Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Christian Bale is not much of a spectator- sports fan, nor is he an expert on sports movies, but this week he finds himself squarely in the epicenter of both worlds.

First he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a rarity for a non-athlete and even more so for an actor.

And Friday he appears in theaters across America in "The Fighter,'' which SI deemed the best sports movie of the decade and which has made Bale a favorite for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

(The SI cover, which also includes co-star Mark Wahlberg, is the first to feature a movie since "Semi-Tough'' 33 years ago.)

It's almost enough to turn an admitted non-cinephile into a sports flick fan, or at least a fan of its most durable subgenre, the boxing movie. Almost.

When I asked Bale last week to name his favorite boxing films, he said, "Um, 'Raging Bull,' obviously. And, um, uh, I don't know. You want to name me some?''

OK. Let's start with "Rocky.'' That rang a bell.

"Actually, I think 'Rocky II' was the first movie I ever went to see in a theater,'' he said. "My dad had liked 'Rocky' so much, he took me along to see 'Rocky II.' ''

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Bale smiled, as he did often during a relaxed 30-minute chat at a Manhattan hotel, one that belied his reputation for extreme intensity as an actor and extreme reluctance as an interview subject.

And the more he talked, the more it was evident that he has a special affection for this particular film and this particular subject, even if he isn't as up on boxing (and other sports) as Wahlberg.

"There's an honesty about boxers,'' he said. "There's a great simplicity to the integrity of it.

"I think also it's just because of the nature of standing up. You see the faces so much and you get more of a character impression and you get very much an impression of personality.''

Bale said he is a fan of mixed martial arts, but its contestants "get less face time because half the time their faces are buried in each other's crotches wrestling around.'' He also likes motorcycle racing, but that sport, like American football, is obscured by helmets.

In "The Fighter,'' Bale portrays Dicky Eklund, half-brother and trainer of Micky Ward in a based-on-a-true-story film about boxing, family and working-class culture in Lowell, Mass.

As he always does, Bale inhales the role, a character who goes from trading blows with Sugar Ray Leonard to doing blow and turning into an addict and a convict.

It is a transformation so complete that it was easy to forget that the emaciated, Boston-accented drug abuser in the film is the same guy as the long-haired, English-accented gentleman seated across the table.

Despite their differences, Bale struck up a friendship with the real-life Eklund, who helped prepare him for the boxing scenes shot on a tight three-day schedule because of a limited budget.

As with most sports films, perhaps the biggest trick is portraying action realistically. Wahlberg trained incessantly and insisted on accuracy. It paid off.

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"I think it has that kind of immediacy to it, more so than any movie I've seen,'' Bale said.

The fight scenes are no-frills but effective, and the violence never becomes gratuitous, as it has done in many past boxing movies.

While Wahlberg was putting on muscle, Bale was dropping 30 pounds - even more than that compared to his Batman-playing peaks - to capture Eklund, the first living person he ever has recreated on screen.

"He's very lean and wiry,'' Bale said. "Also, there is the fact they fought as welterweights, and then on top of that part of the movie, I had to play a crackhead. You don't see too many fat crackheads.''

Still, Eklund's natural athleticism comes across through Bale.

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"He could go out drinking all night to the point most of us would be crawling on the floor and he'd be jumping in the boxing ring winning fights,'' the actor said.

Bale, 36, recalls casually watching the boxers a British lad would have been expected to follow in the 1980s, such as Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Barry McGuigan.

But for "The Fighter," his focus was studying the work of Eklund and Ward, including the latter's three fights against Arturo Gatti, which are not portrayed in the film.

Like generations of moviemakers before him, Bale came to appreciate how much the sport lends itself to filmed drama.

"It's the faces,'' he said. "You see the effects of the punch, are able to judge who's going to win based on the fortitude in their face. That is why it will always be so fascinating.''