Arturo Gatti had participated in a darn good fight with Tracy Harris Patterson in December 1995. And, before that, there were some thrilling battles as the New Jersey-based Canadian was moving up through the 126 and 130-pound ranks in the early ‘90s.

But the Arturo Gatti who fans adore today was born on March 23, 1996, at the Paramount Theater adjacent to Madison Square Garden in New York City. Without an inspired Wilson Rodriguez sticking from the outside and stinging like a 130-pound version of Muhammad Ali, casual fight fans may think that Arturo Gatti was an heir to a circus or pizza franchise.

Gatti is no heir to any circus or pizza franchise. Instead, he is the most exciting boxer of his generation.

Lately, he’s been on a roll with the display of some surprisingly fine boxing skills. But, like Mike Tyson 20 years ago, Gatti’s current popularity is founded in his previous incarnation as a slugger – which resulted in super brawls with Ivan Robinson and Gabriel Rules and Micky Ward.

And Wilson Rodriguez.

 Gatti-Rodriguez was a fight that was mildly anticipated by the boxing community. “Thunder” had just won the IBF junior lightweight title with that stirring 15-round decision over Patterson – a respected-but-hardly-dominant champion. It was an even fight most of the way, before Gatti made a late run that won him the nod and the hardware.

He seemed to be a susceptible, vulnerable champion, though. Which made him fun to watch. So fans tuned in to see his first defense against Rodriguez, a tough campaigner from South America who was expected to be a stern test for the young champ.

It was also one of the first fights televised on HBO’s budding “Boxing After Dark” series, which had already produced the classic Marco Antonio Barrera-Kennedy McKinney thriller a little more than a month earlier.

No one imagined that Gatti-Rodriguez would be better.

Rodriguez entered the ring first, dressed in gold and looking fit. Gatti came next, dressed in white.

Apparently even he wasn’t aware of the blood that would be spilled.

Rodriguez bolted from his corner and immediately began spraying the unsuspecting Gatti with combinations. Rodriguez was fired up about this title opportunity, and he intended to hit Broadway with a belt around his waist.

A shellshocked Gatti didn’t know how to deal with this lanky machine. The combinations were being unleashed so quickly and seamlessly that Gatti had no choice but to field them with his chin.

By the end of the first round, Gatti was battered and dazed.

The beating continued in the second round, and big welts began forming over Gatti’s eyes. The punches were coming hard and heavy still, and Rodriguez wasn’t allowing the champ to mount an attack.

Gatti was eventually dropped by another ridiculous combination, and his reign as champion appeared to be coming to a quick, surprising and violent end.

But Gatti found his feet – the first peek at the uncommon will and courage this great fighter would muster through tight spots over the next nine years.

He got up and walked right back into the line of fire, hurt but not done by a long shot.

Rounds three, four and five were studies in bravery, as Gatti began to shorten the distance and put some hurt on his tiring opponent. Rodriguez’s combinations weren’t being released with the same snap, and Thunder began cracking along Wilson’s ribcage.

There were brutal exchanges, as the champ tried to establish an offense.

By the sixth round, Gatti had worked his way back into the fight, but there was a new sense of urgency. Both his eyes were swollen now, and a few more rounds of Rodriguez’s jab and combos would likely result in a TKO stoppage.

Gatti had to put an end to the fight immediately if he hoped to retain his title.

As Thunder marched forward, he planted a left to Rodriguez’s left side. Just as the challenger anticipated another jolt to the body, Gatti heaved a left hook upstairs, directly on Rodriguez’s exposed jaw.

Bam! The challenger hit the deck with a thud.

From there it was a formality, and Rodriguez was counted out.

Gatti’s supporters, relieved that their man had survived the shellacking and come back to win, mobbed him. The audience, knowing there was a new star in its midst, applauded him – as did millions across the country who witnessed a special kind of comeback.

Rodriguez was never the same, and he lost a year later to another Gatti adversary, Angel Manfredy. But he can forever take solace in that he gave boxing fans one of the greatest nights in pugilistic history. Gatti-Rodriguez was 1996’s Fight of the Year.

Gatti became a regular in these Fight of the Year derbies. His two fights with Robinson, his three with Ward and his slugfest with Ruelas were all instant classics.

Lately, he’s become so good with his stick-and-move style that people are giving him a chance Saturday against Floyd Mayweather, perhaps the best fighter in the world. But, win or lose, he’ll always be remembered by his fans as “The Human Highlight Reel.”

The beginning of that reel started with Wilson Rodriguez.

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Matt’s Meanderings

* Glen Johnson is the classiest fighter in boxing. He gives 100 percent of himself every time out, and gives his opponent proper respect both before and after the fight. He is refreshingly honest, and after Saturday’s decision loss to Antonio Tarver, he actually admitted that he lost. Also, credit his trainer, Orlando Cuellar, for keeping him grounded. Cuellar was providing his charge with thoughtful, honest insight between rounds. Whatever happens, Johnson and Cuellar have earned a fan for life.

* Johnson’s spirited, determined effort was a welcome relief to the quit jobs over the last few weeks of Kostya Tszyu, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Abdulleav. Honor still exists in this sport after all.

* Tarver fought an admirable fight as well, especially in the late rounds when he stood and banged away with the stronger Johnson. He’d probably win a rubber match. So his future may depend on the July 16 Bernard Hopkins-Jermain Taylor showdown.

* Tyson, after his pathetic loss to Kevin McBride on June 11, said he’d wished there was some way the fans could get their money back. How about donating your purse to Bobby Chacon or Wilfred Benitez or Meldrick Taylor or Gerald McClellan or some other fellow fighter who is actually worse off than you, Mike? That would do.

* Ike Quartey looked horrible early against gatekeeper Verno Phillips, before heating up and dominating the middle rounds. He faltered late, but his performance was encouraging enough. “Bazooka” still has time to become a player in the 154-pound ranks. Just stay away from 160, Ike.

*So Oscar De La Hoya has announced that he’s not fighting in 2005. That’s a surprise. Tyson said his career effectively ended in 1990. De La Hoya’s supposedly ended in 1999, with the loss to Felix Trinidad.