The real-life boxer behind the Oscar-nominated movie
Eight years ago, Irish America magazine honored boxer Micky Ward as one of “The Irish 100.” Ward received his tribute at the annual Irish America awards banquet at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
“I don’t know why I’m being honored,” Micky said that night. Then he turned toward fellow honoree, Robert Morris, leader of the New York City Fire Department’s “Rescue One” unit. “I go in the ring two, maybe three, times a year, and it’s for myself. Guys like Captain Morris are the real heroes. They put their life on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe.”
That’s Micky Ward. Unpretentious, soft-spoken, a bit shy, more of a listener than a talker. Now, seven years after the end of his ring career, he has been catapulted into the spotlight with the release of the feature film, ‘The Fighter’
The Fighter stars Mark Wahlberg as Ward and centers on the relationship between Micky and his half-brother, Dickie Eklund. Sterling performances by Christian Bale (as Eklund), Amy Adams (as Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene), and Melissa Leo (as Alice Ward, the conniving matriarch of the dysfunctional Ward clan) give it extra impact. Dickie’s addiction to crack and the havoc it wreaks on those around him is a key plot element. As this issue of Irish America goes to press, the film and its actors have been nominated for numerous high-profile awards.
Ward was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on October 4, 1965. He turned pro at age nineteen and won his first fourteen fights before dropping a split decision to Edwin Curet. He rebounded with four wins; then went through a stretch that saw him lose six of nine bouts leading to a 32-month hiatus from boxing. He returned to the ring in 1994 and won nine straight to land a world title fight against Vince Phillips.
Micky was stopped on cuts by Phillips (the only “KO by” of Ward’s career). He retired from boxing in 2003 with a 38-and-13 record and 27 knockouts to his credit.
The key to Ward’s legacy as a fighter lies in his last three fights; a brutal trilogy against Arturo Gatti. The first of these encounters is widely regarded as one of the most dramatic slugfests of all time. Micky won.
“It was a tough fight,” Ward said afterward. “Two guys with a lot of heart; two guys with the will to win. I was very drained, as tired as I’ve ever been. The night after the fight, I sat down and watched the tape. That’s when I knew it was something special. That’s also when I said to myself, ‘These two guys are nuts.’”
Ward versus Gatti captured the imagination of fight fans across the nation. For their rematch, each man was paid the remarkable sum of $1,200,000. That led Micky to note, “If someone had told me ten years ago when I lost all those fights and retired from boxing that someday I’d make a million bucks from one fight, I’d have thought they were crazy.”
Gatti prevailed in their second encounter and also the third. “Micky is a great guy,” he said when the fighting was done. “I can’t say anything bad about him. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t find anything bad to say.”
Ward responded in kind, offering, “It’s not about who’s tougher. We’re both tough guys. It’s about respect. In the ring, we tried to kill each other. But I have a lot of respect for Arturo. I like him; he’s a nice person. I’d never say anything bad about him and I think that he feels the same way about me. I wanted to beat him more than anything in the world. But outside the ring, he’s a beautiful guy.”
Gatti died in Brazil in 2009. Initially, the authorities ruled that he’d passed out or been knocked unconscious after a night of hard drinking and been strangled to death. His wife (an exotic dancer named Amanda Rodrigues) was charged with first-degree murder. Then investigators did a suspicious about-face, claiming that Arturo had committed suicide by hanging himself with the strap from his wife’s purse.
“Arturo’s death really shook me up,” Micky says. “It was a terrible tragedy. I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you what happened. But it’s hard for me to believe that he killed himself.”
That brings us to ‘The Fighter’, the Hollywood version of Ward’s life. Purists don’t like the movie. Its factual distortions and other departures from reality bother them.
George Kimball, longtime boxing writer for the Boston Herald, covered Ward from his days as an amateur through Micky’s final professional fight.
“I have problems with the movie,” Kimball says. “It depicts Micky’s family in a way that’s bound to humiliate them. I can live with that because some of them were pretty bad. But the boxing career that’s shown in the film isn’t Micky’s and that bothers me. Chronologically, the storyline is way off. There are fights in the film that bear no relationship to what actually happened. And the make-believe world championship fight at the end is ridiculous. Micky never won a world title. When he beat Shea Neary in London (the climactic scene in ‘The Fighter’), it was for a belt given out by a silly alphabet-soup organization called the World Boxing Union. That belt meant so little to Micky that he gave it up rather than defend it. The great thing about Micky Ward is that he’s appreciated and respected by people who know boxing even though he never won a world title. Why construct a nonsense storyline and pretend that fiction is history?”
The best way to enjoy ‘The Fighter’ is to forget about the details of Micky’s life, treat it like fiction, and enjoy the show.
That might be hard for some members of Ward’s family to do. As Kimball notes, “Micky’s mother is presented as such a selfish venal matriarch, she could be Fagin in drag. Alice presides over a flock of daughters; big-haired, gum-chewing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, small-town bimbos. This gaggle of slovenly crones serves the approximate function of the witches in Macbeth.”
“Some of the people in my family don’t like the movie,” Micky acknowledges. “I understand how they feel. But I like it; I think it’s great. The one thing I’m sorry about is that they ended the movie before my three fights with Arturo. They wanted the film to focus on me and Dickie and Dickie’s problems with drugs. But Arturo was such a great guy. We shared so much. He had his issues; he lived like he fought. But he deserved to be in the movie.”
Dickie Eklund has had problems with drugs and the law in the years since the happy ending portrayed in ‘The Fighter.’
Micky has enjoyed smoother sailing and is content with his life today. He and Charlene were married in 2005. He has one child, a 21-year-old daughter named Kasie, from a previous relationship, and is a member of Teamsters Union, Local 25, in Boston.
“I shuttle people around to movie sets when there’s work in town,” he explains. “When I’m not doing that, I’m busy with other things.”
Those other things include part ownership of an outdoor hockey rink in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and teaching youngsters to box on the second floor of a nearby Gold’s Gym.
“I loved boxing,” Ward says, looking back on his years in the ring. “The one-on-one, the competition. Being a fighter is about sacrificing your body and doing everything you can within the rules to win. I gave boxing everything that was in me. I never cut corners in training or in a fight. I started my career at 140 pounds and I finished my career at 140 pounds, which tells you how hard I worked to stay in shape. I still follow boxing.
John Duddy [the Derry middleweight now living in New York] is one of my favorite fighters. I’ve met him a few times; he’s a great guy. He gives it his all and never complains. He fights like me, which is one of the reasons I like watching him. But the fighting part of my life is over now. I’m 45 years old. To be honest with you, I don’t miss it.”
It has been suggested that The Fighter will boost Ward’s profile the same way that “Raging Bull” elevated Jake LaMotta to iconic status. In truth, that’s unlikely to happen. LaMotta was a hall-of-fame fighter. Micky was a courageous warrior, but his skills weren’t at that level.
And just as significantly, Ward shuns the limelight. “Some people like a lot of attention,” he says. “I don’t. I’m happy being in the background, so the movie won’t change my life. I’m just a regular guy, the same old me. Don’t worry; I won’t go Hollywood on you.”