"Steel" by Richard Matheson, the credited source for the new theatrical release Real Steel starring Hugh Jackman was a short story first published in the May, 1956 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and has just been reissued in a new collection, Steel And Other Stories (click here to reserve our copy).
Set in a future (1997!) where human boxers have been replaced by robot versions, the original story revolves around former boxer and current fight arranger Tim "Steel" Kelly and his partner, Pole, who arrive in the city of Maynard with their fighter "Battling Mayo". Mayo is an out-of-date, broken-down B-2 mechanical boxer, paired against the "Maynard Flash", the current, and more sophisticated B-7 model.
But (SPOILER ALERT) when Mayo breaks down just before the fight, Steel comes up with a wild plan to pose as Mayo and take on the B-7 with the hope of winning the prize money and repairing his robot. However, Steel didn't count on the possibility that any man, no matter how tough, wouldn't hold out for very long against a brutal, merciless killing machine.
While it lacks the powerful, harrowing and downright scary atmosphere of Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend, "Steel" still commands the reader's attention. Matheson doesn't softsoap the boxing world. Even with robot fighters, it's still an ugly, brutal and corrupt sport that appeals to the baser instincts of it's audience, while casting aside those who work in the field when they no longer can function properly, like Mayo and Steel . (I'm also thinking of all those real-life boxers who ended up with no money and serious brain damage. Next time Mike Tyson shows up on a Comedy Central special, think about how he ended up there.) Despite the oppressive and cynical situation he finds himself in, Steel Kelly manages to hold onto his integrity. albeit while getting the hell beaten out of him. And despite encountering one further disappointing setback at the end, Steel still sees hope.
"Steel" was previously adapted by Matheson as a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone (with Lee Marvin as Steel!) and stayed pretty faithful to the story. I've no idea how good Real Steel is (unlike the film, there was no romantic interest or Spielberg*-imposed estranged father-son relationship in the original story), but "Steel" is still a pretty good ride on it's own. Check out Steel And Other Stories for this tale and other fine examples (including two new stories not previously published in any collection) of Matheson's solid storytelling.
*(One of the executive producers of Real Steel is director Steven Spielberg, who always gives the protagonists in his films daddy issues. That well has pretty much run dry, hasn't it?)