Michael Rosenthal

‘The Fighter’ gives us the worst and best in an unforgiving sport

Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward in the new boxing film “The Fighter.” Photo / JoJo Whilden

I fidgeted in my seat as I watched a private screening of the new boxing film “The Fighter,” starring Mark Wahlberg as now-retired brawler Mickey Ward, because it rang so true.

I thought of the way so many fighters, even the best, are too often exploited by those around them. They’re pushed to generate as much money as possible -– sometimes when the risks are too high -– and then discarded when they fade.

And I’m not talking only about promoters and managers and trainers. In the case of Ward, at least in the film, those exploiting him were members of his own dysfunctional family.

Ward’s mother, played by Melissa Leo, is also his manager. In the scene that made me particularly uncomfortable, she and Ward’s older half brother, a former fighter played brilliantly by Christian Bale, convince him to face a last-minute opponent 20 pounds heavier than he is “or no one gets paid.”

I wondered how many brave -– and perhaps hungry –- fighters have been in the same position, fully aware that they shouldn’t fight but do so to help feed others. I also wonder how many have suffered unnecessary brain damage as a result.

The film isn’t only about exploitation, though. It’s also about family (in Ward’s case, a very large one) and loyalty, both of which apparently are very important to the fighter.

Ward went ahead with the fight against his better judgment for obvious reasons: He loves his family -– warts and all — and is fiercely loyal to them. He knows he could get killed but fights anyway because, as they said, they needed the money. And, yes, he took a bad beating and lost the fight.

In the end, however, his love of family and loyalty lead to a happy ending. Ward’s mother ceases to manage his career because the fighter finally realizes that he needs more-astute guidance to realize his dreams but they reconcile.

Ward’s relationship with his brother -– Dick Ecklund, a gifted boxer who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard — is more complicated. Eckland taught Ward all he knew about the sport and trains him until drug addiction ultimately lands him in prison for a short time.

Ward, tired of Ecklund’s erratic behavior, decides to work with another trainer but takes Ecklund back too because of loyalty and the realization that he needs his mentor in his corner.

The payoff comes when Ward realizes his dream of winning a world title with a rehabilitated Ecklund by his side and his family rooting him on at ringside, although unfortunately the filmmakers chose the marginal WBU title he captured by beating Shea Neary in 2000 in the pivotal scene.

Thus, even though the film ends before Ward’s epic series with the late Arturo Gatti, we’re left to admire him for his ability to preserve his ties to a difficult family and reach the pinnacle of the sport at the same time, a herculean feat in his case.

It was a Hollywood ending if there ever was one, which sadly isn’t common in boxing.

I’m thinking again of those fighters who risk their lives to realize their own dreams but also to make others money. Precious few end up as Ward did, an admired figure with his marbles intact and enough money in the bank to live comfortably. Too many others leave the sport with very little or nothing and struggle from then on.

I’m fidgeting again as I write this.

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