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Boxing, Crack, Class, and Crisis in *The Fighter*

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Guest blogger Eoin Cannon reported on Mickey Ward and Dick Ecklund before David O. Russell dramatized their lives last year in The Fighter.  What a difference a major motion picture makes.

Despite coming a few months late to the party, I offer here some thoughts about  The Fighter, because the film combines three of the specific interests that brought me into academia: addiction, sports, and cities.  I acquired those interests in part through contact with the actual source materials of the film: Mickey Ward, crack cocaine recovery, and the city of Lowell.

Before going to graduate school I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper in a Boston neighborhood, from which I also branched out into freelance writing on the very small world of New England boxing.

Mickey Ward & Dick Eklund, heading into Ward’s final fight. Caesar’s Palace, Atlantic City, June 7, 2003. (Photo courtesy Eoin Cannon)

I followed the second half of Ward’s career, and wrote a piece upon his retirement about the journey traveled by him and his brother Dick Eklund, the characters in The Fighter played by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. This work informed my first academic publication, on the strategic construction of white ethnicity in the sports entertainment industry. Similarly, my scholarly interest in the cultural history of addiction began in observations about the recovery subcultures in hard-luck neighborhoods of Boston and nearby cities, including Lowell.

So I was eager to see The Fighter for a number of reasons, both the kind scholars have when a film covers their subject matter, and the kind that people have when part of their world becomes the set for a Hollywood movie. I was particularly interested in how the film would weave these different narrative threads together and what overarching frame it might invoke.

What jumped out at me in this regard was its use of the 1995 documentary High on Crack Street to shape the story of Eklund’s crack addiction and recovery. The Fighter hews to the essential facts: onetime contender Dicky, “the Pride of Lowell,” got sober during a prison stint in the mid-1990s, and after his release was able to train his brother Mickey with new seriousness, enabling both of them to make the most of their second chances in boxing and in life. If you saw it, you’ll know that one of the main vehicles The Fighter uses to narrativize this turnaround is the presence of an HBO film crew making a documentary about crack addicts in Lowell, in which Dickey is prominently featured.  In Russell’s version, the crack-addled Dicky thinks the crew is making a film about his boxing comeback, because the high point of his career (a decision loss to Sugar Ray Leonard) had been broadcast by HBO back in the day.

This aspect of the film was “true”: Dick Ecklund was featured in High on Crack Street when it appeared on HBO.  I saw it when it first aired, and it is uncanny to see how Russell recreated some of its crackhouse scenes. But what the writers and director of The Fighter did differently from the documentary was the key to how the feature film incorporated Eklund’s addiction narrative into its other stories, which ultimately gave addiction a different significance.

Contrary to The Fighter’s conceit, in High on Crack Street Eklund is under no illusions about the filmmakers’ interest in him.  His personality in the documentary is nothing like Bale’s version of him in the feature; in fact he is overshadowed by his two more expressive fellow smokers, Boo Boo and Brenda. People who know him well say that Eklund is in fact funny and frenetic in the manner Bale picked up on, but in front of the documentary crew’s cameras and several years into his crack addiction, he appeared sheepish and defeated.

The point of these observations is not to chastise the filmmakers for taking liberties with reality, but to note that The Fighter’s particular reordering of the story reveals how recovery narrative is often required to fit a certain orthodox structure in order to serve secondary narrative purposes. Dicky’s folly sets up the construction of a very clear narrative turn at the heart of The Fighter: his hitting bottom, or moment of clarity. At a prison screening of the documentary for his fellow inmates, he realizes it is not about his boxing comeback, but only about his crack use and what it is doing to his family, including his young son. His illusions come crashing down;  the rebuilding of his sense of purpose, through Mickey’s career, begins. It’s a clearcut decline, bottom, turnaround, and redemption.

The imagery of Dicky’s addiction carries over from High on Crack Street to The Fighter, but the two are not telling the same kind of story. The documentary, like others before and since, framed widespread addiction as a symptom of postindustrial urban decline. It establishes its subject through shots of Lowell’s mill buildings around the out-of-work Merrimack River before the camera heads down into the crackhouse interiors.

In this Corner: Political Economy

The story Dicky’s recovery serves in The Fighteris a family/sports melodrama. Everyone needs to come to terms with their role in Mickey’s life before his triumphant ascent can get underway. The film’s own visuals of Lowell are beautiful and evocative, but the story ends in the ring, Mickey surrounded by his makeshift family. I don’t hold any brief against that story. It evokes the heroism of Alice Ward’s building and then Mickey Ward’s rebuilding of family structures that serve as bulwarks against the unrelenting pressures of working-class life and labor.

And in this Corner: Redemption

But my own scholarly interest in addiction had begun with my observation that communities of recovery themselves–in some places, anyway–are doing something very similar. The meeting-based worlds that I saw consisted mainly of people whose personal disintegrations coincided with changes in their neighborhoods associated with the waves of urban crisis that ran from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. They often spoke in collective terms of fragmented family work histories, and the drinking and drug abuse that had knocked out almost entire cohorts of friends or relatives. Some made special efforts to reach young people who were abusing prescription opiates, as a way of trying to prevent in the next generation what had happened in theirs. They were engaged in semi-communal projects of survival, rescue, and restoration that seemed deeper and more real than the public policy discourse surrounding urban revitalization.

In my current work I’m looking at how early twentieth-century recovery narrative was shaped by its service to social and political purposes (variously progressive, reactionary, and radical) and very often used as a strategy for confronting what were perceived as urban social crises. In a subsequent project I’ll be looking at how contemporary texts from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to David Simon’s The Wire similarly use recovery as a way to imagine social renewal from inside dystopian societies. Even though The Fighter builds its story from very similar elements, I don’t think it quite fits that category.


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