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Director David O. Russell's boxing flick might be the best Boston movie ever. SPOILER ALERT: in the end, the underdog ends up winning.
I met Micky Ward in July 2004, a year after the last of his three fights against Arturo Gatti left boxing purists -- not to mention thousands of dudes in Patriots hoodies -- justifiably mawkish.
"The bout...was breathtaking in its brutality: two iron-faced pugs with iron wills, trying to beat each other's brains out," Sports Illustrated's Franz Lidz wrote. "The bell would ring, and you'd think there was no way the furious action could last another round, and yet it did and it did and it did."
Of course I was an intern, not a purist. But The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., needed someone to cover local welterweight Jeff Fraza's latest clash, so I volunteered.
The fight was held just across the New Hampshire border at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, a century-old dance hall that looked like it was plucked from the set of Boardwalk Empire. (I'd been there once before, to see a Pink Floyd cover band.) Ward, Fraza's trainer at the time, was happy to chat before the fight. "This is his jump start right here to something bigger," Ward said of Fraza. "Boxing is a puzzle. This fight is a piece of the puzzle."
By the time Fraza and his opponent started throwing punches, the Ballroom felt like a greenhouse. There was no air conditioning, the lights were bright, and my ringside seat put me hazardously close to two guys trying to beat each other's brains out. A few rounds in, my trusty reporter's notebook was covered with droplets of blood. (Admittedly, that last thing made me feel like Bert Fucking Sugar.)
I'd never covered boxing before, but I quickly understood its allure. If you can ignore the sport's rampant corruption, there's something elemental about it. "Once a man asked me to name the one most awesome thing I had ever seen in sports," SI's Gary Smith wrote in 2006. "I begged for two -- nothing with a ball or glove or net or racket, just the simple essence of man's two most basic survival instincts, fight or flight: Mike Tyson hitting a heavy bag, and Carl Lewis running."
As Bill Simmons recently pointed out, Hollywood gets off on this stuff. Combine the film world's love of boxing with its developing Boston fetish, and you get The Fighter. Before seeing it on Christmas Day, I was skeptical. The idea of Mark Wahlberg pandering to our obnoxious, ripe for parody level of regional self-importance made me uneasy. Did we really need frat boys from the burbs co-opting another movie about blue-collar Boston? Hadn't the arrival of Danny Woodhead put us over the white, 5-foot-8 hero limit? As much as I liked The Town, it occasionally felt like a Massploitation flick. Although hearing Ben Affleck's character refer to soda as "tonic" made me laugh, it seemed only to serve as a clumsy proclamation of the movie's authenticity.
Thankfully, The Fighter is less ... forced. After growing up on the North Shore and later working near Ward's hometown of Lowell for about five years, the movie's universe at least feels familiar. Melissa Leo is startlingly good as Micky's chain-smoking, Budweiser guzzling, doting but destructive mother Alice. And Christian Bale, who will probably win an Oscar for his performance, is so convincing as Micky's junkie half-brother Dicky Eklund that my wife turned to me a few minutes into the movie and asked, "What actor is that?"
Dicky is a scene stealer, just as he is as the "star" of High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, a 1995 HBO documentary about drug addiction. (It was filmed in the early 1990s and plays a big part in The Fighter). The real Dicky is obviously, um, less endearing than Bale's version.
In the end, The Fighter still belongs to Micky. Wahlberg successfully mimics Ward's mannerisms, both outside the ring and in it. Here's a clip from Ward's fight against Shea Neary, which ends up serving as the film's climax:
The movie version is faithful to the real thing, right down to the way Micky raises his arms and smiles at the end of the fight. The boxing sequences aren't stylized like Raging Bull or cartoonish like the later Rocky movies, but they work.
"The final product," Pablo S. Torre recently noted in SI, "was shot [by director David O. Russell] using the same graphics and unforgivingly bright Beta cameras that HBO used for Gatti-Ward."
Which brings me back to that Friday night at the Casino Ballroom, when Jeff Fraza, Micky's protégé, put on a show in front of ESPN's bright cameras. Haverhill's Fraza won the nationally televised bout, stopping New Bedford's Paul Delgado in the 10th round. I suspect Ward saw himself in Fraza, a fellow 5-foot-8 welterweight who like Micky before him, was trying to rise above stepping stone status.
"This is his jump start right here to something bigger," Ward had told me before the fight. And it in a way, it was. Before his career stalled, Fraza ended up on The Contender, the boxing reality show. He became a relatively well-known professional fighter, a success.
I just doubt anyone will ever make a movie about him.