Micky Ward: Fighting Spirit

UPDATED 01/17/2011 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/17/2011 at 01:00 AM EST

Stepping into a boxing ring in Chelmsford, Mass., Micky Ward prepares to take on his favorite sparring partner: his 25-year-old godson Ray Greenhalge. Born with cerebral palsy, Greenhalge crawls under the ropes, stands and punches his way across the ring-something nearly impossible for him just two years ago. "Before we started, he couldn't walk," says Ward, "but boxing has changed his whole life." Adds Greenhalge: "Micky is my idol because of how he persevered. He's more than a fighter."

In fact, Ward is now a Hollywood heavyweight. The tale of his transformation from street paver in blue-collar Lowell, Mass., to boxing champion has now landed on the big screen as The Fighter. The film, which has come out swinging with six Golden Globe and four SAG nominations, tells the story of Ward, 45, and his half-brother Dicky Eklund, 53, who fought Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978 before his boxing career was KO'd by crack-cocaine addiction. But what isn't visible onscreen is the now-retired Ward's determination to give back to his hometown. His foundation Team Micky Ward Charities helps disabled youngsters gain confidence through physical training and conditioning. "Micky and I live in a world where some things beat you up but you have to get right up again," says Tyler Lagasse, 24, who has autism and participated in a track program hosted by the foundation. "He's pushed me to work harder than I could ever imagine."

For Ward, hard work began early on. His family-Dicky, Micky, seven sisters and half-sisters and parents Alice and George-grew up in Lowell at a time when the textile mills had closed down, cocaine was turning up on the streets, and George was trying to make ends meet with a roofing business that occasionally employed Dicky and Micky. "I was brought up in boxing," recalls Ward. His uncles and brothers-in-law "would say, 'Let's see how hard he can punch.' I'd be breaking their noses-and this was when I was 8." Dicky, a talented boxer, started bringing kid brother Micky to the gym with him, but his crack habit sent him in and out of prison, including a five-year stint for several crimes including breaking and entering. Micky, on the other hand, persisted through career-threatening injuries, family conflict and tough opponents to capture the World Boxing Union Light Welterweight title in 2000.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood took notice. Ward's story so moved fellow Massachusetts native Mark Wahlberg, 39, that he pushed for five years to get the movie made. "On so many levels, their story mirrors my family and my story," says Wahlberg. "I promised I was going to make them proud."

Retired from boxing since 2003, Ward has his own gym and lives with his wife of five years, Charlene, 34, and his daughter Kasie, 21, from a previous relationship. The couple are unfazed by Hollywood hype. "We never talk about it," says Ward, who was on The Fighter set almost every day along with Dicky. So while he may have to trade his boxing trunks for an Oscar tux come February, he remains true to his roots. "I'm not a glamour guy," he says. "I'm who I am."

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