I’m not a fan of boxing as a sport—I don’t do violence—but one of my favorite movies is 2010’s the Fighter, which chronicles the rise of Micky “Irish” Ward to the World Welterweight title in the 1990’s. The film (which also happens to be a true story) follows two brothers- Micky and Dicky. Dicky, the charismatic older brother was once a fighter with promising potential, but has fallen from his career peak of fighting Sugar Ray Leonard now struggles with crack addiction. The dream hasn’t died for Dicky though–he lives vicariously through his little brother Micky. Micky, the quiet younger brother, spends his days working on a Public Works crew in their hometown of Lowell, MA, spreading asphalt as he boxes on the side in smaller matches on the weekends in Atlantic City or at the Foxwoods, a Connecticut Casino.
Dicky trains Micky but as with many drug addicts, can be somewhat unreliable and Micky. Micky has had a losing streak. To add insult to injury his manager (who is also his mother—what a family!) books him for a fight in which he is outmatched and loses badly.
The bright spot of the night is an offer from a manager to come out to Las Vegas to train and receive a monthly paycheck. The family convinces Micky against his better judgement to pass on the offer and stay with the award-winning family management team, however.
Things go further downhill when Micky hurts his hand in a fist fight defending Dicky, which takes him out of the ring and almost leads him to give up boxing for good. His girlfriend Charlene however encourages him to not give up and to find a new manager.
Slowly but surely the victories begin to pile up under his new trainer and manager.
The rise continues: In a fight with Alfonso Sanchez, an undefeated fighter from Mexico, Micky pulls out the victory after eight brutal rounds and a near knockout of Micky by Sanchez. With this victory Micky has now earned a shot at the world welterweight title in London.
In the title bout, Micky is up against undefeated fighter Shea Neary. It is a rough match, and Micky is knocked to the ground in the 7th round. After the 7th round, Dicky (now allowed back in the fold as a brother but not a trainer) gives him some motivational words to push him to knock Neary out. A determined yet battered Micky downs Neary in the 8th round and wins by TKO.
If “The Fighter” was a Pixar movie, it would probably follow one or more of the 22 rules Pixar uses to create appealing stories. Numbers 4 and 16 stick out to me:
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
In the context of “the Fighter”, #4 then becomes:
#4: Once upon a time there were two brothers who were boxers. Every day, the little brother trained for the big fight with his brother as trainer and mother as manager. One day he screwed up the courage to step out from underneath his mother and brother and decide to achieve his dream of being a championship boxer. Because of that, he got a new trainer, manager and started his boxing career from scratch. Because of that, he began to win. Until finally he goes to London to win the world Welterweight title and everyone knows him as Micky Ecklund, the fighter, not Micky Ecklund, Dicky Ecklund’s little brother.
And a possible answer to #16 would be:
We root for Micky because we know the fire is within him. He loves his family, but he wants to be his own man and determine his own destiny. Charlene believes in him and he doesn’t want to lose her. Micky’s rise to boxing fame, his quiet affirmation of himself as a man in his own right, and his forgiveness towards his brother all make one root for him.
If Micky stays the same, he will live his life out under his mother and brother’s thumb; the status quo means cleaning up his brother’s messes at his own expense and his dream slowly fading away as he becomes too old to box. They want him to be a great boxer too, but for selfish reasons that aren’t good for Micky, as evidenced by the fights his mother booked for him and their putting the kibosh on the Las Vegas offer. In addition, his mother and brother strain the relationship between Micky and his girlfriend, Charlene with whom he is becoming increasingly serious.
Using the story spine is like a more advanced version of Pixar’s 4th rule. Mapping the story this way helped me to see the importance of “the event”- namely when Micky breaks his hand defending his brother and loses almost all hope:
The Story Spine
|Once Upon a Time…||
|There were two brothers who were boxers.|
|Every Day…||The little brother trained for the big fight with his brother as trainer and mother as manager.|
|But One Day…||
|After a string of losses and going-nowhere bouts, he breaks his hand in a fist fight defending his good-for-nothing older brother.|
|Because of That…||
|With a broken hand and little hope of ever making it in boxing, he almost throws in the towel.|
|Because of That…||Instead of giving up, he starts over. With the support of his girlfriend, he assembles a new team—new trainer and new manager.|
|Because of That…||He begins to win small bouts, and then increasingly big bouts.|
|He goes to London to win the world Welterweight title.|
|And, ever since then…||
|Everyone knows him as Micky Ecklund, the fighter, not Micky Ecklund, Dicky Ecklund’s little brother.|