Prison guard, steamroller driver, one-time junior welterweight contender, Micky Ward's resume is the stuff of tough-guy fiction. He's also perhaps the only boxer in history who conceivably could have a street named after him and then pave it himself.
"Hopefully, it wouldn't be real bumpy," Ward said. "That's the road I took. Windy, bumpy, hilly."
Ward, 37, says his journeyman boxing career will wind to an end Saturday night in Atlantic City. He will face Arturo Gatti for the third act in their savage trilogy. Their first bloody encounter, a split decision won by Ward in May 2002, was the consensus fight of the year, including a back-and-forth ninth round that almost instantly took its place in the boxing canon.
The second bout, in November, was the first seven-figure payday of a career that has included $500 fights at a dog track. Ward (38-12), his balance gone after a hard shot that broke his eardrum in the third round, had no answer for a suddenly slick Gatti, who won a lopsided unanimous decision.
Ward is set to earn $750,000 Saturday night. Then the man nicknamed "Irish" says he will walk away.
The prevailing opinion heading into Saturday is that the fight is Gatti's gift to Ward, a coda to an 18-year pro career of a club fighter who made good. Most of those years, Ward has been an underdog and relishes the role once more.
"That's exactly what we want," said Dicky Eklund, Ward's half-brother and trainer.
Ward's career has been a series of comebacks. Raised in Lowell, a mill town outside of Boston, he began boxing while following around Eklund, a one-time contender himself who was the first to knock down Sugar Ray Leonard as a pro.
"I was the first one to make it big," said Eklund, 46. "Growing up, he idolized me."
Fighting in a classic Irish-American style -- straight-ahead, stay in front of your opponent and keep moving forward -- Ward did well enough early on to earn two shots at a USBA title, losing to Charles Murray and Frankie Warren. The Murray loss was part of a four-fight losing streak that appeared to end Ward's career in 1991.
"The one thing I didn't want to do was become a steppingstone, become the guy to beat for guys coming up, a name for them to take," Ward said. "I didn't want to become a name."
He stayed out of the ring for three years, taking a job as a guard at the Billerica (Mass.) House of Corrections. Then he took a job at the paving company, where he has worked for a decade since (while not in training) operating a steamroller.
The layoff told him how much he missed boxing. Ward found himself "wanting it more than I ever had before," and he tentatively got back into the ring, fighting seven times over three years in New England.
In 1996, he went to Sal LoNano, a New England-based manager, and asked for help. Over the next three years, LoNano put together Team Ward: promoter Al Valenti, cutman Al Gavin and publicist Bob Trieger. All are still with Ward.
The only problem was the trainer. Eklund was in jail for armed robbery, one of over two dozen drug-related arrests.
"Every month I went through a new trainer, and I couldn't get the right chemistry," LoNano said. "When Dicky came home, it was a whole new ballgame."
Eklund, who has been clean for eight years, was released after nearly five years inside in 1999, and shepherded Ward through a series of upsets.
Ward appeared 26 times on ESPN, the farm system for the premium cable networks that bankroll major boxing. Most of those bouts came against fighters with few or no losses, rising prospects looking to put Ward's name on their record.
"They loved him because he'll be right in your face for 10 rounds and give you a hell of a show," LoNano said.
He was brought in to lose, but more often than not, he didn't -- upsetting Jermal Corbin, Washington's Reggie Green, Shea Neary and Emanuel Augustus with Eklund in his corner. Most came from his signature punch, a left hook to the liver.
Ward had become what he had wanted to avoid -- an opponent. But he flourished in the role. "I didn't mind because I felt like I had control," Ward said. "It was different. I wanted to be in there."
Then Lou DiBella stepped in. A longtime admirer of Ward's while an HBO executive in the 1990s, DiBella had since formed his own promotional company. One of the first fighters he brought in was Ward.
In his second fight on HBO under DiBella, Ward took on a fighter at the crossroads of his career, looking for a name opponent to test him -- Arturo Gatti.
The series has secured Ward a place in boxing history, as well as bankrolled his retirement.
Strongarmed by Main Events, Gatti's promoter, Ward could have made more than $750,000 for the third Gatti fight had he left DiBella; he chose to stick by the man who had made him more money in three fights than he had made in his entire career combined.
"Micky will tell you we have a contract, and I will tell you we have a contract, but it's really a handshake deal," DiBella said. "It's the only one I have left, because Micky Ward is the most stand-up guy in the world of boxing, and his team is the exact same way."
Ward has no set plans for his post-boxing career, other than a long-delayed trip to Ireland and an eventual return to the steamroller -- he's in the union. He's put most of his money in the bank; his big expenditures over the past five years have been a Corvette, bought at auction, and a time-share in the Caribbean.
There has been no radical makeover of Ward's charging style for the fight, no change in training, other than going harder, more of everything. "I have done everything I possibly can do to get ready for this," Ward said. "I don't have any excuses, I didn't cut any corners. If I get beat by a better man, I can deal with that and walk away."