Being a “human highlight reel” is wonderful for fans but hard work for the human. Gatti had said he was “sick of having to fight a desperate fight.” The epics had taken a lot from both mind and body. Seven months after the blood-drenched defeat against Manfredy had left him with more cuts than face, Gatti wanted a routine bounce-back fight. Instead, he got the Fight of the Year.
It started as it meant to go on. Many whole nights of boxing have less action than this opening melee. It takes just two seconds for Robinson to crack Gatti’s head with a looping right, showing a lot of intent for a man who’s supposed to be running away. Robinson fires his jabs hard enough to slow Gatti’s advances and controls the exchanges. Late on, Gatti manages to press his opponent onto the ropes and land a few hooks but they only spark Robinson into a frenzy, with so many punches thrown so quickly that it’s like we’re fast-forwarding. At the round’s end, Robinson leaps into the air: he couldn’t be more fired up.
The pair continue to stand in front of each other in the second but it’s Gatti now doing more. In the final thirty seconds, Robinson clatters Gatti with a pair of hooks, spinning him around before landing a clean upper cut. After both fighters take a minute off at the start of the third, they are back at it. Robinson has the better of the toe-to-toe combat, throwing more and landing a higher percentage. Gatti throws a shot after the bell in sheer frustration.
Pat Lynch, Gatti’s manager, had been uneasy about Robinson, fearing he might be too skilful, too tricksy for his slugger. What no-one had imagined was that Robinson would turn up and fight the Thunder at his own game. Robinson would later say he felt he had no choice. He knew that if he was clever and cute and still lost on the cards, it would do nothing for his profile. But go to war in front of the biggest audience of his career and, whatever the result, he’d leave with his reputation enhanced. Gatti’s goading may also have played a part. Most of the build-up was respectful but Gatti mocked Robinson’s lack of power, saying that he was bringing “a knife to a gun fight.” Whatever metaphorical weapons were involved, it was Gatti misfiring.
Part of the drama with Gatti always came from that pairing of an iron chin with a paper face; there is visible damage by the start of the fourth. Robinson switches to southpaw and then switches back, to no obvious benefit except to remind everyone that he’s a skilful boxer. Not skilful enough to avoid the strange knockdown which follows. As Robinson ducks, Gatti’s right clips the top of his head and he stumbles to his knees. He shakes his head, claiming a slip. The referee is right to credit Gatti with the knockdown and Robinson is probably right that it’s his own dodgy footwork rather than the power of the blow that put him down. He gets up and seems completely unaffected from his trip to the canvass. The final minute is a messy slugfest, with lots thrown and little landed.
The fifth is mostly even, nip and tuck stuff before Robinson takes over late on. Much of the sixth sees Robinson on the run and forcing Gatti to chase. In this fight, however, things never stay quiet for long. Robinson engages with a minute to go and lands a procession of unanswered heavy shots. There’s the rare sight of Gatti clinging on. The moment his clinch is broken, the assault continues. Outgunned and seemingly out of ideas, Gatti manages to counter. Suddenly Robinson’s legs are all over the place; it’s Bambi on ice. Gatti takes Robinson to the ropes but can’t force a stoppage in those final twenty seconds.
Robinson is fine by the start of the seventh. If the big surprise of the night was Robinson’s choice of fighting style, the big discovery was that he had the chin to back it up. His quicker hands and greater work rate see him take the seventh. The eighth sees Robinson start off in close before moving out of range and fighting more tactically. Gatti does just about enough, getting through with a few rights to take the round. The first two minutes of the ninth are scrappy, messy and even. Lots of clinching, lots of work for the referee. Robinson then gets through with a couple of solid right hooks. Gatti’s arms are down, too worn out to bother with even a show of defence. He’s straining to reverse the momentum but his shots are mostly wild and easily avoided. Thirty seconds to go, Gatti sprints across the ring in pursuit of an escaping Robinson. There’s still life in him but it all looks desperate.
Entering the final round, most observers reckon Gatti needs at least a 10-8, probably a stoppage. Robinson could play this safe and run but he doesn’t trust the judges. He stays in close and dominates. Less than a minute left and Robinson, high on his success and wanting to finish in style, opens up. His over-confidence shows he’s forgotten the lesson of the sixth and of Gatti’s past comebacks; however hopeless he looks, Gatti is always dangerous. A left hook rocks Robinson who topples back onto the ropes. Gatti goes for it but Robinson somehow keeps his composure, bobbing and weaving his way through.
The loyal Atlantic City crowd enjoy that finale but as he raises his arms, Gatti must know that only terrible scorecards can save him now. He does indeed get one (an improbable 96-93 from Ed Leahy) but the other two come in for Robinson. Gatti’s record took a hit but not his standing with the fans; all they asked was that he did it all over again as soon as possible.