Gleason that people didn’t recognize had this kind of talent at the time. It received 9 Oscar nominations, and for a movie about two pool sharks going at each other, that’s just phenomenal. It was also strange that Jackie Gleason’s character was based on and named after the real Minnesota Fats, who used to be on TV all the time back in the day doing all these trick shots.

11. Brian’s Song – This is the movie on the list that I’ve never been able to really watch ever again after the first time, yet it affected me so much that it had to be on my list. This was the first movie that almost made me cry when I was a kid, the true story of both the friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, the first time a black and white football player ever shared the same room, and of course Piccolo’s losing battle with cancer. Man, there was a lot of guy crying in that movie; I just won’t go there again, and I almost feel like crying writing about it, which shows how powerful a story it was. Man, was that really more than 30 years ago?

10. The Jackie Robinson Story – This was an important movie and an enjoyable one as well, but no one would ever say it was well acted. That’s because Jackie Robinson played himself, and as the guy who integrated the major leagues, that was a pretty great accomplishment. It was about a real as it could be for its time; if they’d put the language and abuse that he really had to deal with… well, there isn’t a theater in the country that would have shown it back in the day.

9. A League Of Their Own – “There’s no crying in baseball!” Who doesn’t know that line that lives in the United States? After all, it’s “only” the 54th rated line ever in movie history. Women baseball players during World War II, and they were talented as well. This was based on a true story, and I watched this movie over and over. That neither Geena Davis or Lori Petty were nominated for Oscars from this movie was a travesty.

8. Million Dollar Baby – This movie got, and won, lots of Oscars. I wasn’t ever going to watch this movie because, well, I just wasn’t interested. Then one evening I did sit down and watch it, and it’s great. Women boxing was just the subtext to the entire thing, as it’s mainly about an old boxing manager who gets a shot at redemption. I never saw the ending coming, and truthfully, to this date I’ll only watch the movie up until the time she gets injured; those of you who’ve seen it knows what happens, and those of you who don’t… you need to see this movie.

7. Rocky II – Here’s the second Rocky movie, and it was great theater. It wasn’t as gritty as the first one, since this time around he got real money to clean it up some. But it was a very compelling movie, and I like how they highlighted the angst of Apollo Creed trying to deal with the fact that he just couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t beat a club fighter the first time around. That Sly Stallone would share the stage that way with another actor was one of the best things he could have ever done.

6. The Greatest – Here’s the surprise; Ali playing Ali and doing the same things Will Smith did in the second movie first. Both movies were based on Ali’s autobiography called, what else, The Greatest. I will say that this version left out some of the, well, naughty things that Ali did, but otherwise it was a truthful representation of his book. And Ali really wasn’t all that bad, as this clip shows.

5. Pride of the Yankees – You’ve all heard of Lou Gehrig’s disease; this was the movie about Lou Gehrig. Gary Cooper was the perfect every man actor, and I just can’t think of anyone else who could have played this role and made it believable from that era. From what I hear, Lou Gehrig really was as nice as this movie portrayed him to be, and of all things, the movie has Babe Ruth in it as well. Talk about movies that almost made me cry; add this one to the list. But I can watch this one over and over and do okay with it, maybe because it doesn’t linger as much on his illness as Brian’s Song did.

4. The Great White Hope – Did I ever mention that there are a lot of people who think I look like James Earl Jones? I’m missing it, but this movie is one that was so controversial when it came out that it didn’t play in many parts of the country. It started out as a show in NYC, where you can do anything, and it’s the story of Jack Johnson, who just might be the best heavyweight fighter in history, a black man with a white wife who decided to throw things in the face of white America as opposed to trying to be a good example. It got him thrown in jail, probably throwing a fight, and in the end the first millionaire boxer left this earth penniless and ended the opportunity for black fighters to compete for a championship for almost 30 years.

3. Rocky III – Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking; why is this movie rated by me so high. Because it entertained me more than you could imagine. It introduced Mr. T to us, and is had some of the best lines that I still use to this day. No, it wasn’t great theater like the first two, but it was cut well, very entertaining, and introduced a lot of the world to Hulk Hogan. It outgrossed both of the previous Rocky movies at the theaters, was considered one of the best movies of 1982, and taught us all the line “I pity the fool.”

2. Raging Bull – What’s this, 3 boxing movies in a row? Hey, that’s just how it goes. And this one was the king of them all, about Jake LaMotta, a bad guy who, for some reason, was very compelling to the public. He had 5 fights with Sugar Ray Robinson and won one of them to become the middleweight champion of the world. This movie was shot in black and white, and Robert DeNiro, who won the Oscar for his performance, had to gain and lose significant weight for the role during the movie; that just rarely ever happens, even now. It also really introduced Joe Pesci to us; man, I love his movies!

1. The Natural – As I said in the first post, this is my favorite sports movie of all time, and is in my top 5 movies of all time as well. It’s a beautifully shot movie of old baseball. It was nominated for 4 Oscars, including the score by Randy Newman. Robert Redford didn’t get a nomination, which is a travesty if you ask me. At this stage it’s considered one of the most beloved movies of all time, earning a 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yeah, they changed the ending from the book; they better had!


30 thoughts on “My Top 20 Sports Movies Of All Time”

  1. I haven’t seen all of the movies on your list, but I certainly can’t argue with you about the ones I’ve seen. Brian’s Song was on just the other night, but I didn’t feel like being depressed so I didn’t watch it. One thing about boxing movies, they tend to be extremely unrealistic — nobody in boxing could ever take that many punches in one fight, but I guess they have to overdramatize for the sake of the film. And speaking of James Earl Jones, have you seen The Sandlot? If not, I think you’d get a kick out of it.

    Thanks, Mitch. Enjoyable post!

