The retired boxer Micky Ward was backstage at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium on Wednesday night, bucket in one hand and water bottle in the other, watching his fighter warm up before taking the long walk out to the ring. The fighter, a 168-pounder out of Lowell billed as “Irish” Joe McCreedy, just as Micky was billed as “Irish” Micky Ward, would be fighting in the evening’s headline bout. Dicky Eklund, Micky’s half-brother, had pads on his hands to catch McCreedy’s punches. Dicky, who was a slick welterweight once upon a time, would sketch a couple of half-speed blows for McCreedy to slip, then McCreedy would bang the pads with ripostes, barking along with his punches: “Huh! Huh! Hah!”
Sean Eklund, Dicky’s nephew, had just come back from the ring after winning his own bout, his first eight-rounder. Micky, who had worked his corner with Dicky, told a reporter, “He’s a work in progress. It’s all a learning experience. He showed he can bang a little, and he coasted and boxed at the end. It was the perfect kind of fight to grow on, and he had a perfect opponent” — James Ventry, a hardy fellow with a losing record who specializes in giving a homestanding fighter a stiff workout.
Sean, his face welted up and still dripping with sweat and water, was standing a few feet away, talking animatedly to a reporter. His record was 11-4 now, and he was game and well schooled, but he lacked power and the touch of greatness. He was already 28, and he probably wouldn’t ever make it beyond the regional level. Tonight, though, Sean was the toast of Lowell, and it felt good.
Micky and Dicky were back home in the small time. Last year they made the long walk down the red carpet at the Academy Awards to watch Christian Bale collect an Oscar for playing Dicky and Melissa Leo collect one for playing Alice Ward, their mother. “The Fighter” made Micky and Dicky world-famous as regular-guy icons, paradigmatic tough guys from a tough town, imitated with a respect verging on adoration by movie stars who are in turn adored by millions.
Micky and Dicky have done hundreds of media events since “The Fighter” came out, but on Wednesday night in Lowell the fights weren’t on TV and there were no celebrities to pal around with. There were just a couple of reporters hanging around backstage with notepads. One asked Micky if he was glad to be away from the bright lights of Hollywood. “Yeah,” he said. “This is more authentic.”
Reminding McCreedy what to do in close to his opponent, Dicky lightly tapped McCreedy’s ribs with his right pad and then used it to simulate a vicious uppercut at McCreedy’s chin. “You touch ... and rip,” Dicky said, holding up the pads so McCreedy could try it. The young man whacked the pads and his crew of cornermen and friends clapped and hooted.
Then McCreedy, brave and willing but limited in his physical gifts and boxing imagination, went out and got badly outclassed. His opponent, Shujaa El-Amin, made him miss and landed enough shots to make it clear to even the most passionate fans that McCreedy may never be more than a tough guy from Lowell.
Not that being a tough guy from Lowell is such a minor achievement, especially these days. The curious effect of the state’s film tax credit program has been to put in global circulation a series of fantasies about the working-class subcultures of localities around Boston: Lowell, Charlestown, Southie, Dorchester. Much of the point of “The Fighter” was to try to capture how Micky, Dicky, and their tribe walk and talk and carry themselves in the world. By making it cost-effective for the movie industry to feed selected, highly glossed details of local life into the machinery of the global mass culture industry, the tax credit has helped Hollywood produce a body of Boston-area mythology that feeds an apparently widespread hunger for local heroes.
So, yes, Sean Eklund and Joey McCreedy may never achieve much more than the unofficial distinction of being “The Pride of Lowell,’’ as Dicky and then Micky were before them. But that’s a thing of no small value.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.