Gatti-Ward – Maybe they made the wrong movie. At the very least, the “Irish” Micky Ward story deserved a sequel, with a different co-star and a shift in emphasis from Ward’s contentious relationship with his drug-addicted half-brother, Dicky Ecklund, to his epic triology with Arturo Gatti. They could have called it The Fighters, plural, and it probably would have resonated with action-loving boxing fans even more than did 2010’s The Fighter, which was one of the very best autobiographical sports dramas ever, with seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, and Oscars in both Supporting Actor categories going to Christian Bale (as Ecklund) and Melissa Leo (as Ward’s mother, Alice).
But as superb as The Fighter was, there was not a single mention of Gatti, who was Ward’s most notable rival and eventual close friend, their relationship forged in the crucible of 30 unforgettable rounds spread over three distance-going bouts that elevated each to a status far beyond either’s actual pugilistic talents. That continues to feel like an egregious oversight, although the timeline probably made it difficult to slip in references to Gatti in what admittedly was a very good script, even if certain liberties were taken with its “based on a true story” advisory.
Hence the need for the sequel that, alas, probably never will be made. But perhaps some relatively young actor, a certifiable star with the kind of box-office clout that Mark Wahlberg (who played Ward in The Fighter and fought to get the film made) had, can launch a similar campaign to bring Gatti’s own compelling saga to the big screen. It would be a study of public triumph and personal tragedy, of emotional wounds inflicted outside of the ring as well as physical ones sustained within it. There would, of course, be a prominent role for anyone fortunate to be cast as Micky Ward, because Hollywood and history could not ignore his place in any depiction of Gatti’s life.
In retrospect, it seems that destiny had long been steering Gatti and Ward toward each other even before their paths converged for the first time the night of May 18, 2002, at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. The Italian-born, Montreal-reared, Atlantic City-worshiped Gatti was the more renowned of the two, probably less so for the world championship (IBF super featherweight) he had held than some of the HBO-televised wars which had stamped him as a man whose indomitable spirit sustained him in moments of even the more dire peril. It is that rarest of boxing gifts, an ability to become more dangerous when seemingly on the brink of defeat, that stamped Gatti as something special.
“In my 20-plus years of televised boxing, (Gatti is) the best TV fighter I’ve ever seen,” said Lou DiBella, the former senior vice president of HBO Sports who, curiously, served as an adviser not only to Ward for the Lowell, Mass., resident’s three-act passion play with Gatti, but for another Gatti opponent, Leonard Dorin. “I make no bones about my love for Arturo Gatti.
“It’s sort of funny, though,” DiBella added before Gatti retained his WBC super lightweight title on a second round knockout of Dorin on July 24, 2004, in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. “As much as I like the guy, I’ve spent most of the time since I left HBO trying to knock him off.”
Ward in many ways was a near-replica of Gatti, paler-skinned but no less determined to go out on his shield, rather than submit, whenever he found himself in desperately tough situations. Adept at switching from orthodox to southpaw and back again, “Irish” Micky’s preferred weapon was a withering hook to the body, delivered with either hand, and he employed it to telling effect in any number of main events in a career in which he had established himself as a sort of off-Broadway crowd-pleaser. But Ward never was a widely recognized world champion (his eighth-round stoppage of Shea Neary in London on March 11, 2000, for Neary’s fringe WBU super lightweight title was depicted as such in The Fighter, one of the film’s falsest notes) or even a highly ranked contender. Besides, at 36 when he stepped inside the ropes for his first go at Gatti, it was widely presumed that he had inordinately high mileage on his boxing odometer. Of course, the same could be said about Gatti, who, at 29, had taken on a different trainer, Buddy McGirt, two fights earlier in an effort to reinvent himself as a boxer-puncher instead of a pure brawler.
“Ain’t gonna be no brawl,” Gatti had vowed in the lead-up to the first Ward fight. “I’m going to be moving in and out, and I’m going to beat him up in every round.”
The strategy worked, for a while. Gatti built an early lead by outboxing Ward, occasionally moving in for flurries before stepping aside. But Ward, despite being cut over the right eye in the first round, kept advancing and eventually forced Gatti to engage him on his terms.
“Arturo got out of his game plan,” McGirt said after Ward, the crowd favorite (the bout was staged in New England, after all), had pulled off the upset on an electrifying split decision. “He was in his game plan, then he was out of it, then he was in, then out. He’s got too much heart for his own good.
“I wanted him to box more, like he did in the first four or five rounds. But Micky brings a lot of pressure. Arturo was going to have to sit in the pocket sometimes and gamble. He was successful at that, and by being successful he got a little too carried away.”
Call it a case of a tiger reverting to his fiercest instincts after being trained to be a stealthier, more cautious beast. Ward, by disposition a tiger himself, figured that would be the case because, when push comes to shove, every fighter tends to do what comes naturally.
“I give 110 percent,” Ward said after the most important victory of his career. “That’s all I can do. I’m not flashy. I’m not this and that. I’m just tough and I just keep coming.
