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

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

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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.

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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.

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.

Leonard: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Hugh has to climb into the ring and talk to his robot, Atom, who's losing the fight.

Jackman: The robot's hearing is damaged, so when I'm shouting to tell him what moves to make, he can't hear me. I have to make a visual appeal to him. I point to my eyes and say, "Watch me. Watch me!" Charlie's son Max says, "You know, you're talking to a robot." I just glance at him and say, "I know, shut up," then look back into the robot's eyes: "Watch me."

Where did that come from?

Leonard: Angelo would do that to you in big fights when you were doing something wrong, something he didn't like. Man, you paid attention to him.

Charlie seems a little careless in his handling of the robot fighters. Would it be fair to say he doesn't respect them?

Jackman: Yeah, that's definitely true. I think it stems from the way he was treated as a fighter—he really wasn't handled properly and his career really suffered because of it. But Max teaches him how to respect the robots.

It may sound silly, but it connects with a real human element in the film. Atom has a unique "shadow mode' function that allows him to mirror moves that he sees, so a bond develops between Charlie and Atom. When Charlie shadow boxes with him, Atom learns to imitate the old-time boxing moves. Since Charlie's experience helps Atom to win, he feels fulfilled—kind of like "That's me out there." Charlie is washed up as a fighter, and Atom was a junk heap robot. Together they form a winning combination.

I loved the way that the robots seemed to simulate the moves of real fighters—like you. The way your robot, Atom, ties up a bigger robot and spins around to get out of a corner. That was a projection of your own moves in the ring, right?

Leonard: Oh, yeah. I explained to them that if it was going to look real, the robot needed to put up his hands like this [forearms up with both fists in front of face] and throw punches in combinations. I was amazed how well the moves translated onto the screen.

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

One question before we leave. Ray, if you had fought Floyd Mayweather, Jr. [the current undefeated welterweight champion] who would have won?

Leonard: Wow! There's so many intangibles, so many things to consider. I don't know ...

How about Manny Pacquiao, the great Filipino welterweight, regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world?

Leonard: Man, don't ask me that. These guys are so good, and their styles are different from mine.

Jackman: You, Ray! You would've beaten them both!