Sugar Ray Leonard and Hugh Jackman on Fighting for 'Real Steel'

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A boxing legend teamed up with a movie star to make the new film about dueling robots

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Disney

The hugely enjoyable Real Steel, in theaters today, draws from such popular fight films as The Champ, Body and Soul, and, of course, Rocky. The movie projects a future in which human boxing no longer exists, replaced by a far more violent, action-filled spectacle: robot boxing. Directed by Shawn Levy and produced by Steven Spielberg, Real Steel was inspired by a classic 1956 sci-fi story by Richard Matheson about human-like boxing robots. The story because a famous Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin.

The film features Hugh Jackman as the fighter turned boxing robot manager, as well as Evangeline Lilly, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, and Dakota Goyo, who recently played the young thunder god in Kenneth Branagh's Thor. Most ingeniously, Spielberg and Levy chose Olympic gold medal winner and retired champion Sugar Ray Leonard as not only boxing advisor but the model for the robots' moves. (His boxing moves were filmed, digitalized and then projected for the robots.)

Witih the help of my daughter Margaret, a film student who understands digital technology much better than her father, I spoke with Jackman and Leonard in New York.


Ray, you've been quoted as saying that Hugh was easy to work with because he's very athletic. Is he really athletic or is he just Australian?

Leonard: Well, I don't know about the Australian part, but he's got the moves. It looked to me like he had done some boxing before.

Jackman: What I know about boxing I learned from my dad. He was English, and when he was in national service he was the army champion in 1955. He was 5'-9," probably welter weight—around 147 pounds. He was also a terrific amateur boxer. I boxed, but I was never near his level—or Ray's, of course.

'It's like a robotic version of Ray in many ways,' Jackman says.

How did you prepare for this part?

Jackman: I had to at least look convincing as a former boxer, so I went to Aerospace [the high performance machine-free fitness center in New York City founded by former No. 1-ranked middleweight boxer, Michael Olajide, Jr.] to get into trim. At the very least, I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of Sugar Ray.

What was your dad's reaction when you told him you'd be working on a movie with Sugar Ray Leonard?

Jackman: I think "jazzed" would be the word. He thinks that Ray might have been, pound-for-pound, the best fighter he ever saw.

Ray, you've been quoted that you think boxers are born, not made. What about Hugh?

Leonard: Well, I don't know if he's a born fighter, but he's a born actor. He looks convincing in this movie, and that's what counts. He's got the right build—muscular and lean—and he learned very quickly. A lot of guys when you've trying to each them how to box, all they want to do is throw punches. Hugh was so convincing because the first thing he learned is what a boxer learns, how to protect himself—you know, you throw a punch, you move your free hand up to protect yourself. Things like that.

But what was really important for him to learn is the relationship between the corner man and his fighter. I learned that from the greatest ever, Angelo Dundee [who, among dozens of other champions, also worked in Muhammad Ali's corner]. Charlie, Hugh's character, has the same relationship to the boxing robots as a real life corner man has to his fighter.

Jackman: My character is an ex-boxer, a guy who had a lot of talent but was just too impulsive in the ring. He lost his biggest fight because he had to go for a knockout instead of playing it smart. Playing it smart, of course, is what the corner man is there for. In the movie, we don't just own the boxer bots, we control them, so there's very much a human element in their performance. It's not just luck or the actual power of the robot. I don't really think I knew how important a corner man until I worked with Ray.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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