Micky Ward lost a piece of himself when the world lost his fiercest rival, and blood brother, Arturo Gatti, on Saturday morning.

Ward, the Massachusetts boxer who tangled with Gatti twice in 2002 and once in 2003, in a thrillogy for the ages, talked to TSS on Saturday night. He’d talked to Gatti just two weeks ago, and was looking forward to seeing his pal in a couple weeks. From Canada, Gatti called Ward, and said he’d be flying in to Boston to hang with Ward and meet actors Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, who will start filming “The Fighter,” about Ward and half-brother Dicky Ecklund next week. Micky was looking forward to seeing the man who he’d battled, hammer and tong, for thirty rounds.

They traded hooks, mingled blood and sweat, but came away with boundless respect for each other. Two throwback fighters, two men with a couple holes in their game, yes, who each made up for it with a seemingly never-ending supply of guts. Some of each man’s blood seeped into the other man’s bloodstream during their three clashes, and an eternal bond was thus established.

Gatti and Ward became fast friends from a distance after their first memorable encounter on May 18, 2002 at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. Ward’s ninth round knockdown provided him with a buffer on the scorecards enroute to a majority nod. But there was still brutal business to conduct, in the form of two more bouts, on Nov. 23 of the same year, and on June 7, 2003, so they waited until Ward hung up the gloves, after the last scrap, to really cement their bond.

“It’s just crazy,” said Ward, the 43-year-old left hooker who was known for wrecking more livers than the Busch family in his 51 fight, 18 year pro career. “I can’t believe it. Part of me is gone.

“I feel bad for his mother, and sister and brothers, his whole family. A big part of me is gone. Anytime you go thirty rounds with a guy, try to kill each other, and have the most respect for each other, no one understands that, but guys who have been to war understand it.”

Beyond the three distance bouts, of which Ward won the first, and Gatti took the last two, the Irishman will hold onto memories of the French-Canadian slugger as ferociously as he dug in his liver busting hook that he looked to place to close the show. Maybe his favorite recall came after their third scrap.

Both men took their lumps, as usual, and after the bout, they were taken separately to a hospital for stitches and observation. Ward’s personal doctor, Dr. Steven Margles, was tending to Micky. He went to a curtain five feet from Ward’s bed, and told Mick, “A buddy of yours is here,” as he ripped the curtain back. In the next bed was Gatti. The rivals laughed, and looked at each other with a level of respect none of us can hope to comprehend.

Damn right they tried to separate each others’ heads from their shoulders, send it into the front row, in each of the thirty rounds they rumbled. But Gatti never talked trash to hype a bout, never moaned if he didn’t get his hand raised at the end of the night. Ward loved that about Gatti.

“He was never a big mouth,” Ward said. “He was just a humble guy.”

They tried to beat each others’ heads in, and tried to get the better each on the links, too. But they tag-teamed, as well, in Gatti’s last fight, against Alfonso Gomez on July 14, 2007. Ward trained Gatti, and the two men enjoyed the Florida camp to prep for Gomez. They got up early to run together, and went to the gym together to train in the afternoon. Gatti didn’t have all that much left, and the Contender Gomez looked like a superstar against this shell of the Human Highlight Reel. No matter. Ward will hold onto the fond memories.

Micky Ward is forever linked to Arturo Gatti. A Ward obituary will not be complete with a mention of his rival, his blood brother. A piece of Ward died when Gatti passed away Saturday, and his existence will now be tinged with an element of mournfulness, for the man who tried to render him helpless on three nights in 2002 and 2003.

“We had the most respect for each other,” Ward said, in closing. “He’s up there, looking down.”

Most of us can’t wrap our brain around the concept of harkening back to a night of vicious trades, and bruises and contusions and stitches with any degree of fondness, but Ward and Gatti are and were not like us. We can’t, none of us can’t, hope to truly comprehend men like this, who forged a bond in a 20-by-20 battlefield. Through the act of trying to render the other unconscious, they enjoyed an intimacy that resulted in an eternal regard.

No, none of us will really get it. And so sadly, the small club of people who do get it was reduced by one on Saturday. If you feel like it, after you say a little prayer for those Gatti left behind, including a one-year-old son Arturo Jr., save one for Micky. On Saturday, he lost, for all intents and purposes, a brother.