Miguel Espino: Real-Life Rocky Goes Hollywood in 'The Fighter'
Miguel Espino rode a five-year, 11-bout winning streak that had included six knockouts, with four straight stoppages into what, at the time, was the biggest fight of his career. Not only was Espino was the 29-year-old father of a toddler, but he was caring for his legally blind mother, Ana Garcia, with whom he had lived for the past four years and whom he has helped to support in North Hollywood, Calif., since her nasty divorce from his cheating father.
Espino had lost just twice 23 bouts with one draw and nine knockouts entering his HBO televised, Top Rank Promotions December, 2009, clash with WBO and WBC middleweight (160 pounds) king Kelly Pavlik, who had lost only once in 36 bouts with 31 knockouts. And in what appeared to be a real-life "Rocky" story awaiting fruition, Espino attacked from the opening bell until the bout's completion.
But Espino was dropped twice in the fourth round, and, once more in the next before his trainer, John Bray, signaled for referee Steve Smoger to stop the bout at 1:44 of the fifth round, this, before Pavlik's screaming, hometown fans at Youngstown State's Beeghly Center in Youngstown, Ohio.
So it appeared that there would be no Hollywood ending for Espino.
But, in actuality, there is.
For Espino plays the role of rising boxer, Alfonso Sanchez, in the movie, The Fighter, which opened nationwide on Friday. Based on boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (38-13-1, 27 knockouts), who is played by Mark Wahlberg, the film is the inspirational true story of how Ward successfully rises to become a fringe world titlist even as he is one of nine adult children in a dysfunctional family run by their hard-scrabble mother in a blue-collar neighborhood of Lowell, Mass.
Espino's role in The Fighter isn't the first time he's been involved in art imitating life before a camera. Espino was chosen by Oscar-winning, Rocky series director, Sylvester Stallone, as one of the fighters on the inaugural boxing series, The Contender.
FanHouse caught up to Espino recently for this Q&A, where he talks about his mother, his daughter, and his role in the film.
FanHouse: So, Miguel, how did you come to be involved in The Fighter?
Miguel Espino: Well, my trainer, John Bray, his brother, Ben Bray, he's a big-time stunt coordinator in Hollywood. He had me audition on tape, real quick, and he interviewed me and videotaped me. Then I had to meet Mark Wahlberg, and we clicked.
I met the director, David O. Russell, and we clicked. And I was like, 'Okay, cool.' They felt that I fit the description, more or less, of Alfonso Sanchez, the name of the character that I was playing. After that, we just started rehearsing and going through the routines of the fight.
Did your experience with The Contender help to prepare you for this?
No, not really. Because I had to learn how to roll with the punches instead of actually taking them like you do in a real fight. So that the appearance had to be more dramatic, so it was pretty much Ben helping me, really.
They were the ones walking me through everything. They were there every day.
How were the fight scenes coordinated and structured?
They would just ask me questions like, 'Where are the judges sitting usually during a fight?', and, stuff like that. But Ben Bray had a lot of experience with fighters through John, obviously, and they knew the game, pretty much, hands down.
It was mostly Ben's choreography in the movie, so we kind of based it on that. David O. Russell threw in his take a little bit. They definitely asked for certain suggestions, but it was mostly the director, the stunt coordinator.
If I was asked for a suggestion, then I would offer my opinion. But you don't just start talking, you know?
What's your assessment of whether or not Mark Wahlberg would make a good fighter?
I think that, yeah, he would. When we were practicing the fight scenes, he turned, like, 38 years old. So he's sort of old to be a fighter, but, you know, when he was younger, yeah, I think that he could do it, for sure. Man, every day, he's just like me.
I'm from the hood, he's sort of from the hood. I think that he dropped out of high school. And he knew a lot about me. He knew that I was a contender. Every day, he wanted to go body shots. Like, Ben would have to tell us, 'Okay, that's it.'
But he would go hard, too. He would ask me to hit him harder. He's just a competitive guy, you know? He likes to get in there and go body shots. We would be playing around, and he would hit me with a shot to the body, and I would go, 'Ahhh.'
And we would talk about it, like, it was cool. I would be like, 'Let's do it,' and we would throw body shots.
As I understand it, Alfonso Sanchez was unbeaten when he faced Micky Ward?
I'm not a huge puncher, but a decent puncher. Alfonso was an up and coming bad-a**ed Mexican from Mexico, and a huge puncher. There were three fight scenes, and everyone had to watch them. But, yeah, I had to learn how he moved.
I had to learn how he threw his punches, because, Micky was getting absolutely dominated by this guy in the fight, and then, Larry Merchant and Roy Jones and Jim Lampley were the commentators, and they were like, 'Oh, Micky Ward should retire.'
They were like, 'He should give it up.' And then, he gets the guy with a punch to the face and to the body and freezes him up and knocks him out. Sanchez and I were different. I would say that I'm more of a volume puncher, and he's more of a settle down and knock you out.
But we're both Mexican. I was born here, obviously, but we're similar. I had to grow a little 'fro,' couldn't cut my hair for like a month, but it was cool.
Were you able to actually meet and associate with Micky Ward during the filming?
Of course, we met at least 10 times. John Bray, my trainer, went way back with him as well. Great guy, very humble like most fighters and very reserved and respectful. He's just a great guy and solid as a rock.
He's still in pretty good shape, like, if you hit him, messing around, he's hard as a rock. It's crazy. I wanted to feel that body shot, so I had him throw one at me. He didn't throw it as hard as he could, but I still felt it.
We were just messing around. It was just a little tap, though, nothing crazy.
Can you discuss your relationship with your mother, and how she is doing?
I live with her in North Hollywood. From time to time, I stay with my friends once in a while. But, yeah, I help her out with everything that I possibly can. She's very independent for being legally blind. People think that she's completely blind.
But she's very independent. Like, right now, she's at home. She'll get home at around 6 p.m. and she goes to Los Angeles City College. She doesn't like to be helped as much as maybe I would like her to be helped. But, I'm here for her as much as I can be.
But, you know, I have my life, too. I have my daughter, Abigail Angel Espino. She was born on April 17 of last year. So, my mom takes general education.
What do you do for a living right now?
I've been buying cars and fixing them up and selling them. I buy them at the auctions and I've been doing auto body work. I'm thinking of taking the money that I made from the Pavlik fight and using that to go into that trade, because I really like it.
I love cars, so I think that I might do that. Or I may get back into shape for another fight, if there are any big, money fight opportunities out there for me.
What are your thoughts on Sylvester Stallone being inducted into the Hall of Fame?
I think that he deserves it. I definitely relate to the Rocky story. I think that any boxer would. Sylvester never fought, but I think that he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. He started The Contender to try to keep boxing from dying.
They wanted to bring it back to mainstream, and I think that he's tried to do a lot for boxing and that he's done a lot for boxing. So, yeah, I'm glad for him, and I know that he's a huge boxing fan, so, more power to him. I really loved all of the Rocky movies.
I think that every fighter in the world can relate to the Rocky movies, because, you know, there are very few boxers -- maybe a handful in history -- that were born with money and decided to fight. I think that 99 percent of us relate to that.
I think that's what makes great fighters -- the hunger, like, you're broke. You don't have anything to eat. You have that big fight opportunity and you start to succeed. I think that every fighter relates to being broke at some point and wanting that success.
Do you have a message for Kelly Pavlik, who has endured problems with alcohol?
I know that he's having his troubles, and all of that, and that can be a problem for boxers. I would tell him to put his pride aside, take the help, and to put his faith in God. He's a good guy.