Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher transports us back in time to the birth of boxing.
Matt Hookings wrote the screenplay, produced, and starred as Jem Belcher in this passion project that was 10 years in the making. Available on Prime Video and starring Russell Crowe, the movie is highly emotional and packs a powerful punch.
Hookings, founder of Camelot Films, made his professional acting debut in the 2011 movie Resistance and is best known for his roles in the Alice Through the Looking Glass, Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent.
As the son of British Heavyweight Champion David “Bomber” Pearce (dubbed "The Welsh Rocky"), Hookings used relentless research—including watching 160 boxing movies—to get Prizefighter off the ground.
Hookings' dad once slept on a bench the night before the European championship fight because he had no money and no place to stay. Pearce tragically died in the year 2000 due to boxing-related injuries that he suffered during his career, but he was never forgotten: a statue of him stands tall in the city of Newport, Wales, where Hookings was born.
After Hookings, 33, was approached by a man about a fighter from the early 1800s named Jem Belcher, the idea for the movie was born.
Hookings became fascinated by Belcher's textured life. Jem was the youngest boxing champion ever, was blind in one eye at 22 and dead by the age of 30, and yet not a single book has ever been written about him.
Almost obsessively, Hookings started training as a boxer without any confidence that the film would ever get made, let alone would he get the opportunity to play the lead role of Jem Belcher.
Training at the same gym that his father trained when he was alive and fighting, Hookings realized that Prizefighter could be special and different from all of the boxing films he watched. Incredibly, there has never been a boxing film set this far back in time (1789 through 1805). There also hasn’t been a film made about the birth of the sport or its evolution.
“I really wanted to bring the heart and that character into the story. I think it really shows it in the end fight itself,” Hookings’ exclusively tells Parade.com. “You can just see me pouring everything out into it, so that was definitely my intention.”
In addition to celebrating the mere fact that he was able to make this movie and it received attention at some major film festivals, including Cannes, Hookings wants to show others that the impossible can happen.
“I want to inspire and perhaps help guide other people. I believe that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there like me that are trying to make something and deserve to get it made and they think their story needs to be told,” he explained. “I know how much I’ve learned and what I’ve taken away from this monumental experience.”
Read on for how Hookings overcame years of obstacles and naysayers to make this emotional and dramatic movie that would make his father proud.
How did you and Russell Crowe bond?
Matt Hookings: We bonded really quickly. Look, it wasn’t easy getting Russell to sign on. It took a year back and forth with his manager and team, negotiations, and things changing. We did this amid the world of COVID and him coming to the U.K., and then we were supposed to go to Australia. Just all these things kept changing. We ended up doing part of the movie in the U.K. and Malta.
Then once we got a bit comfortable, he asked me to go play tennis with him in Malta on a Sunday, so the respect was there. We speak quite a lot now—we speak almost every day in a weird way. I think he’s definitely come from a world where he’s had these challenges. I don’t know when or where or how, but he’s definitely had certain challenges, and he sees and understands the kind of passion and the obsession I’ve put into this as a young filmmaker trying to get something off the ground and really sticking with it and driving it home.
Why do you think the bond happened so quickly?
Matt Hookings: I think the respect was immediately there. I think he already knew a bit of what I’d gone through. I remember the first time we met in Malta, at 5 a.m., we didn’t even say each other’s name, we just shook hands and said, “Let’s do this.” The respect and the professionalism were immediately there and he taught me so much. His presence and his gravitas and the way he operates and the way he handles himself in business, it's really second to none. It was just at the highest level.
I think when he felt a little bit more comfortable with me, he put me through a little bit of a testing thing at 5 o’clock in the morning, “Let’s go through the script. Let’s go through the lines. Let’s go through it again.” I suppose that he was making sure that as the writer I knew exactly where I built the character from.
Can you talk about your connections to this story that led to the movie?
Matt Hookings: It’s been 10 years—actually 12 years if I go back to the first email when the process started. It’s been a bit of a crazy journey. I was actually working on a Russell Crowe film and someone thought they recognized me and thought I was my dad, David Pearce, because we look like twins. Sadly, my dad passed away in 2000 when I was 11.
This gentleman who came up and recognized me and thought I was my dad told me about this article in this newspaper he was reading about my dad, and next to the article was this slide on Jem Belcher. That’s how it started. Then came two years of research in the library, 160 boxing films from 1927 to now, and all of this led to this kind of whirlwind journey with this character which consumed my life pretty much for more than a decade.
Why was it important to watch 160 boxing films?
Matt Hookings: I just wanted to see everything. One of the first films I saw was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 boxing film called The Ring. I wanted to see what everyone had done right and what everyone had done wrong. I wanted to see how many boxing films actually had fights and how many films were driven by the character and the story. Also, I wanted to differentiate Prizefighter from all those other films.
What did you discover?
