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Sport on Film: Glove story packs a punch but Ward won't win top award

The Fighter could have been a contender for an Academy Award this evening, if there hadn't been so many other boxing movies jabbing away at the judges in the last dozen years – Million Dollar Baby, Ali, Hurricane, Cinderella Man. It's like the sport itself, where a proliferation of world title fights has rather devalued the meaning of being a champion. The lords of the ring may have to settle for an Oscar de la Hoya rather than the real thing.

That's not to say that The Fighter doesn't deserve to win Best Picture – it has been nominated – and there are so many candidates in the Best Supporting categories that there may be a punch-up: Christian Bale as Micky Ward's crack addict half-brother Dicky Eklund; Amy Adams as Ward's girl Charlene; and Melissa Leo as his domineering mother Alice.

The one who definitely won't pick up a gong is Mark Wahlberg, who plays Micky; he was not on the list, which is probably right since his character comes across like a thick ear when set against the mayhem wreaked by Dicky, Alice and her seven daughters with their terrifying hairspray creations. Their infighting leaves the boxing out for the count.

As films "based on a true story" go, this one is truer than most. Micky was a journeyman boxing in the shadows of Dicky, the Pride of Lowell who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (or did he trip?) but drifted into addiction and recidivism while supposedly training his sibling. A film crew follows Dicky around making a documentary about crack addiction which was actually screened on HBO.

The Fighter was supposed to be a sequel about Dicky after 10 years in prison but over the next decade it evolved into a feature film. This was partly due to Wahlberg's backing. He grew up in a nearby Boston suburb as one of a similarly enormous brood. Ward was his local hero, and the families knew each other.

The actor came in as a producer, then spent four years honing his physique until he looked like a real boxer. Robert de Niro famously shed the pounds, then piled them back on to depict Raging Bull's Jake la Motta but Wahlberg's method was more meticulous. He had Ward over to stay at his Hollywood home for weeks on end and mimicked him precisely. Bale's searing and brilliant portrayal of Dicky was similarly studied.

For a change, the noble art doesn't have to dodge the punches. Boxing is shown at its most brutal – Ward's tactic was take the blows rope-a-dope style – but there is no medical sermon, nor is the sport held up as a cause of Dicky's decline. This film is about the family, if not a family film.

Yet the boxing sequences still knock spots off the more stylised depictions in Raging Bull and Rocky. It may not be the focus of attention but it is choreographed more faithfully than ever before. Wahlberg copied the way Ward fought. He also took on real boxers in long camera takes rather than recreating the fights in the editing suite – Ward credited him with a decent left hook.

The film ends before Ward's three "Fights of the Century" against Arturo Gatti, which earned him $3m. Eklund got off the crack and kept the gym going. The only downside was that the family kept feuding. But when it comes to a Big Fat Irish Punch-Up, it's probably best not to get involved. At the end of the film, at least you can "just walk away".