There are some names that are meant to be coupled forever: Sonny and Cher, Magic and Bird, Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet, Tracy and Hepburn, DiMaggio and Williams, Borg and McEnroe.
And, of course, Ali and Frazier.
Arch-rivalries, and arch-alliances, stir the soul and fuel the imagination. That is as true in sports as it is entertainment, crime and literature, and there is no realm of athletic competition that lends itself to such mental associations as much as boxing, which pits one individual against another. When a clash of figurative titans is repeated often enough, it takes on the trappings of legend, more so than can ever be the case with single confrontations, or when teammates are involved. If Ali-Frazier is accepted as the gold standard, then the next level, just slightly down from the summit, consists of such revered series as Zale-Graziano, Pep-Saddler, Robinson-LaMotta, Holyfield-Bowe and maybe a few others.
Now ask yourself this: When anyone mentions the late action hero, Arturo Gatti, which opponent immediately comes to mind? The answer, in most cases, has become obvious.
“Irish” Micky Ward.
But while the Gatti-Ward trilogy continues to ascend in the pantheon of boxing’s most acclaimed rivalries, with ample justification, the effect is the gradual diminishment of other bouts involving Gatti that also were so fiercely competitive they also deserve to be carefully stored away in fans’ memories as if they were family heirlooms. Gatti-Ward, Parts I, II and II, is terrific when considered as stand-alone segments or in its entirety, but not so much that the names of Wilson Rodriguez, Angel Manfredy and Rafael Ruelas deserve to be pushed off to the side, gathering dust.
But the principal victim of the continuing rise of Gatti-Ward is Ivan Robinson, who made the mistake – he didn’t know it was a mistake at the time – of winning both of his immensely entertaining slugfests with Gatti in 1998, the first of which was voted Fight of the Year by both the Boxing Writers Association of America and The Ring magazine, although the rematch was a virtual carbon copy of the original.
If Robinson could have peered into the future, like some sort of pugilistic Nostradamus, he might have recognized that it would have served him better to have split those two fights with Gatti, creating a huge public demand for a rubber match. He would have recognized that he needed to take up golf and play a few well-publicized rounds with Gatti, and later on to agree to train the Italian-born, Montreal-reared, Jersey City-based fighter in the closing stages of his career. But it was Ward who did all that, and the back story of his friendship with Gatti took on a life of its own, each intersection of their lives embellishing what had taken place inside the ropes.
Dec. 12 marks the 16th anniversary of Robinson’s second bout with Gatti in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, a fight so exhilarating that it left the combatants physically and mentally drained, but everyone else in attendance and those watching on HBO craving a third meeting that, alas, was not to be.
Lou DiBella, then the senior vice president of HBO Sports who later would form his promotional company and serve as an adviser to Ward, was almost hyperventilating after Robinson’s razor-thin, unanimous 10-round decision, which would have ended in a majority draw had not referee Benji Esteves deducted a penalty point from Gatti in the eighth round for low blows. Gatti got the nod on the official cards by margins of 97-92 and 95-94 (twice).
“This is unbelievable,” DiBella said after the last punch had been fired, and probably landed. “You have to go back to Zale-Graziano, something like that, to even find something to compare to it. I mean, it’s ridiculous.
“It doesn’t get much better than that. Maybe these guys should just fight each other all the time.”
An interesting suggestion, but one in stark contrast to the scene in the ring after the final bell had sounded. After the traditional postfight hug of exhausted and respectful rivals, Robinson’s manager, Eddie Woods, announced on-camera that his guy had forever concluded his business with Gatti.
“We ain’t fighting Gatti again,” Woods said with an air of finality.
Asked if he went along with what Woods had said, Robinson wearily agreed. “You heard my manager. There won’t be a Robinson-Gatti III.”
Interestingly, after Robinson failed to take advantage of the opportunity that had been afforded him by his back-to-back conquests of Gatti – the Philadelphia lightweight lost a one-sided decision to Manfredy in his next bout four months later – two things became increasingly apparent. One, having twice gone to hell and back against Gatti while wearing a gasoline overcoat, Robinson was never the same as he had been on those two supercharged nights. And two, as his newfound star power began to ebb and Gatti remained a box-office draw and HBO staple, that third meeting he had said he would never consider became the object of a desperate quest that would not reach fruition.
