Boxing and the Movies

By John Wight: Boxing is a sport whose history is littered with so many legendary figures, each with an life rich in drama, tragedy and personal struggle, that it is almost impossible to decide which among those greats of the past deserves the accolade of a movie exploring their life.

Indeed the boxing movie has long commanded a genre of its own, giving us some classic and iconic films that remain timeless and which have starred some equally iconic actors. In the 1950s two classic boxing movies set the standard for the genre. Requiem for a Heavyweight starred Anthony Quinn as the fictional character of Harlan ‘Mountain’ McLintock, a washed up heavyweight who finds redemption away from the ring. The original TV version starred Jack Palance in the title role, whilst a later British television adaptation made the name of a young Scottish actor by the name of Sean Connery..

Somebody Up Their Likes Me, the story of middleweight legend Rocky Graziano, played by Paul Newman, was made in 1956, while Raging Bull, starring Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta, was made in 1980 and regularly ranks in critics’ all time top ten movie lists. The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington, a dramatisation of the life of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who fought a long and ultimately successful battle against wrongful imprisonment for murder, is also up there, as is Cinderella Man, inspired by the life of Depression-era fighter Jim Braddock, which starred Russell Crowe in the title role.

Of course no mention of great boxing movies would be complete without referencing Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series. This is an iconic series of movies which deserves its very own category, for both good and not so good reasons. Out of the six made only the first and last in this writer’s opinion is worthy of the description classic. The first Rocky it should be noted was loosely inspired by Ali’s fight against the hitherto anonymous Chuck Wepner in 1975. It was a fight in which Wepner, a massive underdog, managed to last 15 rounds.

With such an enduring history as a subject for dramatisation boxing is obviously a sport which lends itself to the mechanics of storytelling. Anyone who took the time to explore the life of even your average fighter in most any gym anywhere in the world would immediately understand why.

The extreme nature of boxing demands the kind of dedication, training and discipline on the part of even its most talented practitioners which other sports do not. More importantly, the mental strength needed to climb between the ropes to trade shots with an opponent who’s trained just as hard and is every bit as determined to win separates boxers from other athletes. The fear involved, the effort required to control this fear, is so immense that the reservoir of mental strength and courage required to do so can only rarely be manufactured. By far its most common source, like a river flowing into the sea, is a hard life.

The common currency of the majority of fighters is struggle and conflict, a background of dysfunction and hardship of a type your average social worker is at a loss to comprehend and which, as any student of drama will tell you, is the stuff of movies.

In the modern era one fighter who exemplifies this, and who has just joined the ranks of fighters who’ve had their lives turned into a movie, is ‘Irish’ Micky Ward. The title of the movie is The Fighter and stars Mark Wahlberg as Ward, whose journey from the means streets of Lowell, Massachusetts to boxing glory would be hard to believe if it weren’t true.

Fighting at junior welterweight, Ward belongs to that special category of boxing icon comprised of those fighters who never held a world title yet who lit up the sport in their time as a result of the commitment, guts and excitement they brought into the ring.

Following the usual path, Ward turned pro after a successful amateur career saw him win the New England Golden Gloves title three times. He then blazed a trail through the professional ranks, winning his first 14 fights, before the wheels came off and he lost his next four. Thereafter, he took a three year break before returning in 1994 and winning nine fights in a row. This finally brought him the big name fights he’d always craved and along with them a reputation for courage in the ring which has rightfully earned him a place in the history not only of boxing but in the history of sports.

Ward’s abiding strength as a fighter was his durability. Typically, he would soak up punishment whilst waiting to land his trademark left hook to the body. It was a style that had already earned him a huge following before he climbed through the ropes in May 2002 to face Canada’s Arturo Gatti for the first of the now legendary trilogy they fought.

The first fight has been hailed as one of the fights of the century. Broadcast live on HBO, it saw what can only be described as a war as both men drew on reserves of will and courage which were almost superhuman. The fight ended in a majority decision in favour of Ward, who almost immediately agreed to a rematch.

By the second fight Gatti had done his homework and this time stayed low to nullify Ward’s body shots while trying to box him at range. It proved yet another back and forth encounter, with this time Gatti coming out with the decision. After the fight Gatti, paying tribute to Ward’s tenacity, said: "I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin. Now I know."

The third and final instalment of the trilogy took place on June 7 2003 and again produced a classic, along with the first fight winning Ring Magazine’s ‘Fight of the Year’. Inevitably, as with the two previous encounters, both men went toe to toe and in the sixth Ward scored a knockdown. However Gatti was saved by the bell and went on to fight his way to a unanimous decision. At the end of the last fight both men hugged one another in acknowledgement of the part they’d each played in ensuring their place in history.

Outside the ring Micky Ward’s life was as incident packed as his fights. A dysfunctional family life and in particular difficult relationships with his mother and older brother, who also boxed, created a rich background to his boxing career.
The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, hits UK screens on February 4th.

Article posted on 28.01.2011

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