With the release of "The Fighter," starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, movie fans were introduced to the story of a real-life Rocky Balboa in "Irish" Micky Ward.
But to boxing fans, the Lowell, Mass., native had been a leading man in countless action fights and dramatic victories until his 2003 retirement. Ward, maybe best described as a B-level journeyman with an A-plus heart, won over so many with his blue-collar approach en route to a 38-13 career record.
Ward's courage and will allowed those watching from their couch to feel a connection to a guy who would have been sitting next to them had he not been blessed with such a rare combination of toughness and stubborn determination -- not to mention a killer left hook to the body, Ward's signature finishing move.
Although Ward was most notably known for his spectacular trilogy with the late Arturo Gatti, those fights were just a sample of an entertaining career that included a record 26 appearances on ESPN.
The following is a look at 10 of Ward's most memorable bouts, with commentary from "The Fighter" himself:
LOUIS VEADER I
Date: April 13, 1996
Where: FleetCenter, Boston
Result: Ward by TKO9
In just his sixth fight following a three-year retirement, Ward faced unbeaten prospect Veader, who was looking to defeat a name fighter in order to justify his impressive-yet-soft 31-0 record.
"Veader was a good young fighter, but he didn't have much power," Ward said. "They just thought he was going to beat me."
A slick boxer, Veader controlled the middle rounds and built up an early lead before Ward came on late. After dropping "The Viper" in the eighth, Ward came back one round later to force the stoppage, flooring Veader on a patented left hook to the body.
"[Veader's handlers] were saying, 'Fight him again, see if it was legit,'" said Ward, who defeated Veader in a rematch three months later. "They just thought it was a fluke that I knocked him out. So I fought him again and beat him over 12 rounds and won the decision easily."
Date: April 12, 1997
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Result: Ward by KO7
An impressive 8-0 since his return to the ring, Ward stepped up to face Sanchez (16-0) on the undercard of Oscar De La Hoya-Pernell Whitaker.
Ward, who survived a fifth-round knockdown, lost nearly every second of every round heading into the seventh. Frustrated and switching back and forth between southpaw and a conventional stance, Ward looked lost as he was uncharacteristically on the run.
"I started out in a defensive mode and just couldn't get out of it," Ward said. "So I just started moving, moving, moving. I don't usually move around like that. For some reason my legs just kept moving and wouldn't stop. I knew that I had to do something. I said to myself that I've got to fight no matter how strong he was. 'I've got to give myself a chance.' And I did that."
After connecting with a hard body shot to open Round 7, Ward began to grow more confident. Moments later he completed the most unlikely of knockouts, dropping Sanchez for good on a sudden left hook to the body.
"It was my worst performance but probably one of my best wins, if that makes sense," Ward said. "It's right up there because that fight started this whole thing off in terms of the run I made."
Ward's knockout was even more stunning to those watching the TVKO pay-per-view broadcast. As Round 7 opened, commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and Roy Jones Jr. pulled no punches on their opinions of Ward's performance.
As the round opened, Merchant noted, "This is a fight that needs to be stopped for the fighters well-being and for the people that are paying to see it." Jones was quick to add, "If I were paying for this fight on pay-per-view, I would be asking for half of my money back" and "someone should pay me to watch this." Shortly before the knockout, Lampley ironically noted that Sanchez "has absolutely nothing to fear as he leans in on Ward."
"They ripped me apart," Ward said. "And all due respect, they had reason because of the way I was fighting. But some of the things they said, I was like, 'You get in there and try it.'"
Date: Aug. 9, 1997
Where: The Roxy, Boston
Result: Phillips by TKO3
Gaining notoriety from the KO of Sanchez, Ward was granted a title shot against Phillips, who had dramatically stopped champion Kostya Tszyu in his previous fight to claim the IBF junior welterweight title.
"I was excited, as it was my first chance to fight for the title," Ward said. "I was ready and he caught me with a right hand to the eye, and that was it. That chance went right out the window."
Phillips opened up a nasty cut above Ward's right eye that caused the fight to be stopped in the third round, the only stoppage loss in Ward's 51 career fights.
