By Chuck Mindenhall
December 14, 2016
Remembering the monumental trilogy between Arturo Gatti and “Irish” Micky Ward
It wouldn’t be a stretch to view the legendary rivalry between “Irish” Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti as one ridiculous 30-round fight, with six-month periods between the tenth and eleventh and the twentieth and twenty-first rounds. Somewhere in the midst of that yearlong trilogy Gatti said that he’d satisfied a long held curiosity of what it would be like to fight his twin. Ward presented one hell of a mirror for Gatti to stare into for so long. And he found his spiritual akin in Gatti, too. Here was a man who would accommodate him for an hour-and-a-half in what played out as an immense battle of wills — of soul searching through a thousand punches — in the confines of a boxing ring.
It was as if the journeyman Ward had finally found his destination at 36 years old, at the tail end of his career; it ended up being a boardwalk in Gatti’s home state of New Jersey. The thing that made Gatti and Ward beautiful in the end — and the thing that has endured for more than a decade — is that there wasn’t a belt in play, and there never would be. There was only the stretching of each other’s guts being through a public tug-of-war. It was 30 rounds of attrition between headstrong brawlers, fan favorites, throwbacks to the great fighters in the first half of the 20th century. It was just two guys that felt destined to meet, and who finally did for the first time on May 18, 2002.
And that first encounter at the Mohegan Sun remains the hallowed chapter, a fight that didn’t so much devolve into a slugfest as it blossomed into one. Gatti, fighting as a junior welterweight where he struck a perfect balance between speed and power, was cutting Ward up in the first few rounds with skill. Though it was believed he was on the wane, he was masterful early. This was the rhythmic Gatti who beat Wilson Rodriguez years earlier, the one who put on that memorable fight with Gabriel Ruelas at Caesars in Atlantic City. It was Gatti’s fight.
Ward’s eye was bleeding by the end of round one. He couldn’t get inside to work Gatti’s body, so he plodded forward as a whipping post. At one point, after a crisp combination turned his chin in two directions before he could set his feet, Ward slammed his gloves together as if to snap into action. He wanted badly to take a hammer to the piano.
The crowd on the reservation was waiting for Lowell’s own to do what he’d done so many times before — that is, dig deep and turn the tables. At the end of the third, Ward did just that. He came inside and worked Gatti’s body with punches, which everyone knew was how made his living. In the phone booth. As the bell sounded and Ward pushed Gatti’s head, the message was simple — despite Gatti’s beautiful showcase, the fight was only beginning.
The sheer volume of punches kept on, as Ward — now warming up — began to plod. Over the next several rounds he showed why his heart and chin had been lauded as much as his left hook to the body (all of which was memorialized eight years later in the film, The Fighter). He took a low blow from Gatti towards the end of the fourth round and slunk to his knees to recover, pounding the canvas with his gloves. He was supposed to get a five-minute window to recover, but the timekeeper let the round end, meaning he had only a minute. At the end of that minute he told his corner, “I’m all set, I want to go.”
And off he went.
It became a battle for the ages. They were trading in big sequences all over the ring. Ward blasted Gatti to end the fifth, and yet Gatti kept coming. The blue-collar Jersey Shore legend, who was 30 at the time, had made a career teetering between being a boxer and a brawler, but now the latter was coming out. It was in his instincts to do just that. Heavy leather trades inside, and rapid combinations from range. Ward, who averaged nearly 120 punches a round against Emanuel Burton, returned fire. They ate punch after punch, in record number. The pace they kept into the eighth bordered on impossible, a testament to the stubborn nature of their wills. How much punishment could each man take? Gatti’s mug began to morph into the prototypical Gatti mug — swollen, purple, alert.
Ward was lucid-eyed and bloody, too. His brother Dicky Eklund warned him between rounds not to “be a punching bag,” but “Irish” Micky was never known for head movement. He was known to absorb and land, to take as many as needed to land. He was doing what he knew how to do, only this time the man in front of him wouldn’t fall.
Until Gatti finally did.
It was the ninth round that made Gatti-Ward I one of the greatest bouts of all time. Ward broke through with a body shot — a left hook to the Gatti’s ribs that forced him to slump to a knee. The 6,000 people at the Mohegan Sun swooned as “Irish” Micky Ward went to the neutral corner. When Gatti stood, Ward immediately went after him with body punches, big shots, while the hysteria of the end pulsed through the crowd. At one point, Ward delivered a series of shots in the corner that left Gatti out on his feet — or so it seemed. Whatever was keeping him up was left to a deeper resolve, heroic reserves that came through in that moment. Before the tenth, the fighter’s factions thought the bout had been called and converged on the ropes. The referee said it wasn’t over, and they fought the final round.
Gatti landing 50 punches in that 10th round, well after he was thought to be done.
As epic as Ward’s victory would be that night, so was Gatti’s courage to finish as he did. Some 14 years later, that fight feels almost too good to be true.
“Somewhere in the cauldron of that ninth round, in which the two fighters combined to land 81 vicious power shots, you could find the metaphors for Arturo Gatti’s life on the borderline of will and sanity,” Jim Lampley said in a tribute to the late champion. “And maybe you could also find the beginnings of the spirited brotherhood which marked Ward and Gatti’s relationship from that point forward.”
Ward won the first fight via majority decision, and six months later they found round 11 in New Jersey. Gatti would even things up, and then win the rubber match in 2003. Thirty rounds total. An hour-and-a-half of ring time. Gatti found his twin. And Ward finished his career reflecting him better than anybody could have thought possible.