MICKY WARD. Warrior? Brawler? Honest pro? Hardest worker in the room?
You think you know the man the Oscar-winning movie The Fighter was based on? You think you know about the boxing cult hero who shared three Fights of the Year with his great rival Arturo Gatti, or the man whose signature left hook to the liver gave 140-pounders around the world nightmares? The truth is we do not know him at all.
But we are going to learn. We are going to learn the price he paid for the fantastic wars he gave us. We are going to know the consequences of what he put on the line every night fans roared him on from ringside as he rallied in another wild battle. We will learn more, just not yet. And hopefully we won’t for many more years. But when the 53-year-old passes and neurologists start picking at his brain and spinal column to understand more about the cumulative effect blows to the head have on fighters, we will know everything.
Ward has agreed to donate both parts to the world’s largest study into fighter brain health. He has already been told he has CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and his health is likely to deteriorate. The price of combat. The bruising battles will eventually be cashed in by a body that was able to stand up to abuse for so long before the volume of blows it was subjected to forced even Ward’s most stubborn resistance to crumble. He is now boldly staring down a life of cognitive impairment. War after war, concussion after concussion, Micky has become educated on the physical sacrifices he made in almost 30 years of boxing.
“I had the tests done,” he says of the research he is doing with a group of Boston neurologists, which is working in partnership with the Lou Ruvo Clinic for brain health in Las Vegas. “Dr Robert Cantu at Boston Medical and Chris Norwinsky have done this based out of this concussion and CTE thing in Boston. I took the test in 2005 and it came back that I have it. Now, they can’t tell how bad you have it until you’re dead and then they can go inside and look at your brain, so they can look at the effects of concussion and that’s when they can see how bad it was.”
Ward has witnessed fighters fade over the years. He has heard words slurred, seen walking become a stagger and now knows why short-term memories falter.
“No, I’m not scared,” he says, taking his time to consider the question. “I mean, I am and I ain’t. It is what it is. That’s why I try to stay healthy, work out and stay busy, because once you go off the deep end and you’re doing drink and drugs, it’s going to get worse.”
He often chooses early nights over going out to bars with his brother, former pro Dicky Eklund. He is careful with what he eats, gets plenty of sleep and is on medication to control his symptoms. As yet, the worst of his ailments are quick temperament changes and forgetfulness.
“I have my days,” he continues. “Long term I could tell you first grade things I remember. I couldn’t tell you yesterday, some things… Some things I can’t really see [happening to him], but my wife tells me. If I don’t take my medicine I get snappy, and I didn’t have that years ago. I’m very sharp-tempered if I don’t take it. She will say to me, ‘Did you take your medicine today?’ and that’s what I hate. If I’ve forgotten to she can tell. And I’ll snap, ‘Yeah I took the medicine.’ Then I’ll go and take it.”
Micky chuckles at the lack of domestic bliss, perhaps a little nervously over what it all means. Then he goes back to the brain. “Everybody’s concussions are different,” he explains, talking about a health crisis that has had a jarring effect on the entire American Football industry.
“Some people suffer from headaches. Some suffer from depression. Some people get tired. Some get angry. Some people want to hurt you. Some want to hurt themselves. Not everybody’s are the same. But it’s real, it’s happening [in boxing]. You can’t deny it because it’s proven with what it’s done to fighters, to [American] football players, to soccer players, to wrestlers. What I believe, and I don’t know this for sure, but three minors [concussions] is a major. Just getting stunned in the gym with a right hand or whatever – not hurt – just stunned, that’s a minor. I used to get those constantly.
“I don’t know how many of those I had. Full blown I had a whole bunch, but the minors are the ones that you don’t think hurt by they still do damage. Then you’re going back and sparring again. And again. You’re not going to say you can’t spar [if you have a headache]. They’re going to say, ‘You’re a p***y. Stop being a baby.’ I’d spar sometimes with the worst headaches but I was too proud, I didn’t want to show pain or weakness and I didn’t want anyone to think any less of me.”
Ward and toughness went together like the sun and the sea. Nowadays, he would tell anyone not to gamble with his or her future and to take the day, the week or the month off.
