‘The Fighter’: Why Movies and Boxing Go Together

It’s a little surprising that Mark Wahlberg hasn’t made a boxing movie until now. He’s one of those celebrities you always see at ringside during the big TV boxing matches. His forte is playing humble, gutsy tough guys. As a former bodybuilder and underwear model, he’s never been shy about displaying his physique on camera. Now, at last, he’s moved from briefs to boxers.

Mark Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward lands a right on Alfonso Sanchez (Miguel Espino) in ‘The Fighter.

“I’ve always wanted to be a fighter,” he admits. “I’ve always wanted to pretend that I was the champ. I got to play a football player in a movie, all these childhood fantasies….” He could add: rock star, soldier, cop, hit man and porn star.

It’s a little surprising, actually, that every filmmaker hasn’t made a boxing movie. As a subject, the sport delivers everything: It’s a shadowy world of heroes, losers and crooks. It’s a metaphor for life (as Rocky Balboa once said, “It ain’t how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”). And when the characters are done talking, you don’t need to contrive a reason to show bloody fight scenes.

“The Fighter,” in which David O. Russell directs Mr. Wahlberg and Christian Bale, is generous with the ingredients that have made fight flicks such a staple: sidetracked dreams, loyalty and betrayal, blood and guts, blue-collar humor and a dramatic shot at redemption (in this case a double shot).

Mr. Wahlberg and Mr. Bale play real-life half-brothers “Irish” Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund in the mill town of Lowell, Mass. Mr. Eklund, older and more skilled, peaked in 1978 when, in his biggest fight, he appeared to have knocked down superstar Sugar Ray Leonard (but Mr. Leonard actually tripped).

As the film begins, Mr. Eklund is a crack addict, still boasting of how he floored Sugar Ray. Micky Ward (Mr. Wahlberg) is working for a road paving company. His own boxing career, built on guts more than virtuoso talent, is fizzling. His idol Dicky supposedly is training him but instead starts a brawl with cops that gets them both arrested. With Dicky in prison, Micky begins winning under a new trainer. After much turmoil, a climactic underdog fight ensues.

Mr. Wahlberg was determined to make a boxing movie, and getting this one done became a personal crusade. He kept the project alive for years as different collaborators drifted in and out. He’d been all set in 1997 to co-star with Robert De Niro in a biopic about a different New England fighter, Vinnie Curto, but financing fell through. He’d tried for years to get the rights to Micky and Dicky’s story, but the brothers has already sold the rights, possibly multiple times, he says, “to whoever would give them some money.” Finally a Paramount producer sent Mr. Wahlberg a script with the rights cleared, and a new journey began.

Convinced he needed to look like a boxer who legitimately could fight for a welterweight title, he built a boxing ring in his yard and never stopped training. “I started training on October 13, 2005,” Mr. Wahlberg says. “You wouldn’t have thought it would be that difficult to get this movie made.”

Darren Aronofsky, the director originally attached to the film, went off to make “The Wrestler” instead. Both Brad Pitt and Matt Damon were lined up at different times to play Mr. Eklund, but moved on.

“Everybody else was just, like, ‘Whatever.’ And I was, like, ‘No, not whatever. We gotta get this movie made.’ I figured the only way to get it done was to take it on myself.”

He took the project to production company Relativity Media, which agreed to make the film for a low budget of about $25 million. Now he needed someone to play his brother. “We were literally going down the line of who’s going to have a hot movie…. At one point they were gonna hire the guy from Harry Potter to play Dicky Eklund,” Mr. Wahlberg says. “And then I’m sitting there in my daughter’s school and I see Christian Bale [whose daughter was at the same school], and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, this could be the guy.’ ”

As Micky Ward, Mr. Wahlberg takes a role that’s a bit of a straight man to the wired, wiry Mr. Eklund, whom Mr. Bale lost 30 pounds to portray. Mr. Wahlberg says his own life story, actually, is closer to Dicky’s. He began using drugs as a teenager in Boston, assaulted people and was incarcerated.

“I had more fights than I had boxing experience,” Mr. Wahlberg says.

He bonded with the real Mr. Ward, though, and not just because the perseverance he summoned to produce the film reminded him of Mr. Ward’s ring career. Both men had older brothers who had become successful (Mark’s brother Donnie sang in the boy group New Kids on the Block). Both went on to surpass their brothers’ fame.

“Me and Micky have this unspoken thing, this connection,” Mr. Wahlberg says.

The filmmakers filmed on location in Lowell, using local residents and the same boxing gym where Micky and Dicky trained. They gave the fight scenes a verité look by making them TV-style. Mr. Wahlberg has a bit of pull at HBO: He was the inspiration for the show “Entourage” and is an executive producer. The film’s crew was able to shoot fight scenes using the same video cameras HBO used to telecast boxing in 1990. Mr. Wahlberg is proud of how he looks in the ring. His training included time with Mr. Ward, mastering Micky’s signature, gut-busting left hook to the body.

“Mark throws that hook very well,” says Mr. Russell. “It’s a very particular punch that Micky was always doing to him, and he was always doing to Micky. They were always trying to get each other with that punch.”

Mr. Wahlberg says he’s managed to get his licks in: “Last time I saw him, we were at an event, on the red carpet, and he was just messing around, he threw a little punch at me. So I threw the same punch at him, and I could tell I got him in the sweet spot.”

Don Steinberg’s latest book is “America Bowl: 44 Presidents vs. 44 Super Bowls in the Ultimate Matchup!”


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704312504575618650351676496.html