As Michael Buffer goes through his routine, Arturo Gatti grins broadly with the laid-back air of a man enjoying a cold beer.
He’s the favourite, on home turf with “GATTI, GATTI, GATTI” ringing in his ears and is about to make a million dollars for a night’s work.
On the other side of the ring, Angel Manfredy looks possessed. Talented but unheralded, this is his big shot. El Diablo keeps staring up intensely at the heavens as if trying to pick a fight with whoever’s up there.
The fight’s defining moment comes in the last twenty seconds of the opening round. Gatti shrugs off a straight right from Manfredy but walks to his corner with a left eye turned into a stream of blood. Cutman Joe Souza must always have turned up to Gatti fights with extra supplies and expecting to have to earn his money. He has just become the third most important person in the fight.
It doesn’t take much of the second round to see that when Manfredy hits his groove, he has more skill and speed than Gatti can handle. At one point, he lands a three punch combination, pauses for breath and then does it again.
Gatti, however, was never one to let you get comfortable and tries to unsettle Manfredy with pressure. Just when he seems to be getting something going, he’s put down in the third. Manfredy’s left hook is thrown with the crack of a whip and appears unseen from below Gatti’s eyeline. This isn’t a gentle “caught off balance, fall on your ass” knockdown; he goes down hard, face slamming the canvas.
Gatti mode is activated. He regains his legs, begins firing away and somehow finishes the round on top. He taunts Manfredy with his tongue out and returns to his corner with that devil-may-care grin. He has the momentum, beginning the fourth with an all-out assault to the body which slows the challenger right down.
At this point, thoughts turn from Gatti’s cut to the rib injury that Manfredy supposedly suffered in camp. Once again, it’s taken pain and jeopardy to unleash Gatti’s best.
The scene is set for another heroic Gatti triumph. The night, however, won’t end up as a comeback story but as a tale of a comeback resisted. Gatti hits Manfredy with his best, including several of those famed left hooks, but “The Pride of Indiana” will take the belt without ever having been in real trouble.
It’s a victory set up with speed and skill but secured with a chin straight from the steelworks. It’s a contest, with neither fighter dominant for long. The fifth sees effective Gatti body punching, then Manfredy honing in on that vulnerable eye before Gatti finishes strongly. For much of the sixth, they are almost standing and trading. With Gatti disdaining defence, Manfredy seems to land with almost every power punch he throws
By the end of the seventh, the sheer size of the wound looks too vast for Souza’s puny cotton swabs. There’s a limit to what even a genius can do with petroleum jelly. The ringside doctor lets out a shocked “Oh Boy!” but allows it to go on. But as the end of the eighth nears, you can barely see the eye for all the blood and the doctor has seen seen enough.
Gatti predictably greets the decision with fury. At first he won’t let anyone treat the cut. When he finally does, his face wrenches into a grimace; he’s in agony. It’s a reminder of the suffering human behind the seemingly superhuman resilence. Manfredy is gabbling euphorically into the camera. By the end of the year, his new status will earn him a major prize: the chance to take on a red hot prodigy named Mayweather.