NEW YORK – Thousands of movie-goers filled theaters across the country last weekend to see Mark Wahlberg's stirring portrayal of Micky Ward in "The Fighter."
The film about the hard-scrabble Boston-area boxer raked in more than $12 million its first full weekend, has been nominated for six Golden Globes and figures to be an Oscar darling when nominations are announced next month. Wahlberg and co-star Christian Bale even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, which trumpeted the film as an instant classic.
The sport itself only wishes it could get the same kind of publicity.
While boxing remains one of the great storytelling backdrops, with its inherent drama and truthful cliches about long odds and overcoming adversity, the sport continues to suffer. Empty seats greeted fighters stepping into the ring in 2010, and the one fight that many hoped would generate some verve — Manny Pacquiao against Floyd Mayweather Jr. — still hasn't happened.
It creates this seemingly incongruous juxtaposition: Boxing has never been more popular on the big screen, and perhaps never less popular in real life.
"You've got a couple things happening, you've got mixed martial arts and you've got no great heavyweight champion. You're going to need great boxers to bring people back to the sport," said Wahlberg, who first met Ward about two decades ago and has spent plenty of time with him at Arthur Ramalho's unpretentious West End Gym in Lowell, Mass.
"My thing is, every boxer that I've ever met has a story worth telling on the big screen or a book or television," Wahlberg said. "It takes a very special individual to choose boxing as a career, and usually the sport chooses them anyway, not having any alternatives."
Perhaps that is why boxing has been a formula for cinematic success.
Martin Scorsese's epic "Raging Bull," which landed Robert DeNiro the Academy Award for best actor in 1981, is still considered a masterpiece. "Cinderella Man" got three Oscar nominations in 2006, two years after "Million Dollar Baby" nabbed golden statuettes for best picture, best director (Clint Eastwood), best actress (Hilary Swank) and supporting actor (Morgan Freeman).
Then there's the film that started it all, the original "Rocky," which took home two Oscars in 1976 and is still spawning sequels. Sylvester Stallone's portrayal of the fictional fighter from Philadelphia even got him elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame this year.
"The two things that brought boxing back to the forefront with the public was the great success of the 1976 Olympic team and when Sylvester Stallone gave us our heavyweight champion, Rocky Balboa," Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward said. "Stallone gave to boxing just as much as any promoter or network in the history of boxing."
It helped the sport experience a short-lived renaissance in the 1970s and '80s, though the steady stream of folks who walked from movie theaters straight into arenas ran dry years ago.
Exorbitant ticket prices during a poor economy, squabbling among promoters, out-of-control sanctioning bodies and few identifiable stars have crippled attendance, especially in the United States. When Pacquiao fought Antonio Margarito at Cowboys Stadium last month, the 41,734 paid patrons were less than what promoters and team owner Jerry Jones had hoped.
Bob Arum, who has been promoting fights for more than four decades, was optimistic that 30,000 fans would come to see Miguel Cotto face Yuri Foreman in June. The first fight at the new Yankee Stadium instead drew just over 20,000 to the grand ballpark in the Bronx.
Both of those events had major attractions — Pacquiao, boxing's biggest star, and Cotto, wildly popular in New York — along with novel venues. But when those ingredients were missing, even fewer fans were turning the turnstiles.
Sergio Martinez's stunning one-punch knockout of Paul Williams in a middleweight title fight was witnessed by 5,502 fans at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. In Las Vegas, the self-proclaimed "Fight Town," junior welterweight champion Amir Khan and Marcos Maidana drew 4,632 people.
"If we were doing one fight a month and all the promoters were combined into one shell, I think it would be overflowing crowds," promoter Dan Goossen said. "But we do so many multiple fights in each and every state, you're obviously not always going to have overflow crowds.
"What is hurt is getting the message out to the fans. Sometimes you get that television fee from HBO or Showtime, and you get your site deal done, you sit back and divvy up the money, and you kind of forget about the grass roots effort, and I think that's where we've been negligent, not having promoters actively doing what their titles suggest."
Goossen admits that he's hoping to see an uptick in attendance with the success of "The Fighter," along with numerous other boxing-themed films and television series on tap.
In the past year, ESPN's groundbreaking "30 for 30" series featured a documentary about the 1980 fight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, and Frederick Wiseman earned rave reviews for a separate documentary called "Boxing Gym" that showed at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly star in a film called "Real Steel" that's scheduled for release in 2011. Produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, Jackman plays a washed-up fighter who promotes matches in the future in which boxers have been replaced by machines.
On the small screen, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson stars in a reality show about his passion for pigeon racing on Animal Planet next year. And cable channel FX has filmed the first season of the drama "Lights Out," debuting in January, about a former heavyweight champion who struggles to find an identity and support his family outside the ring.
"I don't know that boxing is coming back, but drama about boxing is coming back," said the show's executive producer, Warren Leight. "One of the reasons I found 'Lights Out' a compelling project, the last few years everyone has been beaten up pretty badly, its been a pretty rough time. I came in and thought this is a perfect metaphor for what we're all going through."
Leight remembers how, when he was a kid, Ali and Joe Frazier brought boxing the same kind of attention that professional football and baseball have enjoyed. He equated the sport to jazz and theater, which "have been dying for a hundred years" but still have passionate devotees.
"On some level, America is hungry for a hero again, and the other thing I think is there's no whiners in boxing. We're at a point where the NBA is cracking down on whining," Leight said with a chuckle. "Boxing is really kind of a pure sport. It's two guys, no team, no coach, and there's something elemental — a beauty — that works for drama."
Those who make their living in the sport realize the drama is real.
Devon Alexander survived the crack-infested streets of Hyde Park in St. Louis to become a world champion. Pacquiao has gone from impoverished child of Manila streets to a Congressman in the Philippines. Welterweight champ Andre Berto took aid to Haiti following an earthquake that ravaged the island nation, and robbed him of eight family members who'd been living there.
"I guess my sense is, you want to tell a story about people coming back and getting up after getting knocked down," Leight said. "The world of boxing, it's a very tight-knit community, and they're hoping these shows catch on. Maybe put a little spotlight on what they do."