Nickerson and Herrington discuss a sequence that would send Marshall hurtling out of the ring and into the crowd. "Oh, man," says Marshall. "Wouldn't I be dead if that really happened?"
"No," says Nickerson, a dedicated student of his art. "Firpo versus Dempsey, 1923. Firpo punched Dempsey right out of the ring. Dempsey climbed back in and beat the hell out of Firpo."
Such wild real-life scenes are why Hollywood has long been in love with boxing. Some 450 fight films have been made over the years, and Nickerson has seen, and liked, most of them, including old ones like City for Conquest (1940), Body and Soul (1947) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). But he thinks that while other film stunts grew in sophistication through the years—faster car chases, bigger explosions—boxing scenes remained for too long in the dark ages. They looked either mechanical or obviously faked.
And then, in 1976, came Rocky.
"On Rocky, we dumped the phony posing and went for realism," says Nickerson. "We wanted an aggressiveness that hadn't been seen on the screen before." In preparing for the movie, he studied fight films of the Rockys, Marciano and Graziano, and of Joe Louis, Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott. He had boxers tutor the actors. "The actors came to understand the mechanics of the sport—relaxed arms, lead with the shoulder," says Nickerson. "Plus they learned balance and rhythm. Then when we asked them to pick up the pace and fight like stuntmen, they had those fundamentals." Nickerson's method worked wonderfully, "and suddenly you couldn't fool an audience with bad boxing anymore."
In Rocky II and Raging Bull, Nickerson refined his technique. For the latter, which is a bio of fighter Jake La Motta, he dissected 20 of La Motta's bouts. "We were true to the way those fights really happened," says Nickerson, "although it's true we may have pumped up the volume a little."
Nickerson's critics are bothered by the pumping; they say his fights are hyperreal, more exciting than what goes on in the ring. Blood is forever raining on the crowd; fighters fall and rally like the Dow. "That may be true," says Nickerson. "But if our fights were as dull as eight out of 10 real fights, the audience would fall asleep. Or, worse, walk out."
Three days after the air-sparring rehearsal, the Gladiator crew is ready to shoot the fight scene. Six hundred extras—"dress dark and seedy" read the casting call—have packed a soundstage in a drafty warehouse west of the Loop. The extras represent a bloodthirsty crowd, and when a punch in the ring lands, they jump to their feet and screw their faces into expressions of delight. But not a sound is uttered. "They'll dub that in during editing," Nickerson explains.
Nickerson dances behind the cameras and intermittently coaches his actors. The pace today is vicious. Nickerson bounds out of the ring and down to a video monitor where director Herrington is watching to see whether the hits are making contact. On film they are.
After eight or so punches, shooting halts and makeup man Lance Anderson hurriedly applies a bloody nose, puffed eyes and split cheeks to Marshall's formerly nice-looking face. "Boxing injuries are unique," says Anderson. "They aren't cuts as much as skin ripping apart across the bones of the face. The challenge for me is creating things in two minutes that will look real in a close-up." Anderson spritzes water—Hollywood sweat—on Marshall and his opponent.