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Jake Gyllenhaal sees his new film, Southpaw, as a father-daughter story rather than a boxing film.Thibault Camus/The Associated Press

Jake Gyllenhaal would rather fight than switch.

"I'm looking for contradictions," the hunky, dependably passionate actor tells The Globe and Mail, "not clichés."

So you say.

In the new Antoine Fuqua film Southpaw, Gyllenhaal's character is a beat-upon light-heavyweight boxer and former Hell's Kitchen orphan child named Billy Hope. If that's not a cliché, then this reporter will eat his fedora – the one with the "Press" tag stuck on it. Cliché? Southpaw is one "Yo, Adrian" away from being an honorary volume in the Rocky franchise. Cliché? Southpaw is even more underdoggy than the Russell Crowe-starring Cinderella Man, which was at least a prize-fighter story that really happened.

The real story behind the making of Southpaw was that it was originally conceived as a vehicle for hip-hop superstar and 8 Mile actor Marshall (Eminem) Mathers. The term "southpaw" refers to a left-handed individual, which is what Eminem is. The idea being that southpaw fighters are unorthodox and awkward opponents, against whom nobody wishes to fight. Thus the southpaw has a tougher road to the top – likewise with white rappers, such as Eminem.

So, Gyllenhaal, a right-hander who punched a mirror with his left hand as a gaunt, bug-eyed sociopath in the darkly comic 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, decided not to switch dominant hands and fight as a southpaw in a fight film called Southpaw.

Then again, Gyllenhaal doesn't see Southpaw as a fight film at all. "This story was always about a father and a daughter to me," the unmarried but romantically active 34-year-old Californian says, speaking in a Toronto hotel room. "I openly cried at almost every draft I read of the scenes between the two of them."

The film's melodrama involves Gyllenhaal's Billy Hope character losing his title, his wife (played by Rachel McAdams), his livelihood and his child (to family services) in humbling short order. He also loses his mansion (à la Rocky V), takes a menial job in a scruffy boxing gym (à la Rocky II) and goes about trying to win back his ripped-away offspring (à la Cinderella Man – and Mrs. Doubtfire).

Whether or not Gyllenhaal sees Southpaw as a boxing movie, it will be judged as such. And the actor, who commits deeply and physically intensively to his roles, did pack on the muscle to be believable as the punchy, brooding pugilist. Good lord, you could scrub the sexy off Channing Tatum on Gyllenhaal's washboard abs.

His squared-circle presence as convincing as almost any actor who ever took a punch in slow motion, Gyllenhaal in Southpaw is a worthy challenger to the champions of the genre: Will Smith in Ali, Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight, Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man. Of course, no one lands a glove on Robert De Niro as the tormented Jake La Motta in the Martin Scorsese black and white masterpiece Raging Bull.

Where does the Rocky series rank? High in entertainment; low in boxing realism. The in-ring action is cartoonish and Sylvester Stallone, after the first film, is ridiculously body-sculpted.

Stallone's workout regimen for the Rockys held as much fascination as his egg-drinking, meat-punching, Philly-jogging titular hero. "I understand the focus on the physicality of the role as opposed to the feelings underneath," says the bearded Gyllenhaal, his still solid shape undisguised in black T-shirt, jeans and Nikes. "How many sit-ups did I do? How many pull-ups did I do?"

About 2,000 per day, for six months straight, is the answer. He also ran eight miles a day, gorged on burritos and immersed himself into the world and the method of boxing. "There's a grace to the technique, and the foundation upon which it's based," he says. "It's truly a science."

When he says watching a professional boxing match is akin to viewing "a chess match at the highest level," I venture a probing pawn of my own. "What about the notion that actors dig boxing roles because it affords them the opportunity to flaunt their new body and gym-learned skills?"

With that, Gyllenhaal's blue eyes roll back in their cavernous sockets. "Thank you for commenting on the fact that acting can be a very vain profession," he says, his response dripping sarcasm like sweat off a Stallone. "How original."

Stung and dazed by his verbal blow, I am just about to test the actor's defensive skills with the old one-two aimed at his beard – I, too, have gorged on burritos and watched my Rockys and Raging Bulls – when Gyllenhaal laughs. "I have to totally disagree," he explains, his tone friendly and patient. "That idea discredits the fact that any actor believes in something."

Gyllenhaal (like Billy Hope) leads with his chin. As a film, Southpaw suffers from an overwrought tone and a dubious plot. Gyllenhaal, however, is fairly masterful in the way he gets under the skin of his character – a man, battered all his life, angry for the punches. "It's the only thing that I think he knows," the actor says. "Being beaten up, physically and emotionally."

It's really too bad about Southpaw's flaws. With a better script, when it comes to an Oscar for best actor, Gyllenhaal, yes, could have been a contender. And how's that for a boxing-film cliché?