NEW YORK - Thousands of moviegoers filled theaters across the country last weekend to see Mark Wahlberg's stirring portrayal of Micky Ward in The Fighter.
The film about the hardscrabble 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 costar 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 clichés 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 West End Gym in Lowell, Mass.
"It takes a very special individual to choose boxing as a career," Wahlberg said, "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 De Niro 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 Kensington pug 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 fewer than what promoters and team owner Jerry Jones had hoped would attend.
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 drew a little more than 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.
"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."
Goossen acknowledges 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 last 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, which that was shown 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.
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 [was that] the last few years everyone has been beaten up pretty badly."
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 had been living there.