By Thomas Hauser
It was only a ten-round fight. There was no title on the line. Micky Ward (pictured by Tom Casino) was never a world champion, and Arturo Gatti only briefly held the IBF junior lightweight crown. Unlike most high-profile bouts, this one wasn't going to effect the balance of power in boxing. Yet on November 23, 2002, Boardwalk Hall was jammed to the rafters. For the first time since the 1980s, Atlantic City's flagship arena was sold out for a fight. And the reason was simple. Ward-Gatti II promised boxing fans the spectacle of throwback fighters in a throwback fight.
Ward and Gatti have no qualms about going in tough. In the last six-and-a half years, Ward has fought 14 bouts against opponents with a combined record of 352 wins, 72 losses, and 11 draws. Over the same period, Gatti has fought 16 times against opponents with a combined record of 544 wins, 63 losses, and 9 draws. In other words, both of these guys have been in the trenches. And their first fight was a boxing classic, a brutal all-out war. Ward dug deep and Gatti matched him. Ward dug deeper and Gatti matched him again. In the end, the bout turned on one memorable moment. Early in round nine, Ward landed a horrific hook to the body. Gatti grimaced in pain and went down.
"That left hook was the hardest I've ever been hit," Arturo said later. "Lots of guys can take a head shot, but a well placed body shot is something else. I don't care who you are or how strong you are. If a good body shot is well placed, you're gonna get hurt. The pain from that blow; I couldn't hide it. That fight was the toughest I've ever been in."
Should the bout have been stopped?
"If it was anyone else, maybe," Gatti answered. "But I'm Arturo Gatti; my fights are like that. I get hurt and come back, get hurt and come back."
"It was a tough fight," Ward said later. "Two guys with a lot of heart; two guys with the will to win. When I was in it, I knew it was a tough fight. Did you ever have a real bad hangover? The day after, it was like that doubled. The night after the fight, I sat down and watched the tape. That's when I knew it was something special. That's also when I said to myself, 'These two guys are nuts.'"
Ward emerged victorious on the judges' scorecards 95-93, 94-93, 94-94. But as he acknowledged in the ring after the decision was announced, "It was a close fight that could have gone either way."
Gatti was in accord. "I thought the judging was wrong," he said. "But Micky fought a good fight. Both of us deserved to win."
And they both did win. If Ward-Gatti I was "Fight of the Year," then Ward Gatti II was "Payment of the Year." For the rematch, each man received $1,200,000. Gatti had been to those financial heights before. But Ward? Never before in boxing history had a fighter lost 11 fights and received a purse in excess of one million dollars. Suddenly, Micky Ward was a million dollar club fighter.
It was a remarkable turnaround for a man who retired from boxing in 1991 at age twenty-six after losing four fights in a row. "I was burned out," Ward says of that time. "I'd had too many tough fights. I'd lost my confidence. I had nothing left to give. I wasn't happy. It was like having a job that you don't want to go to, and you can't fight like that. There were times when it seemed like I was on a roller coaster and couldn't get off. If someone told me back then that someday I'd make a million bucks from one fight, I'd have thought they were nuts. But it's all worth it now."
Like Ward, Gatti is a warrior. He began his career at 29 and 1 but, over the past five years, had suffered five losses against only five wins. Still, a strong argument can be made that Arturo Gatti is the most exciting boxer in the world. Win or lose, he's a "human highlight reel" who always delivers action.
"Everyone knows what I bring to the table," Gatti said recently. "A lot of fighters have been through a lot less than I've been through and are gone now. I've showed a lot of people what a fighter should be. In the ring, I've never let nobody down."
The build-up to Ward-Gatti II took place against a backdrop of mutual respect between the combatants. Ward is an unpretentious man, perhaps a bit shy. "Some people like a lot of attention," he says. "I don't. I'm quiet; at least until I get a few drinks in me."
Gatti is more outgoing than his rival, but the fondness between them is clear.
Six months ago, after their first battle, Ward and Gatti found themselves lying in adjacent beds in a hospital emergency room chatting with one another. Gatti lives in New Jersey, while Ward hails from the Boston suburb of Lowell. The Boston Celtics were slated to face the New Jersey Nets in an Eastern Conference championship game later that day. The warriors promised one another that, if one of them had to stay in the hospital, the other would come back to watch the basketball game with him on television.
