Champion is usually described as a cautionary tale about the bitter price of ruthless ambition. Rubbish. The character of Midge Kelly is heroic, admirable, and downright glorious. A rotten son of a bitch? Certainly. But I envy him, and you should too.

Champion airs from time to time on TCM and has been available on DVD for ages, so this essay assumes that you know the film. Besides, you just can’t dig into this thing without considering the ending — proceed knowing that spoilers await. For those who need a refresher, the story goes like this: Michael “Midge” Kelly (Kirk Douglas) and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) are heading west in search of their fortune when they get rolled and are forced to thumb it. They cadge a ride from a palooka (John Day) on his way to fight a main event in Kansas City. Hoping to earn a quick buck, Midge takes a fill-in spot on the undercard. He’s beaten badly but catches the eye of manager Tommy Haley (that noir-iest of actors, Paul Stewart), who offers to Mickey him into a real fighter. When Midge and Connie reach Cali and discover their prospects vanished they are compelled to find scut work in a roadhouse. Both are attracted to a waitress, Emma (Ruth Roman), who Midge is forced to marry in the wake of a tryst. Feeling trapped, Midge eighty-sixes Emma and scrams for L.A., where he takes Haley up on his offer. Midge’s toughness and ambition make him a natural in the ring, and soon he rates a bout with number one contender Johnny Dunne, the same cat who taxied him into Kansas City. Midge is ordered to take a dive in trade for a legit title shot down the line, but he stuns everyone when he batters an unsuspecting Dunne. Although irate gamblers get their revenge, Midge’s refusal to cheat makes him appear heroic and he gets a title shot anyway, which he wins. Now standing on top of the heap, Midge alienates everyone around him. When he gives Dunne a rematch, he takes a terrific beating — until the jeering crowd and the ringside announcers spur him to final victory. Staggered, leering, and triumphant, Midge returns to his dressing room where he collapses and dies.

Everyone involved scores points for making a great picture about an asshole, but Kirk Douglas deserves the lion’s share of the credit. His Midge Kelly is one the most interesting and complicated boxers in screen history, which is a significant accomplishment considering how droll the character likely would have been in the hands (gloves?) of a lesser talent. Champion was a landmark early Douglas landmark film and justly earned him an Academy Award nomination. Most of what has been written about the movie praises his virtuoso performance or affirms the film’s status as a morality tale. While Douglas is indeed the stuff of legend, the “What Price Fame?” angle just doesn’t wash. Champion is a coldly cynical movie about a hard-as-nails tough guy; made during an era when all the little kids didn’t get a trophy. If it were merely a cautionary tale it would have ended differently: with Midge dead and defeated in the center of the ring. Redemption? No, thanks. An apology tour? Piss off. Midge Kelly isn’t redeemed at the end of Champion — he’s validated. Let’s come back to this later, first Douglas deserves his due.

Kirk Douglas was a great performer who, if nothing else, understood what made him a movie star. He was blessed and cursed with a hyper-magnetic screen presence. Everything about him was just...exaggerated. No actress could wrest the spotlight from him, which is why he isn’t remembered as one of the great romantic leads. Don’t buy it? Next time you watch him in a love scene and things start to heat up, take note of who grabs your attention. It’ll be Douglas. That was his great gift: he was bigger than the story, bigger than his cast, bigger than his directors. His innate arrogance was his greatest asset. He’s cast perfectly here. 

Let’s get back to Midge. Here’s a Depression-era kid who came up tough. His father took a powder in the first round of Midge’s life. And his mother, unable to keep both her sons, sent Midge to the orphanage and kept Connie at home. Midge grew up abandoned and institutionalized, on the losing end of a low-rent Sophie’s choice. Then with adulthood came the war and the bloody hell of combat. This is a guy who’d been rolled, robbed, cheated, chastised, red-taped, taken for granted, swindled, and sent to war. How would you handle it? After Midge mustered out he took on the thankless role of provider for his mother and little brother, and bore no grudge. Sure, he stepped on people along the way, but didn’t he get stepped on first? In spite of it all, he’s probably the most upbeat character in the film. He raised himself out of a hellish upbringing through his own grit to become the champion of the world. All he wanted out of life was the respect of other men offered by success in the ring. Boxing exacts a steep price in exchange for that success, and Midge saw clearer more plainly those around him that he’d ultimately have to pay it. If success left Midge feeling entitled yet emotionally crippled, who can blame him? 

