The mainstream media’s sports pages, magazines, TV, radio shows and websites will be overstuffed this week with stories about this coming Sunday’s Super Bowl, or just about anything which tangentially touches on any particle of that spectacle. The winning team, or at least its fancy-pants owner, will be presented with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named after the legendary football coach of yore. Yet all the Seahawks’ horses and all the Steelers’ men will fail to reveal a truth which you can only find on this online oasis of boxing journalism: Vince Lombardi was wrong, and his main thesis has been time and again disproved by a guy way too small even to return kickoffs, a five foot, seven and one-half inch welterweight named Arturo Gatti.
The slogan “Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing” was likely not first used by Lombardi, but it has remained closely associated with him. According to the Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vince_Lombardi), Lombardi used it numerous times “as early as 1959 in his opening talk on the first day of the Packers' training camp.” Although he later tried to soften his stance somewhat by stating “Winning is not everything – but making the effort to win is,” the entry goes on, the ethic of placing winning above all else remains a nasty credo in American sports.
While Arturo Gatti certainly tries more than most to win every fight, he has failed seven times in his 47 professional appearances, not a small number for such an immensely popular fighter with an HBO contract. In 1998, he lost three in a row at lightweight, once to Angel Manfredy and twice to Ivan Robinson, good fighters who nonetheless never gained the prominence Gatti did. He moved up to welterweight and in 2001 got pummeled by Oscar De La Hoya. Returning to junior welterweight, he began his classic trilogy with another fighter regarded as less talented than him, Micky Ward, with a loss, followed by two victories. These gladiatorial-level battles cemented his popularity, as he headlined show after sold-out show at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
Gatti went into his June 2005 fight with unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr. an underdog. Mayweather punished him for six rounds, after which the bout was stopped. Still his fans adored him.
His next stop was this past Saturday, also at Boardwalk Hall, and also in front of a jammed house filled with 11,568 fans. Almost no one had ever seen or even heard of his opponent, the unbeaten Thomas Damgaard of Denmark. They were there because they knew that after paying their hard-earned money that they would see a good night of entertainment with Gatti in the main event. The loss to Mayweather in his most recent fight, and the other losses on his ledger, did nothing to dissuade them from coming. They all knew that there may be some better fighters out there who could and did beat Gatti, but winning, you see, isn’t everything.
Gatti, of course, delivered the goods. He showed superior speed and power from the opening round on, but then reinjured his perpetually sore right hand in the fourth. Nonetheless, he continued to use that damaged hand as he battered and outslugged the usually advancing Dane. To close the show, Gatti actually finished off the game Damgaard with a right-left-right combination in the 11th round, causing his foe to stagger and almost collapse to the canvas, and referee Lindsey Page wisely to wave off the fight at 2:54.
After the fight, Gatti admitted to HBO’s Larry Merchant, “My right hand is hurt.” He added, “It’s been hurt for the last couple of years.” And then, almost matter-of-factly, he stated, “It happens almost every fight.” Gatti also fessed up to injuring a rib during training camp.
So who does this chronically injured warrior want next, he was asked? None other than new welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir, fresh off his upset victory over Zab Judah Jan. 7 at Madison Square Garden.
As he has done of late, Gatti was accompanied to the ring by actor Chuck Zito, perhaps best known for starring in the HBO series Oz, but who also was a former leader of the Hell’s Angels and a Golden Gloves boxer. Zito has also trained with Gatti. At the pre-fight press conference this past week at Mickey Mantle’s restaurant in New York, Zito summed up Gatti’s enduring appeal.
“For one, he gives you your money’s worth because he’s a warrior,” said Zito. “And that’s what people want to see. They don’t want to see a guy go out there and box and dance and give you a boring fight. He stands there toe-to-toe with people. And that’s what he is, a warrior, and that’s what he’s known for.”
Again, winning isn’t everything.
At this same press conference, I asked Gatti what, besides the money, of course, motivated him, knowing full well that in his case financial considerations were only a secondary part of the story.
“Number one, I love my sport, I love my job. That’s my job really. I love doing it, I love it,” Gatti repeated. Winning, again, was not only not everything, but not even the main thing.
“There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing in this world than be a professional boxer. I just enjoy it.”
Then he interjected about another topic which moved him: “And when you read the little articles when you have writers saying that I’m just a club fighter, that makes you work a little harder, too.”
When I pointed out that such assessments come mainly from people who have never had a fight in their lives, he responded, “Yeah, exactly. But they still write it and it’s thrown in my face. But that’s OK. It just makes me want to be a better fighter, that’s all.”
Love, pride, honor – sure, winning is important, but to a true warrior like Gatti, far from everything.
You also might recall someone recently deriding Gatti as a “club fighter,” a “C-plus fighter,” and even “a bum,” who has had too many a fight. Those quotes, of course, came from Floyd Mayweather Jr. during the pre-fight trash-talking ritual which accompanied the build-up for his fight with Gatti.
Yet after that one-sided fight and his blowout victory, Mayweather confided that none of that pre-fight bluster should have been taken too seriously.
“I'm a great guy. Just because I talk trash don't mean I hate a guy,” he stated. “We're here to sell tickets, that's what we do.” And as for Gatti: “I love him,” he reiterated. “I give him nothing but praise.”
More love and more pride.
Winning is not only not everything to these elite competitors, it is at best a distant runner-up to the qualities, emotions, and values which make us human – if not in football, well, at least in boxing, that brutal, inhuman endeavor.