"People were saying the cut was caused by a head-butt and thought that me, as a fighter, was supposed [to agree]," Ward said. "But I wanted to say to them, 'What fight are you watching?' I wasn't going to lie. What am I going to get for lying? I was disappointed, but I didn't lose the faith. I just kept saying, 'I'll get another shot. I'll get another shot.'"
Date: June 7, 1998
Where: Miccosukee Indian Gaming Resort, Miami
Result: Judah by UD12
Ward stepped up in competition once again, taking on arguably the most talented opponent in his career when he faced Judah (15-0), a 20-year-old can't-miss prospect.
"He was just so fast," Ward said. "That was when he was young and could move. When he was younger, he was unbeatable."
Despite dropping a wide decision on the scorecards, Ward was competitive and never stopped coming forward. He also uncharacteristically exchanged heated words throughout, a reaction to Judah's low blow in Round 1. Ward patiently waited before returning the favor in Round 9, leading to a colorful exchange between the two.
"He tried to put all that stuff on me and I was like, 'You ain't gonna faze me by that,'" Ward said. "So in return I just did a little bit of it myself."
Date: Oct. 1, 1999
Where: Icenter, Salem, N.H.
Result: Ward by TKO10
In an ESPN "Friday Night Fights" classic, Ward had to dig deeper than ever before against Green, a rugged journeyman. At age 33 and badly in need of a victory, a battered and bloodied Ward trailed on two of three scorecards entering the final round.
"Once again I was losing in the final round," Ward said. "He was strong and he had a good left hook that split me. I had a cut on my mouth and you could put two fingers right through it. It went through to my tooth. I was bleeding and was swallowing blood. But again, I just caught up to him at the end."
Ward, who was rocked and nearly out to end Round 3, rallied in the final round thanks to a relentless body attack that opened up a flurry of left hooks upstairs. A reeling Green was staggered and fell to the canvas with 30 seconds left, just as referee Norm Bellieux stepped in to wave it off.
Date: March 11, 2000
Where: Olympia, London
Result: Ward by TKO8
The dramatic victory over Green gave Ward the leverage and momentum he needed to secure a second title shot, this time in England for the lightly regarded WBU junior welterweight belt. Ward again faced an unbeaten prospect in Neary (22-0), a Liverpool native of Irish descent.
People were saying the cut was caused by a head-butt. But I wanted to say to them, 'What fight are you watching?' I wasn't going to lie. I was disappointed, but I didn't lose the faith. I just kept saying, 'I'll get another shot. I'll get another shot.'
”-- Micky Ward on his TKO loss to Vince Phillips, the only stoppage defeat in Ward's 51 career fights
"They were getting him ready to fight a big name over here and they figured they'd bring me over there and that he was going to wipe me out," Ward said. "They gave me no chance in hell to beat him, especially in England. But I knew I could beat him."
The two fighters engaged in a spirited battle, with Ward owning the early rounds thanks to a soft uppercut that he continually tapped onto Neary's forehead in hopes of opening up his defense for a left hook to the body. Neary then took over the middle rounds, using his reach and boxing ability to keep Ward off of him.
"He punched hard, but I could see every punch he was throwing," Ward said. "He threw them wide, so I knew that I could get ready for it. I just tried to tap, tap, tap and then right to the body. I knew that I was catching up to him and I knew I was going to stop him."
Ward finally caught up with him in the eighth round, connecting on two punishing left hooks to the body that set up a crushing uppercut. Neary, who was floored for the first time in his career, reached his feet before Ward dropped him again with a similar uppercut, causing referee Mickey Vann to end it.
"There was just something in me where I knew that I was going to win," Ward said. "Usually I never think that, because you never know in boxing. But I knew I was going to win that night."
EMANUEL (BURTON) AUGUSTUS
Date: July 13, 2001
Where: Hampton Beach Casino, Hampton Beach, N.H.
