Sometimes he could be scary to watch. That might have been when he was at his best.
For Arturo "Thunder" Gatti, there was never a fight too dangerous, never a chance in the ring too risky to take, and never an opponent too daunting a task. When news came down the wire on Saturday that the 37-year old Gatti was killed in Brazil, it almost didn't seem real to me. Gatti was dead? How?
With boxing and any other combat sport, there's always that risk that any fight will be someone's last. Gatti's epic wars often seemed as though they were riding on that frightening line. There he'd be in center ring: Pouring blood, eyes swollen shut, arms exhausted and dangling, throwing desperation shots and sometimes receiving twice as many back. He had an unreal ability to take punishment, smile through the pain, and carry on doing his job.
The tragic end of his life means, sadly, that we now are left only with the memories of his in-ring career. The silver lining is what amazing memories they truly are.
The Early Days
Gatti was an amateur boxer, which may sound strange to those that know him as the blood-and-guts warrior he would become. While training to make the 1992 Canadian Olympic team, the Italian-born, Montreal-raised Gatti decided to turn professional at 19 instead, possibly because he didn't have the style to be a world-class amateur. Having moved to New Jersey, Gatti made his pro debut in Seacaucus on June 10, 1991, knocking out a 25-year old fighter named Jose Gonzales. He would win his next five bouts before suffering a six-round split decision loss to King Solomon at the famous Blue Horizon in Philadelphia in November '92.
Coming off the loss, Gatti made his first trip abroad, traveling to Rotterdam for a first round TKO victory over Plamen Guechev. He would only fight outside of the U.S. twice more in his career: A second trip to the Netherlands in 1995, and his lone fight on Canadian soil in Montreal in 2000, a ten-round decision win against Joe Hutchinson.
He first started really getting some traction on his career in 1994, picking up his first trinket when he beat Pete Taliaferro for the USBA 130-pound title. In 1995, the world stage came calling. Gatti stepped into the ring with Tracy Harris Patterson, the adopted son of the legendary Floyd Patterson, and the two went to war. So it began for the legacy Arturo Gatti would create.
Gatti came out of that fight with Patterson's title and a tight, action-packed unanimous decision win. His first title defense in 1996 against Wilson Rodriguez was nominated for Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year honors, as Gatti rebounded from a second round knockdown to drop Rodriguez in the fifth and stop him in the sixth. He met Patterson again in 1997, and this time dominated the action a bit more. A star was rising.
Fight of the Year
In October 1997, Gatti met Gabriel Ruelas in Atlantic City, and the result was electrifying. Gatti was drilled by an uppercut in the fourth round and absorbed a nasty amount of punishment with no answer before the bell rang to mercifully end the round.
The next round, the magic happened. Gatti found Ruelas with a left hook, and the night was over. The bout was named 1997 Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine.
The Gatti Market Crashes: Lightweight '98
When 1997 ended, so did Gatti's rise. 1998 proved to be the toughest year of his career, as he moved up to the lightweight division to face Angel Manfredy in January and was stopped in the eighth round. His next fight came in August against Ivan Robinson, another vintage Gatti war that saw Robinson go down in the fourth but come back from it, winning a close split decision over ten rounds that gave Gatti a second straight loss, but also wound up netting him a second straight Ring Magazine Fight of the Year. It was also named Upset of the Year by the publication.
Gatti and Robinson would meet again in December of '98, and again Gatti came up short, this time via unanimous decision.
So here was Gatti in 1998, at 26 years of age. He had been 130-pound champion of the world, and now was 0-3 as a 135-pound fighter. Where do you go? Action or not, results have to come. He fought just once in 1999, beating Reyes Munoz (TKO-1) at 140 pounds, which is where he would stay. He rattled off three wins in 2000 at junior welterweight, one of which was quite notable for the controversy that surrounded it.
When Gatti faced Joey Gamache in 2000, he stopped the veteran in two rounds, not at all a shocking sort of thing, really. What made it newsworthy more than anything was Gatti's 19-pound weight gain after the official weigh-in, with accusations swirling that he had not in fact made the weight (an agreed-upon 141). After Gatti-Gamache, boxing commissions got busy and tried to set a limit on how much weight fighters could gain after the weigh-in, and also started weighing fighters a second time.
Gatti decided to take the risk and move all the way up to 147 pounds in 2001 to take a big-money fight against Oscar de la Hoya, which proved frankly far beyond his skill level. "The Golden Boy" had hit a bit of a rough patch, losing two of his last three fights, both in debated fashion to Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley. Gatti was a perfect foil for Oscar and his new trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr.: He was exciting, people liked to watch him fight, and he wasn't near a real threat to them.
Oscar proved his rather predictable superiority to the gutsy Gatti, who gave it all he had but was chewed up by de la Hoya in the process. Oscar landed a staggering percentage of the punches he threw, was the bigger, stronger, and faster man, and dominated Gatti for five rounds until the Gatti corner threw in the towel. The fight was less a contest than it was target practice for de la Hoya.
