In one of the more amusing films of the holiday season, Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Grudge Match” stars award-winning movie icons Oscar-winner Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull,” “Silver Linings Playbook”) and Oscar-nominee Sylvester Stallone (the “Rocky” films, “The Expendables”) as old boxing rivals who come out of retirement for one final match.
De Niro and Stallone play Billy “The Kid” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp, two local Pittsburgh fighters whose fierce rivalry put them in the national spotlight. Each had scored a victory against the other during their heyday, but in 1983, on the eve of their decisive third match, Razor suddenly announced his retirement, refusing to explain why but effectively delivering a knock-out punch to both their careers. Thirty years later, boxing promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), seeing big dollar signs, makes them an offer they can’t refuse: to re-enter the ring and settle the score once and for all.
Even before De Niro’s “The Kid” and Stallone’s “Razor” get into the ring to settle their decades-old score, both the fists and the barbs fly across the screen as the two contenders prepare to meet in the rematch of the century.
“I’ve always loved boxing, and I’ve always been attracted to second chance stories,” says comedy veteran Peter Segal (“Anger Management”, “50 First Dates”), the film’s director and producer. “But even more important than the fight is the second chances the characters are given to repair relationships they destroyed three decades earlier. In essence, the fight becomes a metaphor for never giving up.”
Like Segal, De Niro honed in on the idea of second chances, but, he says, “It’s not a second chance for a guy who’s down and out trying to make a comeback. It’s really about getting what he’s always wanted, what he’s waited years for. But along the way he sees there’s a lot more to it than he was even aware of.”
“I love boxing and the metaphors about it,” says Stallone. “There’s a real classicism where it breaks down to a man’s athletic ability coupled with his courage. The two don’t always go hand-in-hand. I’m always watching the character of a fighter more than the punches. You see what a person is made of under duress.”
After retiring from boxing, Razor returned to the working class life he’d always known. Stallone sees him as a “forlorn guy who’s been left out in the cold, who recedes into the background, working at a mill, welding steel in the heat of his own purgatory.” He spends his downtime alone, turning scraps of metal into tiny animal sculptures and working on his prized Shelby, covered in his garage.
For Stallone, Razor’s decision to quit boxing was something the character regretted. “Here’s what I think is very relatable about this story, it’s the idea if we could only go back,” he says. “We all say, ‘Why did I do that?’ It’s that life-long yearning that he should have gone right when he went left. He should have married this person or that person. He quit boxing too early. He had talent; he was good and he just let it go. He let his emotions really dictate his future.
“When the story begins, Razor’s in a steel mill and Kid’s in a gin mill,” the actor continues. “They are both in their own little hell. I think it’s more of a male thing, but they have that competitiveness that goes beyond all rational thought. I know guys who will never get over a wrong, assumed or actual. They’ll remember a slight forever. They want to go back and clean it up and if they can, they will.”
While Razor wishes the renewed interest in what happened three decades ago would just go away, Billy “the Kid” McDonnen relishes the new-found attention. The spotlight-loving Kid continued to box after the cancelled bout with Razor, but after 11 fights, his career sputtered out. He parlayed his celebrity into being a moderately successful pitchman for everything from Jockey to jock itch. He invested his money in some local Pittsburgh businesses and continued to obsess about “the fight that never happened and never will.”
De Niro states, “These two guys are in really different places in life. My character’s done alright for himself, financially, but he still has this unfulfilled yearning to have this final fight, because he felt that he was kind of gypped the last time when Razor pulled out of it. Razor’s the one that needs it, for the money, but Kid’s the one that really wants it.”
Are you Ready for Grudgement Day?
Preparation for the much-anticipated Grudgement Day started long before the principal photography began. When De Niro and Stallone signed on to “Grudge Match,” they both made a commitment to train and get into shape, and that meant months of preparation.
Segal says, “Both Sly and Bob totally dedicated themselves. For Sly, staying in shape is a lifestyle, especially because of the films he’s been doing this over the years. For Bob, it was a real challenge and physical commitment. But he really dug in and worked his butt off.”
De Niro worked with boxing trainer Robert “Bob” Sale, who worked previously with Stallone as technical advisor on “Rocky Balboa.” Based at the famed Fortune Boxing Gym in Los Angeles, Sale hit the road to train De Niro and was blown away by the stamina and determination he saw in the veteran actor.
“It was a 101 percent, complete and utter sacrifice,” says Sale. “The commitment Mr. De Niro brought was unwavering. When I started to work with him, the plan was not to try to have him imitate a fighter, but to develop him as a fighter and let him take it from there for the performance.”
De Niro undertook cardiovascular and strength training, changed his diet and lost more than 35 pounds. He was in a gym every morning at 5:00 a.m. training for an hour, followed by 45 minutes of boxing in the months before he started filming “Grudge Match.”
“Bob’s a terrific trainer,” De Niro says of Sale. “Sly’s worked with him for a long time so I knew he could get me into shape for the movie.” The actor also worked with his own personal trainer, Dan Harvey, “trying to get the weight down. It was grueling but I think we succeeded.”
Stunt Coordinator Kevin Scott offers, “For two men in their 60s to physically commit to spending eight to nine hours throwing punches, physically fighting under hot lights in a scorching arena as they had to in the fight scene, was amazing. People may say, ‘Well, it’s not a real fight,’ but it’s just as demanding in a different way—the body mechanics, retaining all the fight moves and repetitive takes. Additionally, there are hundreds of people standing around and the clock is ticking, so there’s a lot of mental duress and scrutiny. That raises the stakes, too.”
For Stallone, preparing to enter the ring after seven years required changing his diet and workout routine. He cut almost all carbohydrates to shed pounds and went on a diet of 95 percent protein, increasing cardio exercises with strength training to develop lean muscle mass. Stallone also did exercises to bulk up his neck while letting his shoulders and upper arm muscles shrink so he and De Niro would appear to be in the same fighting class.
“Bobby is lighter than I am, so I had to come down to 168 pounds. I’ve not been there since 1981,” Stallone says. “For me that’s really thin. I mean thin.”
Incorporating fight styles that reflect the character’s personalities and their age, director Segal says after all the training and choreography, story-wise it all boils down to this- “It all culminates with this fight where they are stripped down to nothing but their boxing gloves, shoes and shorts, and they have to get in there, face each other and resolve a conflict that’s been eating at them for three decades.”
Collaborating with Segal behind the scenes are: Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (“Dances With Wolves,” “Apocalypto”); production designer Wynn Thomas (“Cinderella Man”); costume designer Mary Vogt (“Men in Black 3”); and editor William Kerr (“Bridesmaids”). The music is by Trevor Rabin.