Arturo Gatti: For Love and Glory

BY Patrick Kehoe ON July 21, 2006
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Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, 40-7 (31) will step into the ring on Saturday night in Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, New Jerse,y to face WBC and world welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir, 42-9-6 (12) of Argentina.

Perception certainly ameliorates reality, the reckoning of things as they can be known or understood. Though the temptation in boxing is to make judgments based on the heart of the matter, the way things should be weighing heavily upon the way things are trending. On the objective surface of things is Arturo Gatti’s viability, at the very highest level of championship contention in most of the years making up this juvenile century has been framed with regards to his spectacular defeats. The punishing and excoriating losses at the flashing fists of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya marked the de-legitimization of Gatti in the minds of many, many boxing fans. So too did the fact that he had to wage three concussive wars with the rugged fringe world-class fighter from Lowell, Massachusetts Micky Ward.

What has sustained Gatti beyond key wins over Tracy Harris Patterson, his rematch with Micky Ward and Thomas Damgaard has been his marquee marketability stemming from the hyper-dramatics of his fighting style which has produced some of the most combustive matchups in the last decade. And Gatti’s passion that translated into survivalist antics in the ring so often came as counterpoints to what seemed like a burgeoning completeness in this approach to ‘boxing.’ One can easily forget how fluid and functional his jab and move boxing from distance and counter hitting proved against the tenacious Patterson, in both of their fights for the IBF super-featherweight title. But it was his first defense of his IBF 130 pound championship in March 1996 – his titanic struggle against Dominican Wilson Rodriquez – that solidified the symbolic legend of Arturo Gatti.

From the bell the new champion stalked his veteran foe, whistling power shots, eating counters when they were detonated behind the champion’s free floating guard. Absorbing monster hooks from Rodriquez, Gatti made the fateful decision to win with his power, no matter the cost, no matter the danger. Inevitably, Gatti was chopped down in the third round by the free swinging Rodriquez, who sensed that Gatti had thrown himself over to an all-out puncher’s war. And it was that decision to simply endure and overcome that crystallized the persona of Gatti the ring warrior, reckless to a fault, brave to the last. With his eye ballooning shut throughout contentious rounds four and five, Gatti, at times appearing exhausted and confused, manfully secured his championship defense with a saturating hook that felled the emboldened Rodriquez.

With the champion’s face grotesquely marked, his lungs heaving during the in-the-ring post-fight interview, after having contested 17 minutes of tortuous work, the thrill of the kill palpitated from the blast center of the ring rippling out over the HBO airwaves to literally convert boxing fans casual and committed to what amounted to the cause of following the budding career of the never-say-die then 23, almost 24, year-old champion from Montreal. For some it seemed like the 1940s and 50s were back in vogue. In Arturo Gatti boxing was reborn as all-out entertainment action, minus ear bites. This he proved in a repeat performance of back from the brink conquering in a mesmerizing fight with Gabe Ruelas, October 1997.

Gatti’s heroic recovery formed a kind of antidote to the meltdown freak-show of Tyson-Holyfield II, which had transpired just four months earlier. When Arturo Gatti stepped into the ring there was every expectation something memorable and elementally courageous was likely to occur. Fighting from his gut, responding in kind to attacks or the effrontery of opponents trying to overpower him, Gatti began to make a career out of launching himself into dangerous and defining exchanges, at any and all costs.  Known to be enjoying the nightlife of his adopted stomping grounds of New Jersey and New York City, Gatti crashed weight at camp and increasingly threw with only knockouts in mind, the tactical notations of training and stylistic set-up technique thrown out the virtual window of his increasingly raging in the ring impatience. So at the height of his momentous significance, the underlying pattern of his life outside the ring took root, reaping what seemed eventual ruin for the still twenty-something Gatti.