Three days before their rematch in Atlantic City, Ward and Gatti were again side by side, sitting on folding metal chairs at the final pre-fight press conference. "In the ring, we tried to kill each other," Ward acknowledged. "But I have a lot of respect for Arturo. I like him; he's a nice person. I'd never say anything bad about him, and I think that he feels the same way about me."
"Micky is a great guy," Gatti responded. "I can't say anything bad about him. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't find anything bad to say."
Would their rematch equal the drama of their first encounter?
"If I fight for the crowd and try to duplicate the last fight, I'll lose focus," Ward answered. "I have to fight for me, but my style is no secret. I do what I do. I fight hard and tough whether I'm making a thousand dollars or a million dollars. I fight as best I can with my skills; then heart and will take over. So I'll just go in there and fight hard again. How Arturo responds will dictate the fight."
"It took me a while to watch the tape of our last fight," Gatti said when his turn to speak came. "I didn't want to. But when I did, I saw a lot of things that have to be corrected. In the last fight, I was supposed to box but I got tired from all the body shots. I was boxing well, but Micky was stronger than me physically; and the accumulation of body punches got to me, so I wound up staying in front of him. I don't want that kind of war again. I'm stronger this time and I'll use the whole ring."
And there was one other factor to consider. How much pain would each man be willing to absorb when they met in the ring again?
In the days leading up to the fight, retirement was a repeating theme at Ward's press conferences. "I've been doing this for a long time," he told reporters. "It's been a long road, and sometimes it's seemed like too long a road. I just turned thirty-seven. At some point, enough is enough. You start to get tired. My plan is to fight two more fights, including this one, and then I’m done. Fighters stay in there longer than they should. I gave my heart and soul to boxing, and I don’t want to stay in there one punch too long. I want to be healthy when I’m done. And once I’m done, I’m done. I’m not coming back no more.
Some took that as a sign that, for Ward, the hunger and will to leave everything in the ring were gone. By contrast, Gatti said simply, "Boxing is dangerous; especially with fights like I have. But it's my business how long I fight."
In the end, Ward-Gatti II didn't measure up to its predecessor but it was a remarkable fight. Like the first encounter between the two men, it was brutal, only this time the brutality was one-sided.
The bout boiled down to a few basics. Gatti had faster hands, a quicker jab, and better footwork. Ward moved forward for much of the night, but it was ineffective aggression. And when Ward did manage to get inside, Gatti bent low to avoid body shots and tied his opponent up.
The fight turned unalterably in Gatti's favor in the first minute of the third round. And ironically, it turned on a fluke. Gatti missed with a big right hand that landed on Ward's shoulder and slid up against the back of his ear. The punch hurt Ward badly. He lost his equilibrium, pitched forward into the vertical pads in Gatti's corner, and slid to the canvas. When he rose, his whole body wobbled and Gatti was all over him. At one point, the pounding was so fierce that Dick Eklund (Ward's brother and trainer) jumped onto the ring apron ready to stop the fight. Somehow, Ward survived but, for all intents and purposes, the fight was over. The pounding had robbed him of the strength necessary to win. He continued to move forward for the rest of the night, but it was Gatti who teed off consistently and landed.
The judges' scores were on the mark: 98-91, 98-91, and 98-90. Gatti fought beautifully, mixing intelligence, discipline, ferocity, and guts. As for Ward, let it be said that many fighters have taken a lot less punishment than he endured against Gatti and called it an early night.
Both men appeared at the post-fight press conference. "It was his night tonight," Ward said simply. "It was up to me to win the fight, and I didn't. He beat me; that's all."
Gatti, for his part, was a bit more expansive: "I was surprised I hurt him the way I did. No doubt about it; I knew he'd get up and finish the fight. Micky is the toughest guy that I ever fought in my life. There aren't many guys like him around. The sport needs people like me and Micky Ward. Me and Micky make the sport look good, and we make other fighters work harder when they see us fight. Micky is unbelievable. He has the heart of a lion. He's my twin, I think."
Then they were asked if there would be a third fight.
"If we can get it together, I'd give it another shot," Ward answered.
"It's one and one now," Gatti offered. "So a third one; I wouldn't mind."
Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti. They've left their mark on each other and on boxing forever.
Award winning writer Thomas Hauser can be contacted at thauserthauserrcn.com