Mention the Oxford vs. Cambridge Varsity match to most people and it immediately conjures up images of the annual Boat Race or rugby union game between the two universities. Additionally though, many other sports have their own rivalries that are just as fiercely contested; amateur boxing being perhaps the least likely of university sports. That said, the Oxbridge association with boxing actually goes back more than 100 years - the Marquess of Queensbury rules being drawn up by Cambridge student John Graham Chambers in the 1860s. Each year, a new intake of students – most with no prior boxing experience – have just a few months to prepare, train and ultimately try to win the coveted Blue; that of representing Oxford in the Varsity match.

Director Stevan Riley, a former member of the Oxford University Boxing Club himself, shadows five of the latest hopefuls through the course of the academic year, naturally building towards the big night in March against Cambridge. Most of the students aren’t the type you’d expect to be boxing – some pull out before facing a fight, while others continue for months until they’re told they haven’t been selected. Over the course of filming the documentary, around 40 potentials are eventually reduced to just nine fighters who go through to the different weighted bouts of the Varsity match itself. Of the five Riley chooses to focus on, not all make it through to the final nine, but despite this, each takes away an experience you feel will shape them for the rest of their lives.

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With few of the usual boxing clichés, Blue Blood is a refreshing and thought-provoking insight into the world of amateur university boxing. The Oxford coach, Des Brackett, is from an entirely different background to most of his students – he’s an ex-boxer, from a family of boxers, working on a building site by day and in the gym every evening. Des’ relationship with his students is one of the most heart-warming elements of the film – he shares their every emotion along the way, whilst always holding the utmost respect for them and what they’re putting themselves through.

While the Blue is what most of the students are aiming for, some, like philosophy student Chris Kavannagh, are there for the challenge. Others have a point to prove to themselves, and see boxing as a way of doing this. As the film moves past the initial introductions and follows the students through their training and early fights, it becomes much more interesting and begins to shed new light on each of them as individuals. There’s plenty of humour as well as the inevitable heartbreak, and by the time the climatic Varsity match arrives, the audience feels a real connection with the boxers. Within the historic Oxford Town Hall, the chosen nine face the biggest night of their lives in front of a crowd of thousands - a level of boxing Des admits took him years to reach himself, but which these fighters have achieved in mere months.

Far from being about a bunch of toffs beating each other up, Blue Blood shows a side to the Oxford student that isn’t normally captured on film. As well as the footage in the gym and the boxing ring, Riley combines interview footage and scenery shots to give a really vivid impression of the university, its history and its characters. The bouts themselves are expertly captured and edited, overlaid with a fantastic soundtrack featuring the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Beastie Boys and Oxford’s own Radiohead.

Some of the students seen in the film will probably never box again; while others, such as Fred Brown, go on to represent their university again. All take the experience away with them. Des still coaches the boxing team at Oxford, and in 2007 led them to victory over Cambridge in the 100th Varsity match.

Reviewed on: 13 Oct 2007
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Documentary about the amateur boxing competition between Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
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Director: Stevan Riley

Year: 2006

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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