By Thomas Gerbasi
December 14, 2016
Arturo Gatti could only chuckle when talking about his lost years, a stretch from 1998 to 2001 that saw the former junior lightweight champion go just 4-3, with a crushing 2001 defeat to Oscar De La Hoya seemingly announcing his departure from the elite.
“I was erased from the boxing world for a while,” he said.
He was. All it took was 30 rounds with Micky Ward to bring him back. In fact, their storied trilogy from May of 2002 to June of 2003 brought both fighters from boxing purgatory to a lofty place few ever reach.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I’d get back here,” Ward told me before his second fight with Gatti. “I thought when I was done, I was done. Taking that two and a half years off I got the hunger back. I wanted to do it then instead of doing it at 35, 36, or 37, my age now. Say I tried to do it now – I would have been too old. I did it then so I could live the rest of my life thinking, ‘At least I tried it.’ It’s a good thing I did come back because it was the best move I made.”
Lowell, Massachusetts’ Ward was the quintessential blue collar fighter. There were no frills, no flash, no trash talk; just the desire to fight and a lethal left hook to the liver that usually got the job done.
“It is a good punch and it’s been my bread and butter punch throughout my career,” Ward said. “It’s just something that works for me. And it’s not even to the chin. You don’t see too many people throwing a body shot like that at 140. But I’m proud of it.”
At the time of the first Gatti fight, Ward had a 37-11 record, and despite wins in six of his previous eight bouts, he was seen to be on the tail-end of a career in which he came close to getting a major world title, but was never able to get to that next level.
Gatti had been to the top at 130 pounds, becoming an HBO superstar in the process thanks to his action-packed bouts and intoxicating habit of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. Lightweight and welterweight were different stories. Sure, he still thrilled his fans with his pair of bouts against Ivan Robinson in 1998, but he lost both of those, and the defeat at the hands of De La Hoya was one-sided and painful to watch.
Enter Buddy McGirt, a former world champion himself who was beginning to make a name for himself as a trainer.
“You can do one of two things when you leave the gym,” McGirt told Gatti at one of their first meetings. “You can play golf, or go back and put ice on your face. What would you rather do?”
“Play golf,” Gatti responded.
“Listen to me and you can go back and play golf.”
Arturo Gatti had a new trainer and a new lease on his fighting life, with a blistering fourth round stoppage of Terronn Millett kicking off the new partnership in style. Earlier in his career, when I asked him what the morning after was like after one of his wars, he said, “Well, I don’t see the daylight because my eyes are swelled up.”
Yet after the Millett fight at Madison Square Garden, he found out how the other half lived.
“It’s fun not going to the hospital,” Gatti said. “I’m using my head more, instead of my guns. But they’re always there.”
The next step was a fight with Ward, and he would need those guns, even though going in, it was assumed that the new and improved Gatti would outbox and defeat Ward, who would get a nice payday as his final “big” fight. It was going to be a good one though. It had to be.
“Anybody can make Gatti-Ward and you know it’s gonna be a good fight,” said Carl Moretti, then the matchmaker for Main Events, Gatti’s promoter. “I don’t get credit for that; he (Gatti) gets all the credit.”
On May 18, 2002, Gatti and Ward shared in the credit as they produced a modern-day epic that the world was talking about on Sunday morning. For 10 rounds, it was give and take, take and give, neither man giving an inch until the ninth round, when a left hook to the body dropped Gatti. “Thunder” rose to his feet and took a hellacious beating until he got his legs back and began responding to Ward’s power shots with his own barrage. It was one of the great rounds in boxing history, and after three more minutes of hell, Ward’s hand was raised via majority decision.
Plans had been altered, but in such a glorious fashion.
“In the first fight with Micky Ward, all I was thinking of was boxing for the ten rounds, but I got tired,” said Gatti. “So being tired, I had to stand in front of him, and standing in front of him, the best thing I do is throw punches and go to war.”
Gatti wanted a rematch and Ward was willing to give him one. In the meantime, the New Englander took a month off from the gym and resumed his job as a steamroller operator. That was Micky Ward.
“You have to work hard if you’re a fighter, a family man, a single guy, or whatever,” said Ward before the rematch. “You’ve got to be hard-nosed, and when boxing’s done you’ve got to work. Even the guys that don’t fight, I’m showing them that here I am, fighting and making this money, and I’m still out there working. What’s wrong with you?”
He laughed, knowing that, to most, working in addition to fighting on boxing’s biggest stages was unheard of. But he never wavered from being a true working man’s hero. In a stark contrast, Gatti, while no Hollywood star, did enjoy the perks of the job, and why not? He was young, good looking and not afraid of a good time.
Yet despite seemingly being opposites outside the ring, they were kindred spirits, future friends and warriors of the highest caliber who were unconcerned with being pretty in the ring. A fight was a fight, and to win a fight, the idea wasn’t just to land more punches than your opponent, but to make sure each one of those punches counted.
In Gatti-Ward II on November 23, 2002, Gatti succeeded, dropping Ward in the third en route to a clear-cut unanimous decision win. Despite the dominant nature of his win, Ward never stopped fighting, despite having his eardrum shattered by the Gatti right hand that knocked him down. When it was over, it was clear that at 1-1, the tie had to be broken.
On June 7, 2003, it was, with both fighters delivering the kind of action the first fight set the bar with. This time, it was Gatti having to fight with a broken hand against the relentless Ward, who never stopped moving forward, taking everything the Montrealer had to throw at him before firing back. Usually when Gatti hit somebody clean, they fell down. Ward wasn’t that guy, making Gatti more than appreciative when he didn’t have to fight him.
“I’m actually really excited that I’m not fighting Micky Ward again, because he actually made me seem like I don’t punch hard,” Gatti laughed before his 2004 fight with Leonard Dorin, who he stopped in two rounds.
Yet before Gatti would win a title at 140 pounds and defend it against Dorin, he had business to settle with Ward, and their final ten rounds together was a fitting end to a trilogy that made anyone who saw it proud to be a boxing fan. More importantly, it made you even prouder to be a fan of Gatti (who won the rubber match via unanimous decision) and Ward.
“Usually you have one loudmouth out of the two to sell a fight, or have some bad blood to sell it, but I think with these fights the people are getting two good guys of the sport that have worked their asses off their whole careers to get to this point,” said Ward. “There are a lot of great guys in boxing, but not too many good role models.”
Gatti and Ward were two of the sport’s best.