“I know I can get another fight with Gatti,” Robinson said on Aug. 17, 2004, after he lost a desultory eight-round split decision to journeyman Reggie Nash at the Valley Forge (Pa.) Convention Center. “If I can just put together a couple of good wins …”
But it didn’t happen for Robinson, whose fast-handed style at his peak was so likened to that of another Philly fighter, two-division world champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Meldrick Taylor, that some took to calling him “Meldrick Lite.” Robinson, whose preferred nickname is “Mighty,” was 27-2 after his second points nod over Gatti, but just 5-10-2 following the second Gatti fight, finishing with a record of 32-12-2 with 12 victories inside the distance.
It was a good career, all things considered, good enough to earn Robinson enshrinement in both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Boxing Halls of Fame. Still, the lingering impression is that Robinson too often was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rated No. 1 by USA Boxing in the 132-pound weight class heading into the 1992 U.S. Olympic boxing trials, he lost a controversial decision to Julian Wheeler and then another in the box-offs, thus failing to gain inclusion on the American team that competed in Barcelona, Spain. He also likely made a likely misstep by declining, at Woods’ urging, to accept a high-visibility bout with Oscar De La Hoya in Madison Square Garden because his manager believed he wasn’t quite ready for a matchup with the “Golden Boy,” whom Robinson had faced several times in the amateurs. Jesse James Leija got the MSG gig with the emerging superstar instead, and Robinson never again got the chance to mix it up with De La Hoya.
In what would prove to be his only shot at a world championship, Robinson lost a unanimous decision to IBF lightweight titlist Philip Holiday of South Africa on Dec. 21, 1996, in Uncasville, Conn. He was released by his promotional company, Main Events, following his third-round stoppage by Israel Cardona on July 1, 1997, and he was viewed by as damaged goods, or at least in decline, when he was offered an HBO date against Gatti, who was coming off an eighth-round stoppage defeat, on cuts, in another slam-bam war against Manfredy on Jan. 17, 1998.
Hardly anyone expected what took place that night in Boardwalk Hall on Aug. 22, 1998. But Pat Lynch, Gatti’s longtime manager, had an uneasy feeling that Robinson might be something more than a mere bounce-back opponent for his man.
“Eddie Woods will tell you I didn’t want the (first) fight with Ivan,” Lynch recalled when interviewed for this story. “I thought he was a little too slick and too good a boxer for Arturo. I had watched a tape that Carl Moretti (then a Main Events executive) had given me of a fight Ivan had lost to some Spanish kid (Manuel De Leon), where Ivan didn’t look that good. But even so, you could see flashes of that skill, that slickness. I thought to myself, `Maybe this is not a guy we want to fight right now.’
“So, yeah, I always looked at Ivan as someone who would be a really difficult opponent for Arturo because of his style. I wasn’t surprised that he was as tough as I thought he’d be. What did surprise me was the way he stood in there and traded with Arturo. He didn’t run and make Arturo go after him. He was right there.”
Robinson, then 27, had decided beforehand that his best strategy was to meet Gatti head-on. If he lost, and was lackluster in doing so, his chance of regaining semi-elite status might be gone forever. And, besides, he knew that Gatti, as big a puncher and as much of a shock absorber as he was, was available to be hit. So why not just turn it loose?
Second seconds into the first round, Gatti’s left eye was discolored and puffy. That eye began to bleed in Round 3, but Gatti recovered enough to floor Robinson in the fourth and the action remained fast and furious to the final bell. When it was over, Robinson, a 5-1 underdog, had won by margins of 98-93 and 96-94 on the scorecards submitted by Melvin Lathan and Steve Weisfeld, respectively, with Ed Leahy going with Gatti by 96-93.
“Exceptional. Exceptional,” said Lathan, who is now heads the New York State Athletic Commission. “I don’t think I breathed the whole 10 rounds. Just wonderful.”
Said a tired but very happy Robinson: “This was my best fight, even though it wasn’t a championship fight. I thought I would get him out of there, but he always came back. He’s like a stick of dynamite.”
