Bernard Fernandez: Ward's story was a good one, so why did they change it on-screen?

Posted: December 08, 2010

IN 2009's "The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies," co-authors Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow make the case for boxing's being the best sport for Hollywood to bring to the silver screen. Thirteen boxing-themed flicks make their top 100 list, and a few worthy contenders just missed making the cut.

It is the "easiest sport to film," they correctly note in a chapter dealing with the fight game's continuing hold on moviegoers. "There are two fighters, face to face, in a confined space. It is not like nine players spread out on a baseball diamond or 22 men in helmets and pads sprawling across a football field. For the purposes of lighting and camera placement, a boxing ring is the perfect stage.

"But more than that, boxing lends itself to melodrama. It is about an individual, not a team, so the writer can focus on one storyline. There is also the backdrop of vengeful mobsters, double-crossing managers and other shady characters that populate the sport and provide a wealth of material for movies."

No disputing those sentiments, but there are other villains I would add to the list. Such as unscrupulous directors and screenwriters who take outrageous liberties with the truth to make a movie based on the lives of real people more suspenseful or dramatic, the better to fit their personal vision of the way those lives should play out.

Perhaps you've seen the trailer for "The Fighter," which is scheduled for nationwide release on Dec. 17. It's the tale of "Irish" Micky Ward, the blue-collar scrapper from Lowell, Mass., and his drug-addicted brother-trainer, Dick Ecklund.

"The Fighter" has a Grade A cast, with Mark Wahlberg as Ward, Christian Bale as Ecklund and Amy Adams as Ward's love interest, Charlene. Ward's real story of attaining a level of success despite obstacles should make for a couple of hours of reasonably engrossing entertainment. And it still might, if you don't know or don't care about the falsehoods intentionally woven into the script. But what you see bears only a passing resemblance to what happened.

A sticking point for me is Ward's Sept. 9, 1988, bout with Mike "Machine Gun" Mungin at Resorts International in Atlantic City, where Ward is to fight an opponent, as Wahlberg says in the movie, "at least 20 pounds heavier than me." And while Mungin, who won a 10-round unanimous decision, weighed 145 pounds for that bout vs. 136 1/2 for Ward, the disparity wasn't nearly as immense as the movie would have you believe. I know, because I was at ringside.

Unfortunately, the depiction of the Ward-Mungin fight is one of the lesser factual travesties. When Ward stops undefeated Alfonso Sanchez in seven rounds on April 12, 1997, the movie indicates it immediately vaulted him into a "world title fight" with Shea Neary. But Ward actually had six bouts spread over 3 years before he took on Neary, whose WBU junior welterweight championship was about as worthless as "Monopoly" money. The heart-rending ending of Ward's finally being recognized a legitimate world champ not only is false and misleading, it diminishes the entire film. Ward's ring career was compelling enough that it didn't need to be buffed and polished with a fake, feel-good finale.

The shame of it is that Wahlberg does a nice job in the action sequences, and is as realistic as Daniel Day-Lewis in 1997's "The Boxer" and Robert De Niro's legendary turn as Jake La Motta in 1980's "Raging Bull."

Then again, I'm accustomed to Hollywood's twisting the truth to suit its purposes. In "Ali," the 2001 film starring Will Smith, the confrontation between Muhammad Ali and then-wife Belinda over Ali's very public dalliance with his future wife, Veronica Porche, takes place in Zaire, before his Oct. 30, 1974, "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman. That domestic battle actually took place in the Philippines, before "Thrilla in Manila," Ali's third war with Joe Frazier on Oct. 1, 1975. Why the discrepancy? Because the makers of "Ali" wanted to end on the high note of his shocker over Big George, but they also wanted to include a little husband-wife turmoil. Who needs an accurate time line, anyway?

In 2005's "Cinderella Man," heavyweight champion Max Baer, a nice man with a decent heart, is portrayed as a bloodthirsty ogre who has killed one foe in the ring and is eager to add a second fatality in Jim Braddock, played by Russell Crowe.

But maybe the most egregious example of falsification in a boxing movie is the way director Norman Jewison and screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon reimagined the matchup of middleweight champion Joey Giardello and challenger Rubin Carter in 1999's "The Hurricane." The fearful beatdown Giardello absorbed on screen was a lie, and they knew it, but their apparent reasoning was that nobody would notice. A lot of people did. I know I did.

Instead of giving out PG-13 or R ratings, maybe films "based on true stories" should be broken down into the following categories: Somewhat true, mostly untrue, and there's probably a grain of truth in there somewhere. *

Send e-mail to fernanb@phillynews.com.

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