    1. Actually Charles, Jake LaMotta actually did take that many punches, which is why the movie is such a classic. The Rocky movies are somewhat different, though; you notice almost no one seems to know how to defend themselves. lol I did see The Sandlot, with the Babe Ruth ball! πŸ™‚

  2. Very good list Mitch. I have seen many of those, have some in my collection and will be looking for some of the rest. The review I liked best was “but it’s still basketball and, well, it’s Michael Jordan AND Bugs Bunny!” I laughed out loud, which brought Marie over from making a chocolate pie to see what was so funny. I’ll definately have to find a copy of that to watch.

    1. For me Allan, the only thing that would have enhanced it even more is if they could have somehow gotten Kermit the Frog in as well. lol

  3. it has been a long time since i watched it but the movie “jim thorpe” was pretty good, ever see it?

  4. Oh dear, I almost forgot the old classic Rollerball, I completely love that movie.
    I am actually surprised you didn’t include the latest Rocky in your list. I recently watched them all, and I have to confess the last one is the one I still prefer. I guess the general mood from it being the last one, the final goodbye etc plays a good role in it too, but I find the story very touching and deep, don’t know, I just loved it.

    1. Gabriele, I have to admit I didn’t see the last two Rocky movies. Number four pushed my buttons the wrong way, and thus I just couldn’t bring myself fo see the other two.

  5. Hi Mitch

    What a movie buff you are. Suffice to say I don’t know most of the movies you have seen lol Enjoyed reading your list though. I think guys like different types of movies or is it just me??!1

    Patricia Perth Australia

    1. Pat I diversify in the types of movies I watch, though I will admit that I’m hesitant to watch what are known as “chick flicks”. Doesn’t mean I’ve never seen any, but I’ve never spent any money going to the theater to see them. Not sure if you saw my list in sci-fi movies earlier this year. Not sure I have another genre in me, although I’ve been thinking about something along the lines of biographical movies, whether fully true or not, which would then allow a movie like Amadeus on the list. But we’ll see.

  6. Out of your whole list I’ve only seen Million Dollar Baby which I loved and The Longest Yard but the Adam Sandler version. I really like Any Given Sunday and that’s the only movie I have that has sports in it. I also love Love & Basketball but that doesn’t really qualify. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen Rocky but I’ve seen scenes from it and know the music.

    1. Karen, I’ve just refused to watch Adam Sandler movies, though I know one of these days I’m going to have to get over it. Still, the original was so good I wasn’t close to compelled to see the updated version. I wasn’t overly crazy about Any Given Sunday; seemed a bit choppy to me, and Al Pacino seems like he was miscast for the role. Don’t be ashamed for missing any of the Rocky movies; I’m that way with James Bond movies, and there’s a ton of those.

  7. Hey Mitch,
    You really like your movies, I can see you listed some movies, that have already become classics.

    I don’t know why but everytime I need to remember something (Now I want to remember some good movies) my mind is void, and when I am sitting idle all kind of weird stuff I was thinking about some moments ago are popping up in my mind.

    I also watched some movies from the britannica blogs (where they listed over the course of a number of weeks 12 old spy movies). If you like spy movies you should check those out (

    1. Actually Alex, I’d have to think hard and deep about spy movies; not sure what I’ve seen or not seen there. And I really haven’t seen as many movies as other people have, I’ve just been around long enough at this juncture to know a bunch of them. πŸ™‚

  8. Mitch, please tell me the only reason you didn’t put Cinderella Man up there was because you haven’t seen it yet!
    I know the movie got more drama than sports, but its still a classic that easily compares to the Rocky series (at least that’s how I see it πŸ˜€ )

    1. Amr, if that’s a Russell Crowe movie nope, never seen it. I’ve never seen a single movie he’s been in; can’t tell you why, but I’ve also never seen a Cary Grant movie either. And it’s a newer movie; of course you’d like it better, since for me Rocky was a newer movie in my youth. lol

  9. I would also add to your list “Cinderella man” with Russell Crow. It’s a very nice movie and very emotional. Of course that my favorite remains “Million dollar baby” πŸ™‚

  10. This are all good and serious movies. Most are going into my top 20 as well. I am fan of science fiction movies, but as well I like movies based on real stories. I think the other friends will agree too, the old movies are much better than the new. I can watch those several times, but I can’t saw that I want to watch Twilight saga even once.

    1. Carl, I think we talked on my sci-fi movie list at the time; I just love movies with action of some type.

  11. Hi Mitch,
    I agree with you on the Million Dollar Baby movie. At first, my friends and I thought it was a boring movie, but when we watched it, it was actually a nice (and tragic) story. I don’t remember if this was based on a true story. Looking forward to your next movie list. πŸ™‚

    1. Johanna, I don’t think it’s based on a true story, because if it was you know some news organization would have chased that story down and someone might have gone to jail. I took over a year before I watched it myself, and was really surprised just how good it was.

  12. I think that “Remember the Titans” and “Radio” are up there on my list…and I think that Rocky 2 was a nice choice ahead of Rocky. There were a couple of other movies I remember watching that were spectacular as well, I think Cobb was one of them and 61 (if that what it was called.

    Lastly, I really think that Bull Durham was a classic.

    1. Out of the movies you mentioned, the only one I’ve seen is Bull Durham, and I just didn’t think it was all that great. If I’d had it on any list of mine, it would have been behind Minor League, which was way more entertaining for someone like me. But I know a lot of people like Bull.

  13. The pride of the Yankees is one of my favorite movies of all time. Gary Cooper does a great job at playing one of the most famous first baseman’s of all time. This is an old black and white movie and it was cool to go back that far to include it on your list.

    1. Charity, I still remember the days before color TV, so for me it’s not quite going back THAT far. lol Even if it was, though, there are some movies you just have to see, classics if you will, that are timeless.

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