TORONTO - My theory is, you can’t go wrong with a boxing movie.
I can’t remember a boxing flick that wasn’t entertaining on some level, other than some of the later Rocky movies, the ones without a cranky Burgess Meredith.
I even enjoy the old-time boxing flicks, particularly the ones where the fight scenes are so bad, they’re funny. Recently, I watched the fight drama Killer McCoy, starring Mickey Rooney, and reached the conclusion that the director basically told the Mickster to go in the ring and pretend he was Jerry Lewis conducting the Boston Pops.
Boxing movies are usually tragic and almost always about redemption — can’t miss scenarios.
So it was no great surprise that I enjoyed The Fighter, which “hits” theatres on Friday.
It’s story of former boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his brother Dicky Eklund, another ex-pug, whose claim to fame was going the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978. A little known fact, Eklund used to spend time in Toronto in the 1980s sparring with middleweight Eddie Melo.
“He used to stay at the Bloor Hotel and train across the street at the Lansdowne Gym,” said Canadian heavyweight legend George Chuvalo. “He was a nice kid, and a darn good fighter.”
Being fairly well-versed with Ward’s career, I assumed that a major part of the picture would revolve around Ward’s three bouts with Montreal native Arturo Gatti, considered one of the greatest boxing trilogies ever — right up there with Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Unfortunately, there was very little mention of Gatti — whose own life and tragic ending would make for a very compelling film. Alas, the movie ended before Ward’s first match with Gatti.
Instead, The Fighter dwells on Ward’s relationship with his brother/trainer Dicky and his domineering mother and white-trash sisters, a gaggle of big-haired gals who make Patty and Selma Bouvier look like Paris Society matrons.
Micky’s struggle to attain contender status amidst the chaos of his brother’s crack addiction brings a ton of drama to the story, while his mom and sisters provide comic relief. The boxing scenes are the bonus.
What I found best about the film was the acting of Mark Wahlberg as Micky and Christian Bale as Dicky. In terms of portraying real boxers, they manage to pull it off, though some of the fight scenes were a little slow and the blows not always realistic.
Still, Wahlberg was obsessed with getting the boxing scenes as real as possible and reportedly spent half a million dollars — more than he got paid for the film — having his trainers travel with him during filming.
And, of course, there were certain liberties taken, as always the case when Hollywood does sport. The climatic fight scene is Ward’s 2000 bout against the undefeated Brit Shea Neary.
In the film, the fight is referred to numerous times as the world title match. In truth, the bout was for the World Boxing Union light welterweight title, the WBU not one of the true world titles, though Ward did face Vince Phillips for the world IBF title in 1997.
Neither Micky or Dicky were truly great fighters.
But the movie isn’t as much about their careers as it about an American family dealing with drugs and poverty, themes all too familiar in professional boxing.
For my money, one of the best scenes was when Micky was trying to pick up his future wife, Charlene, in a bar and a brawl breaks out between two women. There’s just something about the boxing cards and women brawling.
Years ago, I travelled to Pittsburgh to watch Niagara Falls lightweight Billy (The Kid) Irwin — who I renamed Billy (The Goat) Irwin after we started feuding — take on Paul Spadafora for the IBF world title. Now, Irwin was a good fighter, but he had a difficult time engaging the slick Spadafora and dropped a 12 round decision in a chess match that was less than thrilling. But a couple of Steeltown colleens saved the day by going Fist City right at ringside, a fight that was considerably more entertaining than the main event.
“One of the best fights I ever saw was when two women went at it in the men’s washroom at Hamilton Place during the closed circuit telecast of the Gerry Cooney-Larry Holmes fight,” said Toronto author Ed Zawadzki. “There was torn clothes and blood and gouging and everything. While it was a little uncomfortable having to stand on top of a urinal to watch it, I did have a great view.”
The Fighter is as good as watching two women fight in a men’s washroom.