LOWELL - “Fighting out of the red corner,’’ the announcer bellowed into the microphone, “from the fighting city of Lowell, Massachusetts - Please welcome, Sean Eklund.’’
The 1,200-plus locals in the crowd roared Wednesday night in a way that they have not for close to two decades.
It was a homecoming, in so many ways: for a family, for a city, for a tradition that defines them both.
The 28-year-old Eklund and his childhood friend, “Irish’’ Joey McCreedy, were fighting separately in their first professional boxing matches at Memorial Auditorium in their hometown. And in their corner were Eklund’s uncles, “Irish’’ Micky Ward and his older brother Dicky Eklund, the local boxing heroes whose triumphs and troubles in a dysfunctional family were chronicled in the blockbuster movie “The Fighter.’’
It seems most locals know Ward and the Eklunds and they love them, and they loved “The Fighter,’’ too. And they especially love boxing.
And so it only seemed fitting, now that the shine of the movie’s success has started to fade, that professional boxing resumed at Memorial Auditorium for the first time in seven years, and with the biggest hype since Ward last fought there in 1994. It was only fitting that Ward and Eklund were still there, with the new generation of Lowell fighters.
“That was the day, more than anything, my favorite, being here’’ in Lowell, Dicky Eklund, 55, was saying as he was wrapping McCreedy’s hands for the main event.
Meanwhile, Ward, a former junior welterweight world champion, was helping his nephew warm up before his own bout, having him hit the mitts, telling him to “stay loose.’’
“Don’t fall behind,’’ he was saying. “Stay relaxed. Get out there, stay relaxed.’’
Eklund was about to box before his largest crowd of fans, after a four-fight win streak with bouts in Chicago and Canada.
“It’s good for the family, to perform well in front of a hometown crowd,’’ said the nephew, who is quiet in conversation like one uncle, wild in the ring like the other. “I don’t have to live up to them. We’re all different. [But], the same family, same work ethic.’’
Lowell is a fighting city in many ways, in the ring and in the streets. This former mill city of 106,000 people has a median household income of $50,192, compared with the state median of $64,509, and 17.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line. An event like this would be good for the economy, fans said.
And the locals do appreciate their boxing. The city has hosted the regional and New England Golden Gloves tournament since they began here 66 years ago. Locals boast that famed boxers Rocky Marciano, “Marvelous’’ Marvin Hagler, and Vincent “Vinny’’ Pazienza, as well as Eklund and Ward, have fought here.
Art Ramalho started the popular West End gym - where Ward often trained, the same gym depicted in “The Fighter’’ - in 1968, and it was supposed to only be a “hobby.’’ He still works with fighters there.
“Lowell’s a good fight town,’’ the 76-year-old was saying as he sold 50-50 raffle tickets for local charities. “It’s a good thing they’re bringing boxing back.’’
Jackie O’Neill, one of Ramalho’s former fighters and at 53 a trainer now himself, added, “Just think of all the fighters from here. Mickey fought here, and Sean is great.’’
Pat Donaher, 53, who works as an operations manager at a security company, said he has attended the Golden Gloves finals here for the past 20 years, and he recalls growing up when Dicky Eklund was still proving himself as an amateur. Eklund went on to earn a 19-10 record as a professional and fought Sugar Ray Leonard at Hynes Memorial Auditorium in Boston in 1978. Eklund famously claims in “The Fighter’’ that he knocked Leonard down, though it was long ruled a slip. Donaher called it a knockdown.
“He was like VIP star material,’’ Donaher said over a Budweiser just before the matches began. He described an atmosphere at the Lowell auditorium decades ago, where one couldn’t even hear the bell ring, the crowd was so loud. “You heard of the house that Babe Ruth built, well this is the house Dicky Eklund built.’’
Wednesday’s event even attracted newcomers. Mike Ablove, 65, of Chelmsford, said it was his first boxing event, though he has long been a fan. “Mickey is part of the history of Lowell,’’ he said.
Bob Sutherland, 51, a production manager, recalled seeing the new generation of Sean Eklund and McCreedy in the Golden Gloves. “These are local guys,’’ he said. “I mean, what else can you say about the Irish thunder Mickey Ward, and now he’s training his nephew and Joey McCreedy. It’s good for Lowell.’’
Ward, at 46 years old, strayed from the hoopla and the excitement. It was another fight for him. With a record of 38-13, he had been in plenty, including the storied trilogy with the late Arturo Gatti, a bloodfest of a battle that has its place in boxing lore.
He was there for his nephew, the new fighter. He was telling him to stay calm.
But the crowd was loud. Eklund could hear the locals chanting his name. He recalled later that “it’s a big boost, but you don’t want them to get you out of your game plan.’’
They almost did when they thought - and so did Eklund - that he had hurt his opponent James Ventry of Niagara Falls, N.Y., in the first round. They cheered again when Eklund did hurt his opponent at the end of the fourth with a left hand to the body that was typical of Ward’s go-to punch. They cheered louder in the fifth, when Eklund was losing the round. And they cheered again in the sixth, shouting, “Eklund, Eklund.’’
“I just believed in myself, my team,’’ Eklund said after the fight. He had won a unanimous victory, his 11th, to go with four loses. (McCreedy lost a unanimous decision to Shujaa El-Amin, who captured the vacant United States Boxing Organization super middleweight title.)
Ward told Eklund it was a good fight, a good learning experience. They would like another fight soon.
Eklund’s promoter, CFC Promotion LLC, said it could happen soon, and possibly in Lowell.