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Jan 21

The Fighter: Balancing authenticity with suspense of disbelief

Ward-Gatti 3

The two Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti fights I attended rank up there with the Mike Piazza post-9/11 game as the best sporting events I’ve been to live.

As such, I’ve eagerly awaited The Fighter since first seeing the trailer. I’m just not good at actually carving out time to go to the movies, so it took me a while to see it after it released.

Bear in mind I’ve never actually done a movie review. I’m far from qualified to be a film critic, as evidenced by my affinity for Ichi the Killer. But for what it’s worth, I did very much enjoy The Fighter, as a fight fan and in general.

Of course, it was by no means a perfect film.

*****

Outside the theater, I overheard some teenagers musing that the movie was just like any other boxing film. There’s no question The Fighter follows a well-travelled formula, but it does it well, spreading boxing to the masses far greater than the sport itself can do. My girlfriend dug the movie. My mom will, if she sees it.

The movie’s iconic title is far more substantial than what Ward is, which is appropriate. Though the film seems admirably authentic to Ward’s particular origins, it evokes the common boxer, and even more broad, the everyman. Mark Wahlberg could have given Ward a pseudonym and a more loose basis, like Eminem in 8 Mile, and the effect would have been the same.

Wahlberg doesn’t portray Ward’s personality with a whole lot of detail, mostly vacillating between exasperation and concern. It’s not that Wahlberg doesn’t have at least some range — I typically enjoy his work — but more that Ward has never struck me as a dynamic person. Wahlberg has done his homework, he knows Ward personally and he wasn’t going to instill something that’s simply not there.

Wahlberg’s hard work and passion for the subject is evident, however. The fight scenes were credible, holding up well when compared to the real Sanchez and Neary fights. This isn’t, as Spike Lee would say, guys dunking on eight-foot rims.

The film adds further touches of authenticity by using the commentary from the actual fights — which really does fit what you’re watching — and by having Sugar Ray Leonard and the real Ward make cameos. (You have to look closely for Ward.) Ward’s mother and half-brother, former boxer Dick Eklund, were cast brilliantly, and trainer Mickey O’Keefe played himself.

What elevates Ward’s legend, so to speak, is his status as a lionized local hero in gritty, working-class Lowell, Mass. Ward reigns over a blue-collar empire, complete with road pavers, roofers and a seedy bar culture. The struggles Ward had to overcome were far more with his surroundings than internal; this is a perverse version of Faulkner’s Mississippi conspiring to drag him down with its love rather than push him forward.

Eklund is there as a constant specter of the threat of derailment that Lowell poses to Ward, and Christian Bale’s performance basically makes the movie.

I watched that 1995 HBO documentary on crack addiction that Eklund “starred” in. It was predictably sad, and it also calls attention to just how impressive Bale’s performance was. It’s not just that he captured Eklund perfectly, but his portrayal of crack addiction was masterful. It’s incredible to think that the same guy who played Batman and Patrick Bateman could channel a junkhead ex-boxer so powerfully.

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*****

As I said, though I enjoyed The Fighter, I didn’t think it was perfect. My main issue was with the ending, which basically just froze the narrative right after Ward beat Shea Neary.

It’s impossible not to pick apart movies based on true stories you’re familiar with; you just have to take with a grain of salt that authenticity often goes by the wayside for the sake of a tidy Hollywood ending. But with a movie that paid such close attention to detail, it remains somewhat disappointing.

As described by Tim Starks in his excellent boxing blog The Queensbury Rules, the film ended with Dickie having gone clean, choosing not to acknowledge the fact that he subsequently fell off the wagon within three years, and was arrested for domestic violence just last year.

I suppose they didn’t want to dilute what became a classic inspirational ending by admitting that Dickie went back to his old ways, but acknowledging his continued tribulations with drugs in the end notes following the movie would have been far more poignant than leaving on a false positive, and it would have fit in perfectly with the tone of that segment of the film.

Another bone of contention for both Starks and myself is that the Gatti-Ward trilogy was not incorporated in the film — which I’m particularly emphatic about having attended two of them. Those fights encompassed Ward’s signature victory — after he vowed to retire if he lost — his crossover into the mainstream and his biggest paydays. They certainly defined him more than the Shea Neary victory — for the championship of the WBU, whatever that is.

As with the omission of Eklund’s relapse, I can understand why The Fighter declined to include Gatti-Ward. They probably believed the non-boxing public would more fully comprehend a championship victory, even if it were an empty belt. WBU might as well stand for Wayland Baptist University or Wild Birds Unlimited, but it’s the only championship Ward won, and it’s one more than zero.

It’s hard for me to say they went the wrong direction. The Fighter did reasonably well at the box office and with critics, and Bale and Melissa Leo both won Golden Globe Awards. It’s just that it could have meant so much more to people who loved Gatti-Ward, and also to people whose fandom of Ward predated that.

*****

Personally, I can picture The Fighter ending after the third Gatti-Ward fight, when Ward and Gatti embraced in the ring before their thirtieth round and the last of Ward’s career. Maybe include the two of them being treated side-by-side in the same room, jovially competing to see who would be cleared to leave the hospital first. Maybe we see Ward accompany Gatti to the ring for his next fight, a friendship borne from brutal and honorable competition.

As much as Lowell represented who Micky Ward was, the Gatti trilogy was Ward at his most admirable. And it represents the absolute best of a sport that often shows you its worst.

So while I did enjoy The Fighter, I still have to feel that it could have been so much more. It resonated with the mainstream, it got boxing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and got Ward some shine, but it stopped short of taking a chance and telling the whole story.

If someday there’s a biopic of Gatti’s life, I can only hope it’s executed nearly as well — but unlike Ward’s, carries its authenticity all the way to the closing credits.

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