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Recreating Micky Ward's Fights
While The Fighter is as much about family as it is about fighting, David O. Russell was committed to capturing the agony and the ecstasy of Micky's historic bouts in as visceral and true a way as possible. He neither wanted to romanticize the "sweet science” of boxing nor to over-choreograph the fights, but to let them play out almost in real time with the raw, palpable, stripped-down realness of documentary footage.

This was no easy task, as the entire film was shot at a rapid-fire pace, in just 33 days, but Russell says that only helped to bring a heightened level of focus and intensity. In the end, all of the scenes in the ring were shot over just a couple of days right at the beginning of production – a trial by fire.

Since the three main fights were originally aired on HBO, it was decided to bring in an actual HBO crew to shoot some of the footage in the same multi-camera way HBO typically uses to shoot their popular fight coverage. (A fourth fight was shot in a smaller venue, without the HBO cameras, to give what Russell calls, "a looser feel.”) The unadorned footage seemed to capture the human struggle at the core of boxing with greater power than any swirling camerawork ever could.

Mark Wahlberg says that one of the reasons that the plan worked is that at the beginning of the shoot, he was in his best fighting shape. He later gained weight to shoot the part of Micky's life when he was heavier set, but the most important element of the boxing scenes for Wahlberg was to give the audience a sense of Micky Ward's physical courage and wicked left hook that came out of nowhere just when it looked like he was finished for good.

"I wanted the film to have some of the most realistic boxing ever seen on screen. That was my goal,” Wahlberg says, adding that he watched ever single bout Micky Ward ever fought "at least a hundred times each.”

To that end, he never held back once the cameras were rolling. "We wanted to duplicate the actual fights so we did do some choreography but, to make it more real, we wanted to actually take some of the punches,” he confesses. "There are times when we were not really hitting each other but, for the most part, we wanted to get in there and just take it.”

Wahlberg perfected the move that Ward was best known for: getting inside the arms of another boxer and taking him down with a precisely placed, perfectly timed body shot.

"We wanted to capture what made Micky so unusual,” says Russell. "There are very few fighters who drop people with a body shot like that. He had a very particular fighting style, which really represented his personality. He was a steadfast, disciplined, never give up kind of fighter, who could take a lot of punishment and he was also that kind of person.”

For Micky's opponents, Russell searched for boxers who might resemble the men Micky went up against in real life. Fight Coordinator Ben Bray recruited Miguel Espino, one of the top-ranked middleweights in the United States to portray Alfonso Sanchez in one of the key fights of Micky Ward's career. A trio of stunt men with boxing experience stepped up to play the other three boxers: Peter Cunningham portrays Mike "Machine Gun” Mungin, Anthony Molinari portrayed Neary and Anthony "Ace” Thomas played the role of Castillo. "

We all studied the fight tapes of the individual matches and worked on getting the moves down and gaining or losing weight to resemble the guys were playing,” explains Molinari.

Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard portrayed himself in the film and it didn't take much coaxing from golfing buddy Mark Wahlberg to get him to be part of the production. "I just called Ray and said ‘Ray, I need you,'” Wahlberg notes. "Everyone was saying that we couldn't have the real Sugar Ray in the movie and that we'd have to get somebody younger. I said Sugar Ray still looks like he's 25 years old!”

At one point during the shoot, while the HBO crews were resetting cameras, Sugar Ray actually took off his jacket and climbed into the ring with Wahlberg. He shared some of his reminiscences of fighting Dicky Eklund with the actor as well.

"You know, it was funny,” says Wahlberg. "If you go back and you watch the Dick Eklund-Sugar Ray fight, there wasn't one person in there rooting for Sugar Ray. And, if they were, it was only a couple of people and you couldn't hear them because of all the crazy, rowdy fans that were there for Dick Eklund. Sugar Ray said he had never been so scared in his life because obviously it was very hostile territory, a very hostile time in Boston. Racial tension was really bad back then. He said he wasn't so much scared in the ring, but he was scared of everything that was going on outside the ring. To have that be the case and then to come back thirty years later and have the place give him a standing ovation, it was very nice. He appreciated it a lot.”

For the most part, however, it was tough, gruelling work for Wahlberg as he and the other boxers recreated hard-fought round after hard-fought round in a very small space of time, but that is also what gives the film its raw, immediate feel, observes Russell.

"We wanted the audience to be able to sense and smell the sweat,” the director concludes. "We didn't want it to feel stylized. We wanted it to feel real.”

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