A CHORUS of cynicism greeted ‘The Fighter’ when David O’Russell’s film hopped into the ring with some heavyweight movies for the lucrative Christmas market in the US.
Could this really be another boxing flick about a struggling underdog who overcame adversity to gain a shot at the big time? And was there any way of reacting to the cinematic representation of ‘Irish’ Micky Ward without being TKO’d by cliché-infested fighting talk?
Yes and no. But if, as I like to believe, the film makers took heart from Ward’s fellow Lowell, Massachusetts native Jack Kerouac’s assertion that “clichés are truisms and all truisms are true“, then I’m not going to flinch if any hackneyed jabs land.
Born in 1965, Ward is a retired junior welterweight described as a “working class hero (and) a blue-collar athlete” of whom ESPN Boston reporter Bob Halloran decided there was a story that was begging to be told.
Halloran’s ‘Irish Thunder: The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward’ recounts the boxer’s travails (and those of his crack-addicted half-brother Dickie Eklund) en route to a career-defining victory over Arturo Gatti in 2002, the incredible ninth round of which was variously described as the ‘Round of the Year’ and the ‘Round of the Century’.
It was a brutal battle that yielded two rematches, both defeats for Ward, the second of which earned him the noteworthy honour of being involved in a third contender for “Fight of the Year” in three years.
“If you grew up in Lowell,” wrote Halloran, “you were tough because Lowell made you that way. There were times in Lowell’s history when it had been a good place to raise a family. The rest of the time, it had been a good place to raise a little hell.”
Growing up in the shadows of flawed fighters like ‘Irish’ Jim Mulligan who lost 15 of his last 18 heavyweight fights and ‘Irish’ Beau Jaynes who married into the Ward-Eklund family, Ward was understandably more taken by the glamour of baseball as a youngster. But rough streets frequented by prostitutes and dealers provided a potent breeding ground for his underlying talents.
Then there was his half-brother Dickie Eklund who was first to test and be scalded by the waters of professional boxing, his 19-10 career record rendering him “just another one of Lowell’s “should-have-beens”.
His life descended into anarchy and, according to Halloran, he was the “dubious star” of the HBO documentary ‘High on Crack Street: The Lost Lives of Lowell’.
“Dickie is seen walking around in a pair of shorts and a backwards baseball cap,” notes Halloran. “He is emaciated, gaunt. He looks far worse than he ever did at the end of his 29 pro fights. While holding a lighted match about an inch away from a homemade crack pipe, he pauses and looks directly into the camera and says, ‘I fought Sugar Ray Leonard on HBO’.”
As his own burgeoning pro career began to take shape, Ward would come to realise that having his brother in his corner would at least offer some hope that Eklund would walk away from the life of misery he stared down the barrel of. It shouldn’t really matter to us that this might ring one or two bells.
Now ‘The Fighter’ brings Ward’s life and the redemption of his half-brother to the big screen, thanks in large part to the energies of producer Mark Wahlberg who also plays the lead role with the requisite athletic commitment.
Celluloid is rife with the gritty romance of boxing’s heroes and anti-heroes. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp went a few rounds during the silent era while Marlon Brando could have been a contender when ‘On the Waterfront’ came out in the mid-fifties. Martin Scorcese’s ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) gave us blood-drenched ropes in sharp focus as Jake La Motta fell apart off screen. Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky’ rose and fell and rose again as drawn-out art imitated life, going back for one more shot long after its peak. Then Clint Eastwood breathed life into the genre with his Oscar-winning ‘Million Dollar Baby’ (2004).
But even if those films and their imitators have left us punch-drunk, battering our senses with cliché and repetition, there’s no reason to overlook a man like ‘Irish’ Micky Ward who went from a temporary retirement spent tarring roads to an awe-inspiring brawl that gave boxing back some hope.