10 Niche Sports Films to Watch After The Iron Claw

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Sports films typically aren’t the year’s biggest blockbusters. While millions across the globe tune in for sporting events, watching fictionalized films seems to draw in a niche crowd. The Iron Claw is one such film. On the surface, this hit A24 film that was released late-2023 is about wrestling. However, it doesn’t take long into the runtime for viewers to realize this “sports film” is actually about way more than what happens during the match.

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That’s the beauty of sports films. Under the guise of winning a competition or achieving a particular athletic feat, they often teach viewers lessons revolving around friendship, teamwork, family, perseverance, and much more. The Iron Claw, for example, was more about brotherhood, grief, and familial expectations. If you’re interested in niche sports films that may not have reached blockbuster status, yet still pack a punch, here are 10 recommendations.

10 Breaking Away (1979)

Breaking Away is a coming-of-age dramedy about four 19-year-old friends without a clue about what to do with their lives. Since Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher graduated from high school last year, they’ve been at somewhat of a standstill. Do they go to college? Try to find a viable career without a degree? Choose to do nothing and avoid the future? The latter seems like the best option, but when Dave (who is obsessed with Italian cycling) learns about a local cycling race, it may be the spark he and his friends need.

Reminiscent of The Iron Claw’s Sibling Dynamic

This movie is less of a “sports film” than the others on this list. Dave’s interest in bicycle racing greatly outweighs that of his friends, yet it is still what gives this movie a unique edge. Though these guys aren’t brothers, if you liked the sibling dynamics in The Iron Claw, you’re sure to appreciate this sibling-like bond here. They disagree, bump heads, but ultimately, there’s a lot of love between them. Sprinkle in clashing with family expectations — it’s always the dad in these sorts of stories — and a sweet romance, and you have the perfect recipe for an awesome sports coming-of-age movie. Rent on Apple TV

9 The Rookie (2002)

Dennis Quaid and the cast of The Rookie lined up on a baseball field for the national anthem
Walt Disney Pictures

The Rookie is based on the true story of baseball player Jim Morris. Regardless of the sport, most professional athletes get their start when they’re quite young, fresh out of high school or college. So Jim, in his 30s, doesn’t have much reason to believe he’ll ever join Major League Baseball, even if he is a talented pitcher. But when this science teacher gets encouragement from the team he coaches to try out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, it may be his chance to finally live out his dream.

Inspiring Audiences on and off the Pitch

This movie is special because we get to see how Jim inspired people on both sides of the pitch. Sometimes he’s inspiring hope in players as a coach; other times, it’s on the mound himself. His dream of playing professional baseball looks a lot different now, between changing diapers and the constant pressure of wanting to prove everyone (himself included) wrong. It’s more hopeful than The Iron Claw, but both touch on the stifling self-doubt that’s pervasive in athletes. Stream on Disney+

8 Double Teamed (2002)

Poppi Monroe and Annie Mcelwain pose in basketball uniforms in Double Teamed
Disney Channel

Double Teamed is a Disney Channel Original Movie based on the true story of identical twin sisters Heather and Heidi Burge. Besides being identical, these two stand out due to their striking height. Their father wants to capitalize on their stature by placing them in basketball, and moves the family to another school district for this purpose. Heather is all too willing to conform to their father’s pushy ways, but Heidi is less enthusiastic. Soon, the twins butt heads as they balance keeping daddy happy, an intense athletic rivalry, and finding an identity separate from each other and sports.

An Emotional Story That Goes Beyond the Basketball Court

This film is a perfect example of a sports film that really isn’t about sports. Yes, most of the scenes revolve around basketball in some way. Whether it’s one of the girl’s training, family discussions about the team, or footage of basketball games. Yet it’s the subtext and what’s not being said in these scenes that provide the emotional weight. Like The Iron Claw, the characters go through a great amount of heartache (though it’s admittedly a lot less severe in Double Teamed; it’s still a Disney film, after all). Both films show the characters on a full emotional journey that has a satisfying conclusion. Stream on Disney+

7 Rudy (1993)

Rudy
Rudy

Release Date
September 17, 1993

Director
David Anspaugh

Rating
PG

Rudy is another drama that draws on the life experiences of a real person. Since he was a young boy, Rudy dreamed of playing football at the University of Notre Dame, one of the top football schools in the country. However, he does not have the advantage of a large, muscular frame and natural athletic prowess common with many other players. He also doesn’t have the financial means. Everyone tells him he can’t do it, and there are plenty of signs that he shouldn’t. But Rudy just can’t give up, and he vows to make it onto the field no matter what.

A Movie with a Message We Need to Hear

Never give up on your dreams — that’s the message of this film summed up in a sentence. Sure, it doesn’t seem all that unique of a perspective. If you heard any motivational speech, you’ve probably heard some variation of that phrase. But seeing with your eyes how much resistance Rudy faced in just the pursuit of his dream makes the sentiment land differently. Like The Iron Claw, there are no macro-level consequences if the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants, but we still care. It’s a straightforward film, but sometimes the messages we most need to hear are the simplest ones. Stream on Paramount+

6 Right on Track (2003)

Brie Larson and Beverley Mitchell pose with a racing trophy in Right on Track
Disney Channel

Right on Track is yet another biographical film. Erica Enders faces pushback for being a girl who dares to excel in the “man’s sport” of drag racing. Luckily, her father is by her side, cheering her on and making sure she learns to win and lose with dignity. But even with how dedicated Erica is to her sport, she can’t help but wonder how much of normal adolescence she’s missing out on. And when her baby sister Courtney starts outshining her, she questions what her future in the sport looks like.

