Here I Go Again…

Posted: December 19, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

I knew it would be tough to update this blog with any sort of regularity during the semester, but I never expected to go three months without posting. Turns out classes, papers and the BU hockey beat actually take up a lot of time. Next semester will probably be even busier because I’m adding an internship to the lineup. But for now, I have a month off, so let’s see what happens.

First up- The Fighter. My dad and I had been looking forward to seeing this movie since the minute we heard it was going to be made, which must have been at least four or five years ago. Like anyone living in the Lowell area who cares about boxing, my dad was a huge Micky Ward fan. He frequently told me stories about Ward’s fights- how just when it seemed like the fight was over and Ward couldn’t take any more punishment, he’d wake up and come storming back for a knockout; how his left to the body would drop guys like a ton of bricks; and of course, how his three fights against Arturo Gatti were the stuff of legend.

I don’t remember much of Ward’s actual career. I always knew who he was and I’m pretty sure I watched at least a few of his fights on TV with my dad, but I can honestly say that I don’t know where I was for any of the Ward-Gatti fights. I know I watched at least one of them, maybe even all of them, but for some reason they just never stuck in my memory like other sporting events. I mean, those fights took place in 2002 and 2003, and I remember plenty of other stuff from those years- the Pats’ first Super Bowl win in 2002, the Bruins’ disappointing first-round loss to the Canadiens in 2002, USA hockey winning the silver medal in the 2002 Olympics, the 2003 ALCS.

Whatever the reason, it’s definitely disappointing. I’ve made up for it since, though. I’ve watched the Gatti trilogy and a number of other bouts (Zab Judah, Shea Neary and Emanuel Burton come to my mind) in their entirety either on YouTube or ESPN Classic. I also read Bob Halloran’s biography of Ward, Irish Thunder, when it came out in 2008, and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite books.

My dad had also familiarized me with the story of Ward’s half-brother Dickie Eklund, who can best be described as a total fuck-up. I watched the HBO documentary High on Crack Street in my crime and society class junior year of high school. It follows Eklund and a couple other Lowell crack addicts as they sink lower and lower into drug-induced oblivion and ends with Eklund going to prison for a lengthy sentence and Brenda, one of the other main characters, dying of an overdose. I’ve also read and heard about his numerous arrests in the years since that was filmed.

I tell you all this so you understand where I’m coming from going into this movie. When I first heard about the movie, I thought, “Wow, that’s cool that they’re making a movie about Micky Ward. I hope it’s good.” But after reading Irish Thunder that changed to, “Wow, they better not screw this up. This is a good enough story to win Oscars and be considered an all-time great sports movie.”

So that’s where my bar was set. I fully expected this to enter the realm of great boxing movies like Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man and Million Dollar Baby. Not even for a second did I think that maybe my view of this story was skewed by the fact that I grew up less than 10 miles from where Ward and Eklund live. I just honestly believe it’s a great story no matter where you’re from, no matter how much or how little you know about Ward and Eklund.

That brings us to the most important question: Did The Fighter live up to those expectations?

The answer is two-fold. As a stand-alone movie, I say yes. But as the story of Ward and Eklund, I say no. I don’t think it does them any egregious disservice or anything like that, but I do think their story is even more fascinating than the movie makes it out to be, as hard as that might be to believe. Mark Wahlberg, who plays Ward, said right from the start that they didn’t want to over-dramatize anything or make anything too Hollywood. They succeeded in avoiding that, which is great, but I think they actually could’ve made it more Hollywood and more dramatic without exaggerating anything.

Let’s start with the most glaring omission- the entire Ward-Gatti trilogy. I can’t even put into words how upsetting it is that at least Ward-Gatti I was not included. I’m glad those fights weren’t the main focus of the movie (clearly everything that happened before them is the more interesting story), but to reduce them to a simple note right before the end credits is a crime.

Does the Neary fight, which took place in 2000, make for a terrible ending? No. Separating the film from the story, it makes for a fine ending. It marked the completion of Ward’s comeback and won him a title. Good stuff.

However, as I mentioned above, the Ward-Gatti fights weren’t just good stuff- they were the stuff of legend. Their first and third battles were named Ring Magazine’s “Fight of the Year” in 2002 and 2003, respectively (Ward also had the “Fight of the Year” in 2001 when he beat Burton). Many fans and writers hailed Ward-Gatti I as a contender for “Fight of the Century” and hall-of-fame commentator Emanuel Steward named the ninth round of that bout “The Round of the Century.” If you haven’t seen it before, do yourself a favor and watch the end of that fight right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (And if you’re feeling ambitious, watch the whole fight. It’s worth it.)

You can’t tell me with a straight face that the Neary fight makes for a better ending than the video you just watched. You can’t. You’d be lying. It’s like the Rocky-Apollo Creed fight at the end of Rocky, except better because it’s real. I understand that in order to include that fight, you either have to cut from other parts of the movie or make the movie longer. The movie’s two hours, which isn’t terribly long. Would anyone really have complained if it was a half hour longer so it could include that scene? I highly doubt it. The action makes it more than worth it.

I would’ve downplayed the Neary fight (it was far from Ward’s biggest fight anyway), included a shot of the Burton fight and then made Ward-Gatti I the finale, with a note before the credits mentioning the two rematches. But making a movie about Ward without Gatti is like making a movie about Ali without Frazier. It’s just mind-boggling.

The exclusion of Gatti is by far my biggest beef with The Fighter, but it’s not the only one. I’ll just run through some other problems, but keep in mind that none of these really bother me enough to detract from the movie.