Gatti didn't fight for ten months. In January 2002, he beat Terron Millett via fourth round TKO.
The Gatti-Ward Trilogy
It has been surpassed by Vazquez-Marquez as my personal favorite trilogy, but if you're reading this and have still never seen the three fights between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, get yourself to YouTube immediately. Gatti and Ward put on spectacles that would have made the nastiest Hell's Angels wince.
Their first fight was undoubtedly their best. Two men at a crossroads. Ward, a battle-tested veteran who won the 2000 Fight of the Year for his brawl with Emanuel Burton, was the kind of guy you could never count out. He was a merciless attacker with a heart that matched even Gatti's.
It can't be put into words what they did that night. Instead of trying to describe it, just go watch round nine, the greatest of them all.
When all 10 rounds were said and done, Ward left with a majority decision victory, making Gatti just 5-5 in his last 10 outings. But for the third time, a Gatti brawl won Fight of the Year.
When they met again in November 2002, Gatti clearly beat Ward in another ten-rounder, winning on scores of 98-90, 98-91 and 98-91. It was his best total performance in years, and put him back in the game. Their rubber match in June 2003 had high stakes, and high drama. A better war than the second bout, Ward went out on his shield with another decision loss. It would be his final fight. For an amazing fourth time, Arturo Gatti was a participant in the Fight of the Year.
Like many great rivals, Gatti and Ward will forever be linked to one another. Said Gatti of Ward in 2002, "He is me. He’s everything I am. He’s a true warrior and I have nothing but respect for him."
With his mojo back, Gatti took "0s" from both Gianluca Branco and Leonard Dorin in 2004. Dorin never fought again after he was demolished by a single body shot from Gatti in the second round, and the Branco fight gave Gatti his first major title since he vacated his 130-pound strap after the Ruelas fight.
In 2005, Gatti met Jesse James Leija, a veteran who had fought the likes of Ward, Shane Mosley and Kostya Tszyu. Gatti knocked him out in the fifth round, and for the second straight fight, retired his opponent. Leija never fought again.
On a roll, Gatti was back in high demand, and for the second time in his career, he was seen as an easy payday. I don't say this to disrespect Gatti, but there's really no other way to put it.
With his impressive five-fight winning streak, Gatti was matched up with undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. in June 2005. Mayweather was a deserving favorite among those picking with their heads, but few were with him in their hearts. It didn't matter. Like the Oscar fight, Gatti was not just out of his league, but dramatically so. Mayweather made him look like a rank amateur for six rounds before his corner threw in the towel as he was being ripped to shreds by a superior technician, basically an even uglier repeat of the Oscar loss.
Gatti returned in January 2006 to defeat Thomas Damgaard at Boardwalk Hall via 11th round TKO in his official move to the welterweight division.
End of the Line
When Carlos Baldomir upset Zab Judah to win the world welterweight championship in January '06, it sent shockwaves throughout the sport. Judah had already signed a big money April fight with Mayweather before trying to get the Baldomir fight "out of the way." After Judah lost, the Mayweather-Judah bout went on as planned. But something else happened.
With the relatively unknown Baldomir now official lord of the welterweights, he needed an opponent. Obviously his story was amazing and inspirational, but it probably wasn't one HBO would have budgeted in by plan. Baldomir wasn't a special fighter, really, or anything unique. So they needed some sizzle. In stepped Gatti.
And out went Gatti's career.
Baldomir manhandled Gatti for nine rounds before the fight was stopped. Gatti threw heavy shots, landed OK, looked in good shape, and simply couldn't have dented Baldomir with a sledgehammer that night. It was obvious that he just was not a 147-pound fighter. Many assumed that Gatti may retire.
He didn't. He came back one year later to face "Contender" alum Alfonso Gomez, a lightly-regarded non-contender with a great personality and some popularity from the reality show. Gomez figured to be no pushover for the aging, possibly-shot Gatti, but most of us figured the veteran Gatti had enough left to win one against a guy like that.
We were wrong. Gomez battered Gatti even worse than Baldomir had, and when the final, vicious 1-2 connected on Gatti's chin and split his lip wide open, a deflated Boardwalk Hall crowd and everyone watching on HBO knew it: The end was here for Arturo Gatti.
He made it official after the fight, with his final trainer by his side. That trainer was Micky Ward.
Arturo Gatti essentially left us a treasure chest of fights to cherish for all times. He was one of those fighters we'll never forget, a warrior by whom all other warriors should be measured. What he lacked in speed or power or footwork or whatever he made up for in pure guts. There is no exaggerating Arturo Gatti unless you want to make him a video game character. He was everything that's been said of him and sometimes, he was more.
The boxing world started missing him as soon as he retired, even though it needed to happen. We will now miss him even more.