THERE’S a memorable scene in “The Fighter” which proves that ‘Irish’ Micky Ward and the actor who plays him in the new boxing biopic, Mark Wahlberg, were made for each other.
It’s 1997 and Ward has just beaten Alfonso Sanchez with a sudden left hook to the right kidney. It comes from nowhere in the seventh round of a fight Sanchez had dominated. In the midst of his celebrations, Ward trots over to the announcers at ringside: “You should never give up on me.”
That was a lesson needed almost a decade later when Wahlberg first approached the “Pride of Lowell”, sounding him out on the possibility of a film about Ward’s life.
The actor/producer had initially met his future role as an 18-year-old boxing fan back in Boston.
“I met Mark years ago,” Ward told the Irish Examiner as he took shelter from yet another snow storm in his home town of Lowell, Mass.
“I didn’t know him all that well but I guess he was a fan of my boxing. Then the movie thing came up and it kind of helped that we knew each other a bit. He knows boxing, it’s good that someone who knows the game got to play me.
“We had a lot of trips back and forth to California but during all that time, it never looked like the film was going to be made. It was one thing after another, it almost didn’t happen. It was a long, crazy process but with Mark’s persistence, we finally got it done. He kept going and going, he wouldn’t give up. It was a labour of love.”
The film has been a huge hit, both critically and at the box office, but the most notable successes have been the supporting roles of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo who play Ward’s half-brother and mother respectively.
According to Ward, Bale “nailed” the crack-addicted Dicky Eklund who quits drugs to force his way back into his sibling’s corner. His mother didn’t have a problem with Melissa Leo’s unflattering interpretation while his seven sisters varied between satisfied and less so.
“There were some mixed emotions,” Ward admits — hardly surprising for a group of girls with nicknames like ‘Pork’, ‘Red Dog’ and ‘Beaver’.
“Boxing is a backdrop in this movie. It’s more about the family dynamic, two brothers — one winning the world championship and the other going crazy and doing a lot of drugs. Then there’s my mother and my sisters and my wife and how they interact.”
But there’s more than enough boxing to nudge it into contention to be the best fighting film since “Raging Bull”.
We join the brothers in the mid-90s with Micky’s career stagnant and a drug-addled Dicky still living off the time he ‘knocked down’ Sugar Ray Leonard.
What follows is a rocky road to a WBU Light Welterweight title victory over Liverpool’s Shea Neary in London.
It’s Ward’s personal career highlight — surprisingly so considering the fact that the first of his three Arturo Gatti fights won such widespread acclaim (although it does not feature in “The Fighter”).
“Going over to England, no one expected me to do it but I knew for some reason that, that night was my night,” he recalls, confirming that, as depicted in the film, he was loudly berated by Neary fans with tricolours despite his nickname and ancestry.
“Probably about 99.99% (of the crowd was) against me,” he laughs. “But they were great fans. They booed me obviously but they weren’t arrogant. They were good people, knowledgeable boxing fans and they applauded me after I won. They respected me.”
The longevity of his 38-13 career has taken its toll on the 45-year-old who, when all the awards show buzz has died down (he’s hopeful of getting to the Oscars), will return to a busy life running a gym and a Dekhockey rink.
“I’m a fossil,” he laughs. “Well, I feel like it. I had double eye surgery because my brain shifted after the last Gatti fight. I was seeing double for a year so I had to get that corrected. I’ve had elbow surgery, hand surgery, shoulder surgery. But I’d do it all over again. I wouldn’t change a thing.”