America at Large: Micky Ward was seven years of age when he first laced on a pair of gloves and stepped into the ring over 30 years ago, writes George Kimball.
His opponent in the 50 lb class that night was Joey Roach, whose older brother Freddie would later gain prominence as the trainer for, among others, Steve Collins and Mike Tyson, and, as fate would have it, there was no winner: The match, held in an outdoor ring at the Harbour House in Lynn, Massachusetts, was abandoned when proceedings were interrupted by a downpour midway through the second round.
At 19, Ward made his professional debut on a small card at a roller rink in Lawrence, Mass, and knocked out somebody named David Morin in the first round, and a dozen years later things hadn't changed much: Irish Micky was still fighting for peanuts when he headlined a card at a dog track just north of Boston.
He only got one shot at a major world title, and he lost that when a profusely-bleeding cut halted his challenge for Vince Phillips's IBF championship in Boston in 1997.
In point of fact, Ward, whose retirement will be officially celebrated at a gala dinner at the Mohegan Sun Casino tomorrow night, lost three of his last four fights, the exception having been his May 2002 thriller against Arturo Gatti, which was unanimously adjudged the "Fight of the Year" by boxing experts.
He may never have won a major world title and he lost 13 of 51 fights, but his brief time in the worldwide limelight confirmed what those of us who had followed him from the beginning already knew: Micky Ward might have been a blue-collar pug, but he was one of the most exciting fighters to come along in decades.
Ward's blood-and-guts boxing career concluded in June with the denoument of his epic trilogy against Gatti, and since he earned upwards of $3.8 million in his last two years in the ring after a lifetime of relative obscurity, it qualifies as such a bona fide rags-to-riches tale that Hollywood interests expressed an interest in making a film of his life story.
No sooner had Ward's representatives begun negotiating with the Boston-born actor Mark Wahlberg than they began receiving cease-and-desist letters from an outfit called Scout Productions, which maintained that it had purchased the rights to Ward's bio-pic three months earlier, and had his signature on a contract and a cashed check to prove it.
The lawsuit filed in Cambridge's Middlesex Superior Court last week is likely to drag on for months, if not years, but the most distasteful aspect of the proceedings comes in the role of Ward's trusted trainer, who happens to be his half-brother, Dickie Eklund.
A quarter century ago Eklund was a welterweight of some note, and in 1978 he was credited with having authored the first knockdown of Sugar Ray Leonard. (There is some dispute about this; Dickie stepped on Leonard's foot as he threw the punch, a transgression which went unnoticed by referee Matt Mullaney, who administered a count.)
Eklund's post-boxing career was less distinguished. Following his own retirement he fell upon hard times, battling drug addictions so severe that he became the subject of a gritty HBO documentary America Undercover, detailing the day-to-day life of a hard-core junkie. He wound up doing nearly five years in prison in the early 1990s, emerged clean and sober, and had to all appearances led an exemplary life since.
After his release Eklund became involved in his brother's boxing career, taking over as chief trainer, with sometimes spectacular results. He was working the corner the night in London three and a half years ago when Ward, trailing on the scorecards, knocked out the previously unbeaten Shea Neary to win the minor WBU light-welterweight title, and engineered the strategy which carried his younger sibling through the three Gatti wars. He was considered an indispensable component of Team Ward, and his 10 per cent trainer's share of Micky's earnings earned him more money in the past three years than he'd made his own 29 professional bouts put together.
Apparently it wasn't enough. Eklund wasn't named as a defendant in the lawsuit attorneys representing Micky Ward filed in Cambridge last week, but the bare bones of the case make it clear Micky believes his brother sold him down the river for something less than 30 pieces of silver.
Scout Productions has Ward's signature on a document dated May 8th, 2003, the first sentence of which seems rather unambiguous: "This letter shall serve as an option agreement setting forth the basic terms of the agreement between you, Mikey Ward, Scout Productions, Fourth Wall Entertainment, and Edgartown Ventures, regarding Producer's option to acquire all right, title and interest in and to Ward's 'Life Story' which producer intends to develop and produce as a motion picture."
Ward admits he signed the document and cashed Scout's $1,000 check, but says he never read it. He contends that he was led to believe he was agreeing to play a "small role" in a follow-up documentary about his brother.
"I signed it to get Dickie out of my hair," Ward said last week. "I was training for the (third) Gatti fight and I didn't want to deal with it." According to Ward, his brother told him the contract was a necessary first step to a film of his life story, and that both Eklund and the three production companies staged what his attorney's described as "a classic bait and switch".
"We didn't sue Eklund directly, but it's our contention he was directly involved in the deception," Jennifer Furey, of the Boston law firm Cooley Mannion Jones, told the Lowell Sun last weekend.
Asked why Eklund would have helped deceive him, Ward said "because they threw money at him". Exactly how much money a man would take to sell out his own brother remains unlearned. The producer/defendants aren't talking, and neither is Eklund, who claims his own lawyers have ordered him to make no comment on the matter.
Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti will jointly appear at a public autograph session at the Mohegan Sun tomorrow afternoon. The Boston Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and New England Patriots have all sent along jerseys numbered '38' (the number of his professional boxing wins) for presentation at tomorrow night's gala.
A host of speakers, including yours truly, will pay tribute to his accomplishments, but the place reserved on the dais for Dickie Eklund will remain vacant. The bond between the once-inseparable siblings may have been ruptured beyond repair, and for that one can only feel a sadness that knows no bounds.