Who does he hurt? The story places Midge in the arms of three different women. First with Emma, the wife/waitress whom he deserts. Of the film’s women, she’s the most deserving of happiness, which she ultimately finds with Connie. Although she married Midge, she understood going in that he didn’t love her. Their mistake causes her much short-term distress, but it was through him that she met Connie and eventually found what she was looking for.* Midge’s second tryst was with the aptly named Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell), a good-timer who treats fighters like Kleenex. She’s an opportunistic user who meets her match. The idea that Midge could hurt someone so despicable is silly. His final girlfriend is Palmer Harris (Lola Maxwell), the spoiled and slumming wife of the crooked fight promoter. Their affair is brief, and ends when Midge agrees to cut ties in exchange for a bigger percentage of the gate. Undoubtedly a cold-blooded choice, but it bears repeating Midge has no idea how to make himself or anyone else happy, especially not a married woman. Midge is a pig, but he never tries to hide it. All the women in the story are well rid of him, but none suffer lasting harm.

That leaves the brother and the trainer. Connie is supposedly the sympathetic conscience of the film, constantly exasperated with his brother, yet he seems to have forgotten who pays the bills—and, for that matter, who grew up in the orphanage. Hell, Connie even gets the girl; what does he have to grouse about? As for the trainer, Haley is the only guy in the picture who knows the score all along. In quintessential noir fashion, he knows that he’ll be dropped him when the bigger purses come, yet he returns to train Midge for his climactic title fight anyway. As he repeats time and again, “I can’t keep away from it, I like to watch a good boy in action.” The idea of a fighter leaving one trainer for another happens as often on screen as it does in real life, a cliché in both worlds. It’s important to realize that Champion is a noir film in which none of the characters come away clean. Dig this most of all: when Midge finally lands that first big fight with Johnny Dunne, both Connie and Tommy want him to take the dive—they want him to cheat. 

If the movie has a flaw it’s that it doesn’t fully depict the grueling physical realities of the prizefighter’s life. The ring scenes (directed by Stanley Kramer rather than Mark Robson, who Kramer said didn’t know enough about boxing) are exquisite, but the narrative’s preoccupation with fight-fixing doesn’t afford any screen time to the everyday sacrifices made by fighters. Midge stacks knockouts way too fast and scores a title shot in no time at all, while in reality the achievement of a world’s championship, or even a spot on the undercard of a championship bout, was a pipe dream for most pugs. The film does include a Rocky-style training sequence, though nowadays it plays for laffs. 

Douglas is miraculous in his final scene. Bloody and victorious, having returned to his dressing room after ferociously pummeling Dunne, he leers and gesticulates at the camera, his battered face a desperate reflection of his maimed but resilient soul. Midge’s life comes full circle with his defeat of the man who opened the door to a life in the ring—a dichotomous life that offered not only the illusory pleasures of fame, fortune, and women; but more importantly, the respect and legacy he craved. Cinematic convention keeps us expecting that he’ll see the light and turn an improbable Ebenezer Scrooge-like corner at the end, yet he never does. Midge’s refusal to compromise or live on anything but his own terms is a worthy valediction. It imbues his life with a strange and moving integrity. It also makes him an iconic hero of film noir. It’s fitting that he should die after he wins the final fight; he has nothing in the world left to prove. Some men are not meant to suffer old age.

Champion (1949)
Director: Mark Robson.
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Screenplay: Carl Foreman, based on a story by Ring Lardner.
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Marilyn Maxwell, Ruth Roman, and Paul Stewart.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 99 minutes

(Some viewers/reviewers of Champion suggest that Midge rapes Emma late in the film. For the record, after numerous viewings I still don’t read the code in that way, but I’d certainly change my tune (and, of course, my review) if someone were to convince me. This essay is something of a justification Midge’s bad behavior, but certainly not for rape. 


  1. I just love that third picture of Douglas! What a hunk!

  2. Champion certainly set the tone for Douglas's self-immolating style, and for a while it seemed necessary that his characters drop dead by the end of the picture. Ace in the Hole and The Vikings are other notable examples. This trope is almost a paradoxical vindication of Douglas's life force as something the conventional world can't contain.

  3. Oh for petes sake! Midge was no hero. He was garbage. You take away any responsibility for his behavior from him.
    He is the only person who was ever kicked around?? He steps on people and he could not care less, he rapes one woman and I have not seen the movie in a while, 'tho I do own it, does he kill anyone?

    And his wife manipulated him into that marriage, she was no innocent. I can see not blaming her if you think she believed it was the only way to get away from her father, but she still could have been honest.