When perennial championship runner up Ivan Robinson utilized pattering combinations to beat off the thrusting challenges of Gatti during their pair of 1998 fights from Gatti’s home base of Atlantic City, it seemed that Arturo Gatti’s championship days were over. Losing could not, however, dampen the fans love for Gatti. As a contender or a pretender the fans have remained wild about Gatti, ever ready to pay to see “Thunder” rehydrating to drown Joey Gamache or pot shot and pound the confused Thomas Damgaard.

The justification the garrulous and likeable Gatti would typically make for wins over, say, Calvin Grove in 1997 or losses to Ivan Robinson in 1998 were essentially the same: have power, must use it. When Gatti did reinitiate his sense of technique as orthodoxy in his rematch against the hard driving body banger Ward, the fans knew the melodramatics were not over. Gatti the boxer, employing his jab and circling movement to find power counters under Vero Beach, Florida based Buddy McGirt, a strategy reintroduced to Gatti for the sake of preserving his body after so many wars of attrition. Gatti’s promoters Main Events and manager Pat Lynch were increasingly under pressure to advise Gatti to retire, as Ward decided to do after the third fight of their sapping trilogy June 7, 2003.

Boxing or slugging, Gatti never ceased finding ways to entertain by defying the laws of entropy. Still, as his 14 minutes of torture against De La Hoya in 2001 was followed by the Ward trilogy and the June 2005 debacle against Floyd Mayweather, Gatti reentered boxing’s big time as a situational nemesis of ordinary men with alphabet title belts, THE classic example being Denmark’s Thomas Damgaard, who defied reason in coming to face Gatti with an unblemished record, 37-0 with 27 stoppages, having never fought in Iowa. Yet in being totally outclassed by Mayweather, the victory over Damgaard moved Gatti and his platinum plated popularity right into the line of site of Carlos Baldomir, unlikely successor to Zab Judah. After his being handled so easily by Mayweather, who would have believed that a year later he’d be on the threshold of the universal welterweight championship?

Well, we understand that logic has little to do with boxing, certainly at the championship level. The fault lines of destiny are regularly shaken by the tectonic forces of chance. It matters not how Gatti arrived at a fight for the welterweight championship – be that defined as the WBC version or the universal crown, implied – he’s right there, one decent outing away from yet more glory. Hard won glory, for it always comes at a price does glory, for men like Arturo Gatti. If he’s able to handle Baldomir’s energized assertions, if his fragile 4th metacarpal holds up, if the skin around his eyes neither swell up or cut, if he’s as motivated as we expect and if age does not present him with the tolling bell bill for all that’s transpired during his career to date, Gatti might win.

He’s expected to win, officially, according to the vultures of boxing, the bookmakers. Trainer Buddy McGirt will only curtly say, “It’s up to Arturo.” For all of his rising and falling only to rise again, the perception remains: Gatti’s a guy who masters his fate.  The very nature of being a blood and guts warrior means you are defined by the ability to absorb trauma, creating spectacle and defying probability, only to reassert your own brand of destruction as reprisals. Theatrically you mesmerize the faithful, creating the illusion that you are the ultimate arbiter of your fate, cruel and luminous, at least right up until the moment that mortal means are beyond you. Baldomir ain’t Mayweather; so goes the speculative asserting of Gatti’s endless return.

Gatti was the guy who lost and yet survived sacrificial outings against two of the absolute greatest talents in boxing in the last 30 years. Now he looks to bare up to his reputation as the greatest survivor of his generation. A hard reputation to bare, when you are increasingly mortal, given to mean streets survival tactics, having converted from Joe Frazier ring aesthetics and willful acts of theatrical heroism against fighters named Rodriquez to boxing behind a jab, as if you really mean it.

At least Gatti gets to fight someone with more losses on his slate than he, a guy who’s older, at least chronologically. No one cares that Gatti has turned the corner and now travels down the road toward oblivion; Baldomir might be on the same road! So, we have a fair fight? The money’s good and Arturo just loves to fight, winning too, when he can manage it. All this and the IBA welterweight title on the line… what else can we ask for?

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