Arturo's Final Standing Ovation

BY George Kimball ON July 30, 2009
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JERSEY CITY, N.J. ---  There's something inevitably tragic when a man's life is snuffed out before he's spent half his allotted time on this earth, but Arturo Gatti's approach to life so mirrored his approach to the ring that you almost expected it would end badly.  Gatti's legendary capacity for absorbing punishment might have made him a likely candidate for eventual evidence of brain damage somewhere, but there was always the sense that the chances of his actually reaching old age were somewhat remote. I don't think there's a man who knew him who actually expected that the Human Highlight Film would expire of natural causes in a nursing home forty years down the road.

The gathering at St. John the Baptist church in Jersey City Thursday night was intended to have been a celebration of his life. Nearly three weeks had elapsed since his tragic death in a seacoast villa in South America. Since the Brazilian authorities did not release his body, it wasn't until ten days later that he was interred in Canada. Many of his colleagues, friends, and admirers from his adopted New Jersey had been unable to attend the service at  L'eglise de Notre-Dame-De-La-Defense (reports of the funeral may have been the first time in 37 years that "Arturo Gatti" and "defense" appeared in the same sentence) in Montreal, so the New Jersey  Memorial Mass was scheduled for Thursday. No one had anticipated the bombshell news from Brazil that arrived scant hours before the service to cast an unsettling pall over the entire proceeding.

The boxing community had turned out in force.  There were more than half a dozen former world champions (including Mark Breland, Bobby Czyz, Paulie Malignaggi, and Tracy Harris Patterson -- from whom Gatti won his first title) as well as one reigning one (Tomasz Adamek). There were boxing officials (Larry Hazzard, under whose aegis Gatti had performed in his last nine fights, all at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall, as well as countless others before), and Benjy Esteves, (the referee for Gatti's bouts against Gabriel Ruelas, Joey Gamache, and Ivan Robinson), promoters, and matchmakers (Kathy Duva, Lou DiBella, Carl Moretti, Dennis Dueltgen, and Cedric Kushner), and Gatti's devoted manager Pat Lynch. There were former fighters (ranging from Chuck Wepner to Brian Adams), trainers (Ronnie Shields), television executives (Kery Davis, Mark Taffett), celebrities (Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke) and even a celebrity bodyguard (Chuck Zito), along with reporters, television talking heads and cameramen, and at least a hundred fans who'd probably never even met Gatti in the flesh but wanted to be there to say goodbye.

And -- this would be the hard part to explain to people unfamiliar with boxing who don't understand the bond that comes from the shared experience of combat -- there was a trio of Gatti foes: Micky Ward, Ivan Robinson, and Joey Gamache.

Ward and Gatti's names will be forever linked as a result of the three brutal wars in which they engaged between 2002 and 2003, but two men who participated in thirty rounds' worth of what seemed a near-death experience for both became fast and lifelong friends. What had begun as mutual respect turned into a genuine friendship, one that traced its origins to the night they would up sharing the same emergency room in a Connecticut hospital following their first fight. Micky and Arturo became golfing buddies and mutual confidantes, and when Buddy McGirt walked away after the Carlos Baldomir fight, it was Ward who trained Gatti for his boxing swan song against Alfonso Gomez two years ago. Ward had already attended the funeral mass in Montreal, but he took the train down from Boston for this one, too.

And though they were subsequently somewhat eclipsed by the trilogy against Ward, Gatti's two 1998 fights with Robinson were cut from the same cloth. Robinson won a split decision in the first, and the encore would have been a majority draw had not Esteves deducted a point from Gatti for an eighth-round low blow. Robinson-Gatti II was not voted Fight of the Year only because that award was already taken by Robinson-Gatti I.

Gamache, a former two-time world champion, was knocked out in his final fight by Gatti under circumstances so unseemly that it remains the subject of a lawsuit nine years later. Following testimony undertaken less than two weeks ago, Gamache's suit against the New York State Athletic Commission was being deliberated by Court of Claims Judge Melvin Schweitzer the same day as the Mass in Jersey City.  In the view of most, Gatti (who was given a pass and never actually weighed in properly, but who outweighed Gamache by 15 pounds the following night) might be considered the villain of the episode, or at the very least an accomplice, but Joey has never looked at it that way and he was there to pay his respects along with everybody else.

No one had previously suspected Dueltgen of harboring a past as an altar boy, but the Main Events Chief of Boxing Operations appears to have coordinated the service as meticulously as he does fight cards. Serving as a veritable aide-de-camp to the presiding priest, Fr. Michael Santuro, Dennis provided the first scripture reading (from Deuteronomy) and introduced the first post-communion speaker -- his boss, Kathy Duva.

What no one had expected when they planned this event was that it might be upstaged by a thunderbolt from Brazil. 

The initial result of the police investigation there had resulted in the 20-day imprisonment of Amanda Rodrigues, a/k/a The Black Widow, who had been the only suspect in what the Porto de Galinhas constabulary had determined to have been a homicide. Upon arresting the most recent Mrs. Gatti, the police said that she had first attempted to kill the comatose Gatti by stabbing him in the back of the head with a knife (as we have noted previously, anyone who'd watched the way Arturo Gatti reacted to punches to the head could have told her that was a good way to ruin a knife) before strangling him with the strap of her handbag.

"[Amanda Rodrigues] could have tried to make it appear as if Gatti had committed suicide. The death may even have been premeditated. Rodrigues may have encouraged Gatti to drink excessively so she would be able to overpower him later. He was very drunk and that made it easier for her. He was sleeping when she did this. She waited for the moment when he was drunk enough for her to do it."

The above-quoted conclusions were not ours, but those of the Brazilian police.

But then Thursday afternoon the Policias effected a 180-degree turnabout, announcing that Gatti's death had been the result not of a murder but a suicide, and by the time the first candle had been lit at St. John the Baptist, Amanda Rodrigues had walked out of jail, a free woman with all charges dismissed.

The reversal was so abrupt and unforeseen, and the alternate theory advanced so preposterous, that most of Thursday's supplicants assumed it to have been the result of some well-placed bribery.

"It's just unbelievable," said a shocked Pat Lynch. "Are they trying to say he stabbed himself in the back of the head and then strangled himself with her purse strap? It's ridiculous."

The new theory doesn't account for the lengthy delay before the cops were summoned.  The earlier police version assumed that it had taken a bit of extra time to rearrange the crime scene.  Ms. Rodrigues had previously explained that she had slept until 9 am, and that only then had she discovered Gatti's body.  Since the couple's 10-month old son was sharing the bedroom with her, this would also make Arturo Jr. the world's best-behaved baby.

Suffice it to say that there wasn't a soul in the church Thursday who was buying it -- and up in Montreal, where they have possession of Gatti's body, Arturo's brother Joe was already talking about an exhumation for an independent autopsy. 

DiBella, whose address to the congregation followed Duva's, noted that Gatti had approached every facet of his existence with the same passion he brought to the boxing ring, and echoed Duva's plea for justice.

"Arturo Gatti loved life," said DiBella. "Let me repeat that: Arturo Gatti loved life!"

It may have been the first time in the 125-year history of St. John the Baptist Church that a message from the pulpit produced a standing ovation.

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