As the city of Lowell gears up for an Oscar night the likes of which it has never seen before, one can't help remembering an Oscar performance by its favorite son that has been lost slightly with the passage of time, but is remembered with fondness by all those who witnessed it.
Micky Ward, whose lineage goes all the way back to County Cork in Ireland and whose life is the subject of the Academy Award-nominated "The Fighter," is famuos for his trilogy of fights with Arturo Gatti. The bouts between Ward and Gatti, who became good friends outside the ring, were nothing if not world class. But there were other fights in Ward's career, and one of them will stick in my mind as the greatest of all time.
Suffice to say that I remember in 1971 (as a nine-year old), creeping out of bed and downstairs to the living room of my house. The old man relaxed on the sofa as, live from Madison Square Garden, a leopard skin clad Joe Frazier stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali for the first of their great combats.
To his eternal credit, my father allowed me to stay up for the entire 15 rounds. A love affair with boxing was born, and I have seen a fight or two over the ensuing four decades, but none like that at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, on July 13, 2001.
Temperatures exceeded 90 degrees for the beachgoers on that steamy Friday, and when Ward stepped into the ring that evening at the Casino on the boardwalk, the heat, if anything, had increased.
Packed into the old New Hampshire venue were hundreds of locals, and one man who was the object of their derision, Emanuel Burton of Chicago, who is now known as Emanuel Augustus. Burton, 10 years Ward's junior and facing a far more experienced opponent, played an award-winning part in the 'movie' that night.
One had no hesitation in putting this bout up there with the best scraps of all time, such as Marvin Hagler/Ray Leonard; Alexis Arguello/Aaron Pryor; Cornelius Boza Edwards/Rafael Limon; Ray Mancini/Livingston Bramble; and Dwight Braxton/Evander Holyfield.
The pair pounded each other for 10 incessant rounds in a bout that could have been staged in a phone booth. To both man's credit, they never took a backward step.
“Definitely it was one of the best fights I've seen over the last 30 years,”
ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas said. When asked to compare Ward/Burton with the above bouts, Teddy assured me that it was right up there with the best of them.
The slugfest, which broke all punch-stat records (Ward threw almost 1,200 punches in the fight and a staggering 175 in the final round, with Burton not far off that pace), increased in intensity as it progressed and, perhaps behind going into the ninth, Ward produced a stinging body shot to drop his opponent. The tempo increased in the 10th with both fighters, incredibly, coming forward at every opportunity.
The Lowell man was eventually given a unanimous decision, albeit woefully lopsided in the eyes of one official.
A greater display of courage I have never seen – both fighters can remember with great pride the part they played in this epic battle.
In his living room a few days later, I found a content yet somewhat uneasy Micky Ward. He echoed the words he had uttered in the ring after the bout: “After this I think I deserve one big money fight. People tell me I always put on a great show, now I'd like to get paid for one.”
Micky wondered aloud if Zab Judah or Ray Oliveira might be in his future, before saying: “We want to fight now for big money and hopefully we can get a big fight with Arturo Gatti. That's where the money would be.”
Micky Ward's words couldn't have been more prophetic.
At the age of 36, time and opportunity had passed The Fighter by, or so it seemed – he was staring at a future of wondering what might have been, after fate had dealt him a series of blows early in his career.
But that was then and this is now. The Lowell lightweight has finally been recognized on the silver screen for the people's champion that he is.
Ten years later, life has been kind to one of New England's most affable sportsmen.
Immense credit must go to Mark Wahlberg for recognizing the life and times and supreme dedication of a boxer who will be forever remembered in New England and now, thanks to Hollywood, across the globe.
But while the world will remember Ward for his battles with Gatti, I will always judge the best fights of all time against his bout at Hampton Beach Casino on that stifling summer evening in 2001.
“It's great to be involved in something like this (the fight with Burton),” Ward said at the time. “You look back at your career and to have something like this, a classic fight, it makes you proud,” he said.
A role model for his dedication to hard work and discipline in his sport, Micky Ward has made New England proud. To the names of Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, John L. Sullivan and James Braddock, add Micky Ward.
The main contributors to The Buzz are:
- Matt Pepin, Boston.com sports editor
- Steve Silva, Boston.com senior sports producer
- Gary Dzen, Boston.com senior sports producer
- Zuri Berry, Boston.com sports producer