Result: Ward by UD10
There may not have been a more entertaining fight in the history of ESPN's "Friday Night Fights" than this stunning brawl between two hungry fighters in search of respect and a long-awaited payday.
Augustus, then known as Emanuel Burton, had an ability to frustrate his opponents that spoke higher volumes than his 24-17-4 record. Ward described him as being "very awkward, kind of a herky-jerky type of fighter. He doesn't stay there that long and he wings them in from all over the place."
The slugfest, fought at a tremendous work rate as each fighter literally threw punches to the point of exhaustion, was named 2001's "Fight of the Year" by Ring Magazine. Ward was somehow able to keep the normally elusive Augustus in front of him as a raucous New Hampshire crowd roared with approval.
"I just stood right in his chest," Ward said. "I just tried to smother him and wear him down. The crowd was just crazy, and it was nuts in there. And it was so hot. There was no way to see in that building. It was that hot."
Ward knocked Augustus down with a body shot in Round 9 that was thought to be the difference in the fight until a wider-than-expected decision was announced.
ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas pleaded on air for promoters to take notice and reward the fighters' efforts with a big payday. He also addressed viewers at home by saying, "Anybody watching this fight at home, in between rounds, go call your friends up. You are seeing something that you don't see too often." He would later add: "If you have never been to a fight before, if you have never seen what fighters look like, you're seeing them. Real fighters. A real fight. Nobody has to tell these two men how to act."
"I was building towards the big payday, but I needed that push to get it," Ward said. "And having Teddy say, 'Give this guy a money fight, give this guy a money fight,' helped a lot."
ARTURO GATTI I
Date: May 18, 2002
Where: Mohegan Sun Casino, Uncasville, Conn.
Result: Ward by MD10
Ward's epic trilogy with Gatti may have never happened had it not been for the bad-luck ending in his previous fight with Jesse James Leija on HBO. The fight was stopped in the fifth round because of a Leija cut caused by a Ward punch that was ruled to have been the result of a head-butt, handing Leija a victory by technical decision.
"Going in and fighting Leija and kind of getting screwed the way that I did, I think that HBO probably said, 'Let's give this guy another chance,'" Ward said. "And they did that with the Gatti fight. Coming in, I knew that it had potential to be a great fight. Did I know it was going to be as great as it was? No. But I knew it had the ingredients to be."
Ward's dramatic victory over Gatti, named 2002's "Fight of the Year," was a throwback to the golden era of the sport and the kind of savage theater that reminds you just how good a prize fight can be.
Fought for nothing more than respect between two honest warriors, the action began to heat up after Gatti was deducted a point for a low blow in the fourth round. The shift on the scorecards set up a vicious fifth, highlighted by Ward's six-punch combination of flush hooks that stunned Gatti against the ropes.
"I don't think I ever threw that many punches in a month, let alone at one time," Ward said. "It was just something that happened. My strategy for the fight was like every other time: to just get in the best shape I could and fight hard. But after he caught me low in the fourth, I was able to suck him in."
The fight soon reached legendary status in Round 9, a "Round of the Year" honoree that could easily be tagged "Round of the Century."
"In the Burton fight, it was a lot like that in some of the rounds, only I wasn't fighting a guy who could punch like Gatti can," Ward said. "Burton threw hard, but he didn't punch as hard and wasn't known as a big puncher. But Gatti, with every punch he threw, he threw everything he had into it."
Ward floored Gatti with a signature left hook to the body to open the round. Amazingly, Gatti was able to reach his feet despite grimacing in tremendous pain. Ward's subsequent pounding on a defenseless Gatti caused many to speculate that the fight should have been stopped. But veteran referee Frank Cappuccino let them fight on, and a bloodied Gatti rallied back against a punched-out Ward as the two fighters exchanged blows until the final bell.
"I never thought he'd get up after the body shot, but somehow he did," Ward said. "I thought Frank Cappuccino should have stopped it. But I guess in Frank's defense, maybe he made the right call, because Gatti came on and then won the 10th round. I call him 'Jason' [from the 'Friday the 13th' movies]. I'm like, 'What the f--- is this guy made out of?' Hitting him was like hitting a pillow. It was mush.