Disney Sports at Its Finest

Though a largely forgotten Disney Channel Original Movie, this stands as another classic in their catalog. Erica is both an average teenager, struggling with fitting in at school, navigating crushes, and getting good grades. Yet we also see an ambition in her that’s unique to even most adults. Her family and relationship with her sister are essential pieces of this film, and she has plenty of setbacks that would make it understandable if she gave drag racing up for good. This DCOM may be a quieter film when paired against its flashier counterparts, but that adds to its appeal. Stream on Disney+

Related: The Best Disney Channel Original Sports Movies

5 Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal (2008)

Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal is a made-for-TV Lifetime movie about a group of destructive cheerleaders. This clique of five ladies — Brooke, Jeri, Ashley, Lisa, and Tabitha — may know how to pump up a crowd while ruffling their pom-poms, but behind those smiles are vicious teeth. Along with their popularity and spot on the squad, Brooke’s mom is the principal, and the girls leverage that to get away with wreaking havoc in the school. A new cheer coach is warned not to challenge the girls, but Coach Carr can’t sit back quietly.

Sports (from an Antagonist’s Perspective)

This film differs from The Iron Claw and many of the other entries because the athletes we follow aren’t the most likable. They aren’t completely irredeemable villains; there’s clearly a lot of pain underneath the vile actions the girls enact, especially Brooke, whose character is explored the most. She has a complicated relationship with her mom who isn’t there for her in the way she needs, not too dissimilar from Kevin Von Erich and his father in The Iron Claw. What these cheerleaders got away with will shock most people and the fact that it’s based on a true story proves that sometimes reality is greater than fiction. Stream on Lifetime

4 The Damned United (2009)

The Damned United
The Damned United

Release Date
March 27, 2009
Cast
Colm Meaney , Henry Goodman , David Roper , Jimmy Reddington , Oliver Stokes , Ryan Day

Rating
R

The Damned United breaks the mold by focusing on a coach rather than a player, with the fall from grace of Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough. Michael Sheen portrays the ambitious coach who steps into the role of team manager with plans to overhaul much of its former status quo. He has an abrasive personality, though it’s clear he’s passionate about the game and though his time in the role was short — 44 days — it was also impactful.

Michael Sheen: A Vastly Underrated Actor

Hardcore football (soccer) fans have some grievances with the plot. Many believe the author of the book the film is based on, and his assertion that the film took too many creative liberties from the facts. But, if viewers look at it as its own separate story, it’s quite an entertaining sports movie. Sheen clocks in another great performance with humor and emotional range, bringing up the question again of how he’s so underrated. Not many people will be familiar with the story or Clough, similar to the Von Erichs, but that won’t be a roadblock to enjoying this film. Stream on Tubi

3 The Wrestler (2008)

The Wrestler centers on Robin Ramzinski, known in the ring as The Ram. His wrestling career reached its peak in the ’80s, and he has had a hard time accepting that it may be time to hang up the belt. His age and health problems make performing increasingly challenging. As it seems like the chapter of his wrestling life is closing, he feels compelled to reconnect with his daughter and maybe fall in love with a woman who works at a strip club he frequents.

An Oscar-Nominated Wrestling MOvie

This film has the most obvious parallel to The Iron Claw since both focus on the wrestling world. Both feature plenty of shots of wrestlers getting body slammed onto tables and thrown against the ropes. However, digging beneath the surface shows that those who enjoyed one may like the other for separate reasons.

Like Kevin in The Iron Claw, from the outside Robin is a big husk of a man. But he’s also quite emotional, struggling to fully connect with those he loves and the pressures that the spotlight brings. Though The Wrestler isn’t based on a true story, each character is fully realized and feels like they could walk off the screen. For his riveting performance as The Ram, Mickey Rourke received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Rent on Apple TV

Related: 10 Best Movies About Pro Wrestling, Ranked

2 Girlfight (2000)

Girlfight is about a teenage girl, Diana, from Brooklyn who is known for her short temper and violent outbursts. The rage stems from her abusive father, the death of her mother, and constantly looking out for her little brother Tiny. One day, Diana goes to a boxing gym to retrieve Tiny and ends up punching a guy who’s bullying him. While there, she feels drawn to the sports, perhaps looking for an outlet to release her pent-up feelings. But her dad definitely wouldn’t agree to it, and the men at the gym don’t think girls can fight. Diana is therefore determined to prove them all wrong.

Michelle Rodriguez’s Film Debut

Since boxing isn’t a team sport, we don’t get to see Diana interacting with her teammates. Instead, this movie shows us the evolution of Diana battling against her coach, fellow boxers (including one that becomes a love interest), her family, and most importantly, herself. It was the director’s debut film and also Michelle Rodriguez’s first film role. That lack of experience may reflect negatively in some areas, but mostly it adds a genuineness that is often absent in multi-million dollar blockbusters. Not Currently Available to Stream or Purchase

1 Prefontaine (1997)

Prefontaine is a biographical drama about Steve Prefontaine, a long-distance runner who died at the young age of 24. The film follows his life, from the early days when he was told that he was too skinny and weak to be one of the best. Even as he showed his skill, people kept doubting him. And he kept pushing, breaking records, and making a name for himself. Told from the point-of-view of one of Prefontaine’s coaches and his girlfriend, this is an emotional story about betting on yourself first.

A Movie Version of a Self-Help Book

If repetitive self-help books don’t do the trick of inspiring you, a movie like Prefontaine might do the trick. In some ways, it’s a classic underdog tale, as so many tried their best to tamper down Steve’s spirit. Yet it’s hard to label such a determined guy like Steve an “underdog” since overriding everything was his faith in himself. The Iron Claw also has the characters facing tragedies. Knowing Steve’s tragic end doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the movie. It heightens it, seeing how much he was able to achieve in a short time. Rent on Apple TV

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