Micky endured two careers. During the first he was a prospect, not focused, not too ambitious and then, as it flagged, for a few fights he became an opponent. Then, reborn, he was a prospect once more and finally a top contender. You can reel off the Ward slugfests. The one-punch come-from-behind drama against Alfonso Sanchez, the gritty scrap with Reggie Green, the shootout with Shea Neary, the Fight of the Year with Emanuel Augustus and, of course, the famous trilogy with Gatti [below].
Augustus, struggling with life after boxing having taken a stray bullet to the base of the skull, recently spoke warmly of Ward. The feelings are mutual.
“Oh my God,” Micky says, shaking his head while smiling. “He’s the epitome of toughness. He was a great fighter. People say I won 98-92, I don’t think so. I will tell you straight up as I told him, if there hadn’t been a knockdown it would have been a draw or he would have won. It was that close.”
Inevitably he mentions Gatti but does not dwell among the tender memories for long. Ward has recently been a guest at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, a place where great rivals talk together in front of vast crowds remembering their heroic and historic battles. Gatti died in 2007, denying Ward the chance to grow old with his legendary friend whom he shares his most famed place in history with. They say Gatti committed suicide. Ward has always suspected foul play.
“I miss him,” he says softly. You can see the highlights flash through his mind. You can almost hear a gentle soundtrack in the background as images of he and Arturo fighting, laughing and talking play vividly in his head. You can see pain. You could coax the tears, if you stayed there too long.
Ward wound up coaching Gatti for a series of his friend’s farewell fights and then worked with some of Mike Tyson’s boxers as the former heavyweight king tried his hand at promoting. Micky stopped training fighters a couple of years ago and he just doesn’t have the itch or the desire to go back to it. Not yet. He still holds down a day job. The movie of his life did not make him a multi-millionaire. The third Gatti fight, for which he made around a million dollars, was his golden handshake from the sport, yet the extreme violence within those 30 tumultuous minutes added to the great physical cost and the medical burden he now shoulders.
However, it was an accident away from the ring that did Ward more acute harm than chronic damage. He still works, paving roads, but one day when he jumped off the roller he did not see a long spike (called a damper) stood up on the other side of the vehicle. He skewered himself, the long metal bar shooting straight up his rectum. The ins and outs are covered in mortifyingly graphic detail in his brilliant autobiography, A Warrior’s Heart.
“I came about an inch from dying,” he winces. “I came half-an-inch from a colostomy bag for six months and about an inch from death because it would have gone up here [points to chest] and killed me.”
It was the most pain he has ever been in, though even now he can play it down as “a real pain in the ass.”
Now, Ward reckons he needs another year or so away from training fighters, having felt burnt out from his three decades in the sport. He wants to do it because he enjoys it, not because it’s all he knows. Until then, he’s paving roads. Being Micky from Lowell, Massachusetts. No airs. No graces.
And he is well aware that his toughest fight might lie ahead. It’s been called punch drunk syndrome, dementia pugilistica, CTE… It has varying levels of severity, but it can abruptly rear its head long after a fighter has retired. He is ready, and wife Charlene and daughter Kasie are prepared to help him.
“They know I have it,” he adds. “She [Charlene] knows when I’m good, when I’m bad. She can tell by my voice. Anyone else, you, Dicky, no one else would notice.”
Neurological researchers, since ‘punch drunk syndrome’ was first coined in a medical paper in 1928, have speculated that straight-ahead, aggressive fighters are more likely to suffer long-term damage than silky, slick movers. That might have been subsequently disproved, but Ward fits that early profile.
“That’s who I am,” he admits. “That’s a priceless legacy to me. I fought the way I fought and I’d fight the same way again. Honestly. God has a plan for me, and it was to fight that way, to meet my wife. It’s just His plan. I’m not a religious person but I do believe in Him, you know.”
Ward, who retired following a career of 38 wins and 13 losses, goes for check-ups every few months and will take part in studies and research until his death.
“I hope it helps the next generation of fighters, not only in boxing but contact sports in general, and it helps them to understand better the effects of concussion,” Ward says. It is a significant sacrifice, though he does not see it that way.
“No, not really,” smiles the defiant warrior, who will now leave more than his battle-hardened reputation behind. Then, he jokes: “They’re getting my brain. It will be like brand new. I haven’t used it in years!”
You think you know Micky Ward? We only know some of the narrative. He will be sharing his war stories with scientists for the benefit of the sport long after he is gone.