Overview: Three boxers fight to win—each with wildly different motivations, and to varying degrees of success—against the backdrop of boxing’s decline. NR; 91 minutes, 2017; Netflix.
The Set-Up: In boxing, a counterpunch is just what it sounds like: a punch to counter one that was just thrown. But in practice, it’s much more. All boxers can counterpunch, but for some fighters, what begins as technique evolves into strategy and strategy cements into style. Hear the names of counterpunching notables—Tunney, Ali, Mayweather, Marquez, Hagler, Hopkins, Holyfield—and you might wonder why everyone doesn’t fight this way. It comes down to inclination as much as ability. Counterpunchers are at their best when they’re on the defensive, but not every boxer adopts a defensive stance. The choices boxers make—their methods and their motivations—are what shape the narrative of Counterpunch, released last week on Netflix.
Written and directed by Ray Bulger (himself a former teenage Golden Gloves boxer), the documentary covers two years in the ring, profiling three fighters each at a different point in his career: Lil’ B-Hop, a teenage up-and-comer mentored by his namesake, Bernard Hopkins; Cam F. Awesome, a seasoned fighter doggedly pursuing Olympic gold; and—most intriguingly to me—Peter Quillin, the only boxer featured here whom I’d previously heard of. In 2014, Quillin set tongues wagging in the notoriously gossipy world of boxing by rising to WBO Middleweight champ before abruptly quitting for reasons never quite satisfactorily explained. Bulger was in the right place at the right time to catch much of the aftermath of Quillin’s decision on film.
The Follow-Through: The film skips between these three stories, all while squeezing in another character—the fading glory of boxing. It’s an ambitious undertaking and Bulger generally manages all the moving parts well, but I did find myself more than once wondering how much of this would track for viewers who don’t follow the sport.
Where Bulger excels is in his degree of access. While the story is shaped by Bulger and editor Matt O’Connor, it’s told in cameos by some of the sport’s greats—Bernard Hopkins, Oscar De La Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard, and more. It’s pure fun to listen to these retired legends free-associating in their street clothes or dwarfed behind a desk—older, kinder, looking like somebody’s suspiciously fit uncle. Hopkins is interviewed mid-meal and his enthusiasm for a sport he only recently retired from is infectious—even his food goes uneaten because he can’t keep from talking boxing long enough to eat any.
All of these touches make for an imminently watchable film, and one that does its best to explain the jumble of governing bodies, competing promoters, and glut of belts proliferating like kudzu, choking all the fun out of the sport. The uninitiated viewer won’t be able to keep it all straight, but don’t worry—boxing fans can’t either. Counterpunch offers a rare, sky-high overview of boxing and asks important questions about how fighters are supposed to get anywhere when their sport has essentially removed all the sightlines.
The Decision: With each of these three fighters on such divergent paths, it’s natural to spend the film wondering about their outcomes. I won’t spoil it for you except to say, it’s a split decision. But you knew that going in. Boxing isn’t exactly ready-made for happy endings but the film did make me wonder more about these fighters’ beginnings. One of the truisms in the fight world is that there’s an increasing divide between the world of UFC competitors (predominantly—though not always—white, suburban, middle-class) and boxers (predominantly—though not always—minority, urban, poor). While Counterpunch alludes to the latter, this is not a sociological, Hoop Dreams-style look at the boxing world. Instead, it’s almost a psychological case study in motivation. At one point, a character—and I’m paraphrasing here—explains why fighters get in the ring: fame, fortune, discipline. Whether Bulger intended it, he filled those roles with his picks of subject. Lil’ B-Hop is clearly driven by the promise of money; in contrast, Cam F. Awesome has stayed amateur for 12 years in an effort to make it to Olympic gold; and once again, we’re left to pore over clues to Quillin’s decisions.
Is Quillin undisciplined? As Counterpunch illustrates, often the answer is yes. But—maddeningly—just as often, it’s no. I’d argue what Bulger is showing us is in Quillin is someone in search of his order in the universe—and the discipline that boxing will superimpose onto your life is a kind of order. Is it the kind Quillin is seeking? Trying to parse that is a strong part of this film’s pull.
Thirty years ago, a kid picking up a pair of gloves wasn’t particularly unusual, but now a football or basketball is much more likely to be in his hands. Early on in the film, one of interview subjects speculates about what’s behind boxing’s decline. “You can’t play boxing,” he says. And it’s true; these boxers aren’t playing, they’re fighting. Counterpunch shows you what they’re fighting for—but if you want to understand the why? You’ll have to act like a fighter and put in work. Sometimes that’s its own reward.
Overall: If you’re not a fan of boxing already, I’m not sure Counterpunch can get you there, no matter how insightful its clear-eyed look at the sport’s mythology and legacy is. But by focusing on three compelling leads—the flawed, complex men so loyal to a sport that will never reciprocate—you might at least become a fan of fighters. And that’s a start.