"If I had lost, I was planning on retiring," Ward said. "I wasn't confident heading into the decision because I never think I won in a close fight. How could you think you are winning in a brawl? There's no way that you could know when your mind is too worried about fighting. I had no idea how great the fight was at the time, I just wanted to keep going and going each round."
ARTURO GATTI II
Date: Nov. 23, 2002
Where: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.
Result: Gatti by UD10
The much-anticipated rematch didn't live up to the hype of the first meeting as Gatti created distance and used his superior boxing skills to grind out a unanimous decision.
The most dramatic sequence of the fight took place in the third round, when Ward was knocked down face-first into the corner on a flush right hand to the ear.
"Gatti hit me on the bone right behind the ear and it threw off my equilibrium," Ward said. "I feel like if those ropes weren't there that I would have been out on the boardwalk. I went down, boom, face-first. [After I got up] I think that if he would have moved back, I would have fell forward on my face."
A wobbly Ward reached his feet and barely survived Gatti's attack over the next 30 seconds. In an odd move, Ward then dropped his gloves and urged Gatti to come forward and fight. Almost on cue, Gatti countered with a massive right hand that caught Ward flush and sent him staggering into the ropes.
Not only did Ward stay on his feet after absorbing the punch, he somehow rallied to hurt Gatti over the final minute of the round.
"I was calling him on, stupid me, saying, 'Come on, come on' and, boom, he came," Ward said. "He set me up and threw a right hand and it woke me up. It woke me up so much that I came back at him. It's weird. I got knocked out and woken up in the same round on my feet. I tell people that and they say, 'No way.' But if he missed me with that punch, I probably would have fallen down. Yet it woke me up.
"I wasn't sure about fighting him for a third time," Ward said. "It was up to him wherever he wanted to go next, because he won. I wasn't sure whether he wanted to fight Kostya Tszyu for the title or whether he wanted to fight me again. Our second fight wasn't as good as the first, but Gatti figured that by me giving him the rematch after the first one that it was me doing him a favor. So he returned the favor to me after he won."
ARTURO GATTI III
Date: June 7, 2003
Where: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.
Result: Gatti by UD10
The rubber match in the trilogy gave Ward, who announced his retirement before the bout, his first and only headlining role in a pay-per-view.
HBO's Jim Lampley summed up the beauty of Ward's career during the broadcast by saying, "How do you become beloved, wealthy and a star in boxing when you lose 12 fights? You can only do it one way. You fight the way Micky Ward fights."
Contested for what ring announcer Michael Buffer called "The unofficial, undisputed blood-and-guts championship of the world," things got interesting midway through the fight when Gatti broke his right hand.
"I didn't know that he had broken his hand, but I knew that he hurt it," Ward said. "But then he caught me on the side of the head soon after and my brain shifted inside my skull. I had to get double eye surgery a year later because I was seeing double for a year."
Now facing a one-handed fighter, Ward took advantage by flooring Gatti on an overhand right in the sixth round. But the 37-year-old Ward could get no closer on the scorecards as Gatti courageously fought him off just as Father Time began to take over.
"I knocked him down and came out the next round thinking he's still going to be a little dazed," Ward said. "But when I came out for the round, it felt like I was walking in quicksand. I had nothing. I got old right there. I just held on for the last 2-3 rounds. It was kind of like after all the wars I have been in over the years, it just kind of caught up with me."
The third installment of the rivalry was named 2003's "Fight of the Year," the third straight year a fight involving Ward was so honored by Ring Magazine.
"I was offered to fight again for good money, but I said no way," Ward said. "I was walking away from boxing whether I won or lost that fight. Once I say I am going to do something, I do it. They offered me a good six-figure fight on HBO, and even though they didn't say names, I think they wanted me to fight Ricky Hatton at the time, in England, because they thought it was going to be a good fight. I didn't want to get my head pounded in for nothing. All the money in the world, what good is it if you are not coherent?"
Brian Campbell is a contributor to ESPN Mobile.