-Ward’s hand. There’s a scene in the movie when Ward gets his right hand broken by a cop outside a bar. Aside from the fact that they moved this incident from 1987, the beginning of his career, to the mid-90s, I have a few problems with this scene. The first is that it was actually his left hand, the one he used for that vicious body shot, that was broken. That’s kind of a big, not to mention unnecessary, change. The second is that the injury led to tendonitis that bothered him in every fight for the rest of his career. The movie would have you believe that once his hand healed, it never bothered him again.

-Ward’s first retirement. Unless I missed something, the movie, which starts in 1993, never really makes it clear if this is the start of Ward’s career or if it’s some sort of comeback. In reality, it’s a comeback from two and a half years of retirement after Ward had become convinced he was nothing more than a steppingstone following four straight losses. The steppingstone theme is definitely explored in the movie, but the lengthy retirement, which began a full 10 years before Ward-Gatti I, is not. I always found this to be one of the most interesting parts of Ward’s story- that he called it quits a decade before he became one of the biggest names in the sport.

-Ward’s bar fights. There were lots of them. Irish Thunder mentioned that there were many times when some big, tough guy would challenge the city’s upstart boxer to a fight to prove how tough he was, and Ward would always knock him out. I just found that to be pretty bad-ass, although it’s obviously not essential.

-Other omitted fights. Aside from the Burton and Gatti fights I’ve already mentioned, there were two other fights that at least deserved a shout-out somewhere in the movie. The first occurred in 1987 when Ward fought on the undercard of the famous Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler match that went down as one of the greatest and most controversial fights in boxing history (many commentators disagreed with the decision going to Leonard). I feel like this could’ve been brought up as a reminiscence at some point, much like Eklund’s fight with Leonard in 1978 was (side note: No, the Eklund-Leonard storyline was not overdone; he really was that obsessed with reminding everyone of that fight). The second was Ward’s 12-round loss to Zab Judah in 1998. Judah is one of the greatest welterweights in boxing history, and Ward went the distance with him, something I think would’ve been worth mentioning.

-Ward’s management. It was much more complex than what the movie shows. There were a lot more people misguiding him early in his career than just his family. The movie also makes it seem like Mickey O’Keefe and Sal LoNano, who took over after Dickie was sent away to prison, got along fine. In reality, they hated each other and O’Keefe actually quit as a result of their disputes. I don’t really have a problem with the management situation being simplified because explaining how it actually was would’ve just bogged the story down, but I just wanted to point that out.

-Charlene. Not only did she have nothing to do with Ward’s decision to switch to new management, but she wasn’t even a part of his life at that point. In reality, they didn’t start dating until just before the Neary fight. I also don’t have a problem with this change, though, because it’s easier (and sexier) to make her the driving force behind that change rather than introduce the whole brass of people who actually tried pushing Ward away from his family. Again, just wanted to point that out, though.

-Eklund’s problems. The movie makes it seem like they ended once he got out of prison. There was even a note before the end credits about how he went on to train kids at Ward’s gym. I almost expected to see another note saying, “Eklund has been sober and out of trouble for x years.” The truth is that Eklund has continued to struggle with his crack addiction and has continued to get in trouble in the last 10 years. He’s been arrested for crimes ranging from crack possession to attempted murder, and he was questioned in another murder. For the movie to even insinuate that Eklund turned things around and became a good guy is a joke.

So all that is why I say The Fighter comes up short as the story of Micky Ward. But as a movie and nothing more, it meets my expectations. I do think that it will be regarded as a classic boxing movie and, in time, a top-20-25 all-time sports movie. I say in time because no one ever wants to admit that some new movies are just as great as the classics- for example, Cinderella Man and Million Dollar Baby are just starting to enter the all-time greats discussion when they should’ve been a part of it right away.

The movie’s biggest strength, aside from the great storyline, is the acting. It seems like everyone is putting Christian Bale’s name at the top of the Best Supporting Actor list, and rightfully so. He plays Eklund perfectly, and I can see why some critics are saying he steals the show.

My problem is with the critics who say that like it’s a bad thing, like he steals the show because Wahlberg isn’t a very good lead actor. I’m not saying Wahlberg should be considered for Best Actor (he shouldn’t), but I think he plays Ward just as perfectly as Bale plays Eklund. Ward is quiet and unassuming, and he was often overshadowed by Eklund. It’s not a role that’s supposed to win an Oscar, and I’m glad Wahlberg didn’t try to make it into one (this ties into what I mentioned earlier about nothing being over-dramatized). It wasn’t hard to predict that Eklund would be the role more likely to garner awards.

The last thing I want to touch on is how the movie portrays Lowell. I’ve heard some people from the area complain about the fact that it depicts the city as a run-down, drug-infested hellhole. Yes, Lowell has some nice areas. Yes, crime in the city has decreased significantly in the last decade or so. But the Lowell that Ward and Eklund grew up in (especially The Acre, where they’re from) was a run-down, drug-infested hellhole. Even today, there are still too many drugs, gangs and crimes. It’s definitely gotten better, but that’s not the point. The Fighter doesn’t owe Lowell anything, and neither does Ward for that matter. If anything, the city dragged his career down more than it lifted it up. It certainly helped kill Eklund’s and turn him into a lifelong criminal. Irish Thunder paints an even bleaker picture of the city than this film does. And let’s not forget about High on Crack Street. Lowell isn’t pretty. Don’t get upset that the movie shows that.

Because I’m currently in the middle of getting all my grades for this semester, I’ll end this post by giving The Fighter a grade. I give it an A-. It’s a great movie, but it leaves out too much of Ward’s story (the Gatti fights in particular) to get an A.

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