    Midge's brother is quite loyal to him no matter what, I think that is enough gratitude, since, "the no matter what," is pretty horrible.

    I like your point about the ending. The hollywood ending of kirk learning his lesson, would have been, whatever, but the way the movie actually ended, with his staying true to what he was, as lousy as that may have been, made for a terrific ending.

    Didn't the movie really kind of reveal boxing as a lowdown, slimy, gangster controlled swamp that made Kirk even worse a person than he already was?

    You do not think it really did, or strongly enough?
    Maybe they were not allowed to make that point to strongly.

    addie B)

  4. Samuel Wilson--
    That is very funny, Kirtk Douglas really did play a lot of characters that needed to die at the end of the movie. lol

    addie B)

  5. Addie -- Good stuff, thanks for the great comments!

    I don't remember a rape, or even the coded suggestion of one in me there.

    I'm not trying to take the responsibility away from Midge, though I see how one could read what I wrote that way! I'm fully aware of who and what he is, and the film exacts a fair price (death) for his behavior. I am saying that I understand why he is who he is -- How can we not empathize with a guy whose ma gave him up to the state while keeping his brother at home? Ouch! What makes him admirable to me is what the character is able to achieve in spite of his upbringing. As you say, plenty of people get kicked around, but Midge got kicked around and became champion of the world.

    I'm certainly harder on Connie than you are. What you call loyalty no matter what, I call "along for the ride on the gravy train" no matter what. :-)

    On the boxing angle - I think the film was giving lip service to the crooked aspects of the sport, but those attitudes were no secret. Everyone, including Joe Public, knew how the game worked. I think that's why the film gives Midge such a strong response from the public when he refuses to take the dive.

    1. There is definitely the coded suggestion of a rape in Champion, but it's easy to miss. Toward the end of the film, Midge (Kirk Douglas) forces himself on Emma (Ruth Roman), kisses her, says "It's still there, isn't it?" She walks away from him and says, "Leave me alone." He walks toward her and says, "You're my wife." She looks scared, and the screen fades to black.

      Plenty of classic films show women yielding to an aggressive man, but I think it's significant that the fade to black happens without showing her acquiesce to a kiss or yield in any pleasurable way. His line "You're my wife" strongly implies that he is going to have sexual intercourse with her whether she likes it or not. It's his legal right, and the concept of "marital rape" was not a criminal act in 1949. But it's a rape, and it's a violation of his brother's trust, since Midge and Emma were married in name only. His brother's rage in the next scene is also a pretty clear indication that something awful has happened.

  6. I think I know what you mean now. On the beach with his future wife, Midge talks about rising above his terrible past. Which he does as a boxer. Really where he becomes so rotten is mainly from the being used, like by his, "wife," she tricked him and by the boxing promoters.
    And he is willing to work hard.

    Connie going along with Midge, you see more as Con's weakness not loyalty? Yes, I remember that now.

    He lets Midge support him and does not really stand up to Midge even when he gets mad enough to quit going on the road with him. You are right, leach city.
    But it is not like Kirk gets nothing from Arthur Kennedy.

    Late in the movie, when his wife has decided to marry his brother, like she should have in the first place (women!) they are alone together in a cabin, I think it was his training camp, they were getting ready to pack up and he forces his intentions on her then.
    After that is when Con shows a little something and gets very angry at midge and really gives him what for. It is right before that last fight.

    It is nearly a hollywood ending even though no one is happy. Kirk Douglas gets some redemtion after losing his mind because he basks in the love of the fans, like he is a kid again and then he dies.

    You are too kind to the females in this movie. The first one tricks him into marriage, not for money, but still and the two others are prostitutes really, they go with him for just for his money.

    That is a great description of Kirk Douglas, "Hyper-magnetic screen pressence."
    He comes across with so much umph, that sometimes after watching him in movie that has tremendous Highs and Lows, like Spartacus, I feel like I have been beaten up. lol I cannot even watch, "Lonely are the Brave."
    You got me going with your article, I have to watch some Kirk Douglas today.

    addie B)

  7. Hi Mark,
    I'm just stopping by to say you have been award the Kreativ Blogger Award-the details are found here.

    I love your writing and the more obscure the noir, the better.
    Your constant reader,

  8. this was a great read! i always do a blog tribute to Kirk on his b-day, including some great pics from Champion, take a look if you like :)

  9. Kirk Douglas exuded menace in Out of the Past. His character is a jerk in Champion. It's interesting to compare this film with Rocky released almost 30 years later.

  10. Midge Kelley is the Sammy Glick of boxers.