Mark Wahlberg stars as a struggling boxer in David O. Russell's film

By Jeff Labrecque
November 12, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST
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With his famous abs, Mark Wahlberg was destined to play a boxer. But like a young challenger with a lethal left hook, the Oscar-nominated actor had to wait for his shot at the title. Four years ago, he began training to play Micky Ward, the real-life scrapper whose complex relationship with his troubled half brother, Dicky Eklund, is at the heart of director David O. Russell’s The Fighter (out Dec. 10). What was supposed to be a few months of spartan conditioning stretched into years, as the project languished in development over casting and financing troubles.

Early on, Wahlberg and his boxing trainer, Bo Cleary, made a decision about their strategy to prep the star. ”Bo always said, ‘If we stay in shape, we don’t have to get in shape,”’ recalls Wahlberg, 39. ”And I wanted to look like a world-class boxer, not just like some actor who can box pretty good.” So Wahlberg built a boxing ring at his Beverly Hills home. When he went away to shoot other projects, he took his trainers along. From Philadelphia (The Happening) to Toronto (Max Payne), Wahlberg immersed himself in the sweet science. ”We’d get up at four in the morning and work the speed bag for an hour before he went to set,” says Cleary, 44, a fitness coach who’s known Wahlberg for 15 years. ”In the afternoon, I’d bring the gloves to the set, and he’d give me six rounds and go back to work sweaty. The director would be like, ‘Don’t get too sweaty.”’

When Christian Bale came aboard to play Dicky and The Fighter got a green light, the workouts became obsessive. ”We’d train 8, 10 hours a day,” says Wahlberg. ”Micky and Dicky [came and] lived at my house, and we would start the day at six in the morning, running eight miles to church and back. We’d have breakfast and then start training.” Micky was a master with the jump rope, and Dicky warned Wahlberg off trying to duplicate his half brother’s difficult double-crossover jumps. ”That’s all Mark needed to hear,” Cleary says. ”He wouldn’t stop jumping rope for two hours, and he ended up doing 23 consecutive [double crossovers on film].”

Jumping rope is one thing, but trading blows with professional boxers is another. ”There were times where I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?”’ admits Wahlberg, who sparred scores of rounds with seasoned fighters. ”They want to pop you, and they want you to lay down. But I’m the same way. I still got the ring in my house.”

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