Matt Hookings: The thing I found was that in a lot of these other films, they were doing it for someone or something. Rocky was doing it for Adrian, and someone else was doing it for their aunty or their dog or whatever else. So I tapped into that kind of inner almost genetics with Jem to show that actually it was channeled through him. It was always in him through his grandfather. I’m a bit of an obsessive character. I’m either a million percent or zero percent, so when I do something, I really want to go into it as much as I can and do as much research on the character.
What was one boxing movie that stood out?
Matt Hookings: I loved Somebody Up There Likes Me with Paul Newman in the 50s, and that is essentially Rocky. He plays a boxer called Rocky, he talks very similar to Sylvester Stallone, and yet 20 or 30 years later Rocky came out. So there were just so many things I wanted to put in my brain in that sense, and I wanted to see how all the fights were done differently and all this other sort of rich information. But it wasn’t just boxing films; one of my biggest similarities and references to go to was the movie Amadeus, just because it was very character driven.
How does it feel to have your movie compared to Rocky?
Matt Hookings: It was always going to come up and it was always part of the journey for me because Rocky and Sylvester Stallone were used as, “Okay, if he could do it then, I could do it now.”
I wasn’t just walking in the room saying, “I’m going to play Jem Belcher,” and that’s it. It was a slightly different approach. I’m happy with it being related to Rocky because that was such a triumph itself in terms of what Stallone did and the mere achievement of the film. Just being told no to playing the lead role in the film that he was so passionate about making. Absolutely, it was good to go to that and feel that he had to keep going because he probably went through some of the similar sorts of trials and tribulations that I did in that sense.
Talk about the naysayers and why you weren’t daunted by them.
Matt Hookings: Yeah, I was speaking on a podcast the other day, and someone said, “How many times did people say no?” And I said, “All the time. Not one person said yes. Not one person said, ‘Go ahead, do it.’ It was no, no, no, no, for many years.” But I suppose all of that depends on what type of personality you have. I am the guy who says, “I’m not going to enter that space or even entertain any kind of negativity. I’m just going to drive forward and do what I set out to do and essentially prove people wrong.”
What are the life lessons that you see from both your journey in making this and also from the film that we can take away?
Matt Hookings: There are so many life lessons. Where do I start? Russell taught me so much again just in the way he operates and the way he carries himself. The level that he works at and the level he expects others to work at when you’re around him. We were hit with every single challenge you could ever think: an independent film during COVID with an A-list cast on a period drama film with action, that’s got the unknown writer in the lead role playing alongside people like Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone and all these other amazing cast members.
We just got hit with everything. Locations falling out and moving here, we shot in three different countries. Finance kept falling in and out. It caused a huge number of personal damage in terms of anxiety and stress and panic attacks. My body’s bruised and damaged in areas just from the physicality of the shoot and the fighting and everything we did.
How old were you when boxing came into your life? What are your earlier memories and what were they?
Matt Hookings: Well, my dad was a famous boxer in the U.K., but he passed away from boxing, so I grew up kind of avoiding boxing. My dad had brain damage and injuries sustained from boxing, so I left Wales and went to university and avoided going down the route of a boxer. But when this film really started kicking into gear, I truly fell in love with the sport.
Boxing in many ways saved me because of all the stress and anxiety that I had from the actual shoot, the production, and the writing. I was able to release that in a physical way in the training and in boxing. I learned so much through my childhood and everybody in the U.K. seems to have a story about my dad, how they knew him, or how they met him once. So that was a really nice thing finding out, and then more about him.
Have you had a change of heart about boxing?
Matt Hookings: Yes. I’m in love with the sport now, I love the training. I think it saved me in many ways, as I said. It really gives you discipline and makes you mentally fit. I think without boxing I wouldn’t have been able to fight this. It kept me going and I still train now quite actively. It’s become extremely important to me.
Do you find that people are saying that they’re inspired by the film?
Matt Hookings: Absolutely. I think the main thing I keep getting, which is really nice, is that they can just feel the heart of the story and the character. And I think that bleeds from my own life and my own issues and things that were going on during the film. Obviously, in certain scenes where I need to play a certain part in that scene, you can’t really show all the problems and stuff. But definitely, I think people are responding really well and keep saying they feel the heart of the story.
Why do you want everyone to see this movie?
Matt Hookings: Look, it’s the story of a forgotten hero, a rags-to-riches story. Where like many people in life they get to a point where they have everything and it crashes and they’ve got to rebuild themselves. So, it’s got a lot of heart. There’s also a character-driven family connection to the story, in which he’s basically yearning for his mum to support him and encourage him.
For boxing fans, it’s the first of its kind. One of the reasons, going back to watching all those films, there’s never been a film about boxing that’s set this far back. So it’s one of its kind in the sense of a boxing film set this far back. And one that explores the birth of the sport, which should appeal to lots of people, males, females, young adults, and teenagers, because it’s how the sport began which people will be interested to know.
Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is airing on Prime Video.