“But Arturo … Man, what a great fighter. The guy’s like granite. My hands hurt. I was tired, but I thought I had him (in the ninth round, when Gatti went down from a left hook to the liver). He surprised me when he kept coming. He showed his toughness.”
That ninth round forever will be celebrated as one of the most amazing dual displays of heart and will ever be witnessed in the squared circle. Hurt toward the end of round eight, a still-buzzed Gatti was floored within the first 15 seconds of the ninth round by Ward’s signature punch. Although he beat the count, Gatti, his face still a mask of agony, was soon set upon again by Ward, who unleashed a torrent of punches that had Gatti stumbling backward, seemingly out on his feet. Referee Frank Cappuccino would have been justified in waving the fight over then, but he was aware of the resiliency of the principals, so he held back, just in case Gatti again found that little extra something inside himself to launch another improbable counter-attack.
Which is exactly what happened, Gatti turning the tables in mid-round with a blistering fusillade of heavy blows. It was near-equal give-and-take in the final 30 seconds, each man throwing bombs which continually found their target.
“You can never anticipate the kind of drama we got tonight,” said Kery Davis, the senior vice president of HBO Sports. “The ninth round is the best I’ve ever seen in boxing. Both guys gave everything they had, and then they found a way to give some more.”
Statistics are almost irrelevant when compared to the visceral reaction experienced by HBO viewers and the on-site crowd of 6,254. Even so, the numbers compiled by CompuBox seem fictional or at least exaggerated: Gatti landed 42 of 75 punches, all power shots, and Ward 44 of 83, 39 of which were power shots.
There would be two sequels, both of which were strikingly close to the original, although Gatti won on each occasion to gain the slight upper hand in the now-classic rivalry. But this was not a blood feud in the manner of, say, Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, where insults were exchanged and animosity bred as part of the overall package. Each time Gatti and Ward had finished doing their thing, their respect and admiration for one another increased exponentially. They became such good friends and golfing buddies that when Gatti and McGirt parted company – by “mutual consent,” both claimed — following Gatti’s ninth-round beatdown by WBC welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir on July 22, 2006, he turned to none other than the now-retired Micky Ward to train him for what proved to be his final bout, on July 12, 2007, against Alfonso Gomez.
Shades of Rocky III, with Ward taking the part of Apollo Creed to Gatti’s Rocky Balboa. This time, though, there would be no uplifting final scene; a used-up Gatti was again battered into submission, losing via seventh-round TKO. The ending tilted more toward Rocky IV, in which Rocky now trained Apollo, who was fatally bludgeoned by Russian giant Ivan Drago.
“As I was punching, I was looking at his corner to see if Micky Ward would jump in to stop it, but he never did,” said Gomez, who landed 40 power shots in round seven. But who could fault Ward or referee Randy Neumann for hesitating? Each had seen Gatti come back from the brink himself so many times in the past, there had to be some lingering suspicion he could do it yet again.
Now about those dark corners of their past that Gatti and Ward were both loath to speak about for so long. In his 2012 autobiography, A Warrior’s Heart: The True Story of Life Before and Beyond The Fighter, Ward revealed the sexual abuse he endured between the ages of nine and 12 from a family friend 10 years Micky’s senior. For Gatti, the betrayer of trust was his then-brother-in-law, Davey Hilton Jr., who in 2001 was convicted of sexually abusing his own teenage daughters, Jeannie and Anne Marie, while married to Gatti’s sister, between 1995 and 1998. (Hilton was released from prison on June 20, 2006.)
“I didn’t know about any of this until it came out,” Gatti said in 2004 of the misery Hilton had wrought within the family circle. “If it were up to me, they would keep him locked up and throw away the key. I’d respect a murderer before someone who did what he did.”
Surely there is a movie to be made from such a wealth of material, so full of highs and lows, but for Gatti there would be no feel-good ending. He was just 37 when he died on July 11, 2009, in a hotel in the seaside resort town of Porto de Galinhas, Brazil, where he was staying with his Brazilian wife, Amanda Rodrigues, and the couple’s 10-month-old son. Amanda was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder when Gatti, who apparently had been hanged, was found on the floor with his wife’s bloody purse strap around his neck. After the coroner’s report came out, however, Brazilian police ruled his death a suicide. Gatti’s Canadian family and his closest boxing associates continue to believe he was murdered, and have pressed for the case to be reopened and investigated further.
The entwined tales of Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, if nothing else, are examples of why boxing, more than any other sport, has so often been visited by filmmakers hoping to unearth universal truths. It is at once an improbable union of naked power and subtle artistry, of stark fear and unbridled courage, those contrasts splashing the entire tableau of human emotions upon a canvas of a different sort than the ones used by Monet and Picasso.
As is the case with Ali and Frazier, it is nearly impossible to think of one without imagining the other. Now and forever, they are joined at the hip, the setters of almost impossibly high competitive standards that make them reference points whenever two fighters engage in multiple bouts that stir something in the soul. We watch, and are transfixed.
Maybe there is no director or screenwriter who can do justice to what reality served up on a mid-May night in Connecticut 14 years ago. But, gosh, shouldn’t someone at least make the attempt?