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HIRING SOMEONE to teach Russell Crowe to fight might seem a little like hiring someone to teach a dog to eat a pork chop. The 40-year-old Australian actor, after all, did chop and batter his way to an Oscar as a Roman gladiator and has built a reputation off-camera as one of Hollywood's most notorious brawlers, making tabloid headlines with punch-ups from London to Sydney. There is a difference, however, between pugnacious and proficient.
And the success of any boxing movie hangs on the pugilistic proficiency of its actors. Consider Hilary Swank, who, thanks to hundreds of rounds of sparring at Gleason's Gym in New York City under the tutelage of trainer Hector Rocha, has knocked out critics and viewers in Million Dollar Baby. "When I sent her in to spar," says Rocha of Swank, "I told her, 'These people are going to try to hit you. That's so your movie will look real, not fake.'"
When Crowe signed on to star in Cinderella Man, a biopic about Depression-era heavyweight champion James J. Braddock (opening nationwide on June 3), he and the film's director, Ron Howard, set out to ensure that Crowe not only looked and sounded like the old champ, but that he jabbed, moved and counterpunched like him as well. To that end they retained the services of Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee, the man who taught Will Smith how to box for the 2001 film Ali--and, more to the point, taught Ali how to box like Ali, having trained The Greatest throughout his 21-year career.
"Before I started working with Russell," says Dundee, who at 83 still trains and tends the corners of a number of pro fighters, "people were saying, 'Oh, he's a tough guy. He's this, he's that.' But let me tell you, he was easy to work with--the same as Muhammad."
In December 2003 Dundee flew to Australia to spend a month with Crowe. While the actor--whose buff Gladiator physique had long since fallen like the Roman Empire--worked at getting his body into shape by swimming, running and biking every day, Dundee schooled him in the sweet science.
"Russell loves boxing," says Dundee. "He's a great fight fan. And he's an athlete, this guy. I showed him how to hit the light bag, how to move."
Together they studied tapes of Braddock's fights, and Dundee worked on making the 5'11" Crowe more closely resemble the 6'3" champion. "I made him stand tall," says Dundee. "A lotta guys are 6'5", 6'6", but they look a lot shorter because they spread their legs. I showed Russell how to move and stand tall when he gets in the middle of the ring."
Crowe's training suffered a setback last January when he dislocated his left shoulder during a sparring session with then WBA super middleweight champion Anthony Mundine of Australia. But after arthroscopic surgery and a month of physical therapy, Crowe was back in the ring when the film went into production in Toronto in April 2004. During the three-month shoot, says Dundee, Crowe would work out for an hour each day before coming to the set, and he continued to spar, working with Canadian welterweight Wayne Gordon and an amateur heavyweight. By the time Cinderella Man's climactic bout was filmed at Maple Leaf Gardens (standing in for the old Madison Square Garden Bowl), Crowe--who, in his publicist's phrase, had "lost a huge swag of weight"--was in championship form. "He is Braddock," says Dundee, who then adds an even more meaningful accolade. "If I'd had Russell when he was a kid, I coulda made a real fighter out of him."
Now that would've been trouble.