There was an instant demand for a rematch, of course, and Robinson, who made $51,000 for the first fight, snagged a career-high $400,000 payday for the do-over, which he imagined would be fought more on his terms.
“I could have made the first fight a lot easier,” Robinson said as the days to the rematch counted down. “(Trainer) Butch (Cathay) was telling me that after every round. But in that fight, I had something to prove. Six months ago, nobody knew who Ivan Robinson was. Everybody had written me off.
“I know I have the best chin in the lightweight division. I wanted to prove – not to the fans, but to myself – that I could take Arturo’s best shot. That’s why, at times, I stood there with him and got hurt. And you kind of get lured into that because, well, Gatti is just so easy to hit. There wasn’t a problem hitting Gatti then. There won’t be a problem hitting him now. There’s never been a problem hitting Gatti. The question I had in my mind was whether I could withstand his pressure. I’ve done that. For this second fight, I don’t have anything to prove to anybody.”
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Gatti again turned the heat up on Robinson, and the same kind of war was fought at close distance. As was the case the first time, the Philadelphia in Robinson was brought out when he was challenged.
“I learned from being in the first fight that when you hurt Arturo, I guess that makes him mad,” Robinson said. “It makes him go deeper into the gas tank.”
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Now saddled with a three-bout losing streak, it was thought that Gatti was the fighter that needed to be rebuilt; Robinson was seen as the hot property. But Robinson was easily outpointed his next time out by Manfredy while Gatti continued to be what DiBella called “The Human Highlight Reel.” Their paths separated, Robinson drifting toward lesser revelance and Gatti moving on to megafights with De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the trilogy with Ward and eventual induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Asked for his memories of Robinson, DiBella said, “He was a warrior, and a quality fighter. Those two fights with Gatti brought the very best out of him.
“But Gatti was the draw. He was the HBO fighter. Even though Ivan won those fights, you didn’t see him gain anything from that. It wasn’t like he started getting all these big fights with big-name fighters. His career didn’t take off all of a sudden because of him beating Gatti twice. Gatti was still that guy. He could lose a fight or even a couple of fights and still be someone everyone wanted to see more of.”
Lynch also thinks that maybe Gatti-Robinson has been somewhat shortchanged by history, at least in comparison to Gatti-Ward.
“I think maybe that has been the case,” Lynch said. “I think those two fights have been kind of lost. Arturo’s fights with Ivan were just incredible. They were very competitive, the crowd was on its feet pretty much from the beginning of each fight through the end. It’s just that everybody was so sold on Arturo’s trilogy with ward, which deserves everything that it gets. But that doesn’t change the fact that Arturo’s fights with Ivan were great, great fights.”
Prior to his Nov. 13, 2012, induction into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, Robinson said he didn’t think Ward had bumped him all the way out of the spotlight as far as co-billing with Gatti is concerned.
“I’m pleased that so many people recognize what I did in my fights with Gatti,” he said. “I will always love Gatti. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be as known as I am today. And I don’t (begrudge) Micky Ward for the acclaim he gets for his fights with Gatti. They were great fights and he deserves all the praise for what he did.
“My only regret is that me and Micky Ward never fought. I wanted to fight him, he didn’t want to fight me. I guess it was about money; it usually is when a fight doesn’t get made. But don’t get me wrong. I love Micky Ward, too. I’m just glad to be in the mix of fighters who are always mentioned for being in great fights like the ones we had with Gatti.”
Now 43, Robinson is still in boxing as a trainer, working with young fighters at the Harrowgate Boxing Club in Philly. He said he is blessed to be in good health, and he is too busy with looking ahead to fret about what he might or might not have done in the past.
“I always felt that I was a great fighter,” he said. “I had some losses that I shouldn’t have had before Gatti, and that’s on me. But when I was able to get in that position again, I relished it. I thought I could beat Gatti, and I did. I did it twice. He was going to have to kill me to beat me. I think he did more in the first fight than he did in the second fight. After the fourth round of the second fight, I think he knew there was nothing he could do to beat me.
“I was a good fighter then, a smart fighter. I got what I could get and then I got out. Everything else is what it is. I got to be satisfied with that.”