Lee Groves

Arturo Gatti: Is he a Hall of Famer?

Beginning this week more than 200 boxing writers, broadcasters and historians will be given the opportunity to decide which fighters will make up the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013. This year’s Modern ballot features three new names to fill the slots previously occupied by last year’s enshrinees, first-year eligibles Thomas Hearns and Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson as well as longtime ballot entrant Cocoa Kid. As has been the case since 2006, the top three vote-getters will earn their slice of immortality.

One of the new entrants is Arturo Gatti, who appears in his first year of eligibility. His final fight was a seventh-round TKO loss to Alfonso Gomez July 14, 2007 at Boardwalk Hall – otherwise known as “The House That Gatti Built” – and a little less than two years later, on July 11, 2009, he was dead. Although suicide is the official cause of death, countless fans, friends and family remain convinced he was murdered. That division of opinion will remain for all time and proponents on both sides likely will never be swayed.

Similarly, the subject of Gatti’s Hall of Fame enshrinement will surely spark debate, for there are strong arguments on each side of the aisle. We won’t find out until early December whether Gatti will get in on his first attempt but even if he doesn’t the good news for Gatti fans is that their man will get another crack for as many years as it takes.

The issue to be addressed today is whether Gatti is a first ballot-worthy Hall of Famer or if he should be bypassed, not only this year but for all years following. The arguments for either proposition are compelling:

The case for Gatti

More than any other fighter in recent memory, Gatti’s greatness is built not on gaudy stats but on matchless intangibles. The mere mention of his name ignites reactions as visceral, passionate and ferocious as the man himself. In this cynical and jaded age, that level of loyalty is extraordinarily uncommon and it’s a distinction that has been well earned.

Gatti was the rare fighter who was willing to risk everything in pursuit of victory and even when it was clear his goal was a lost cause he was eager to fight just as savagely. He suffered knockdowns, gaping cuts, horrific facial swellings and titanic beatings only to come back for more. More than a few times he produced incomprehensible, improbable comebacks that transcended the bounds of human endurance. Those who were fortunate enough to witness them either live or on TV were left shaking their heads in wonderment but at the same time they were thrilled beyond description. Gatti’s fights were “Rocky” movies come to life – and like Sylvester Stallone’s character he had plenty of sequels.

Who could ever forget his off-the-floor, eyes-swollen-shut miracle against Wilson Rodriguez or his pulsating war with Gabriel Ruelas that was capped with his signature left hook? His battles with Calvin Grove and Joe Hutchinson were underrated but worthy firefights and even though he fell short against Ivan Robinson (twice) and Angel Manfredy in consecutive fights he cemented his place as the action fighter of his generation.

Then there was that magnificent trilogy with Micky Ward that was highlighted by a beyond-belief ninth round in their first fight, the lopsided clinic in fight two and the climactic rubber match that saw Gatti take the series 2-1. The respectful rivalry lifted both fighters to prominence in mainstream culture and forged a friendship so strong that – in another Rocky-esque turn – Ward would train Gatti for his final fight much like Apollo Creed trained Rocky Balboa for his rematch against Clubber Lang.

And speaking of “Rocky III,” Gatti pulled off a wholesale style change after teaming up with Buddy McGirt. Beginning with his fourth round TKO of Terronn Millett in January 2002, the brawling Gatti turned brilliant boxer as he fought off his toes and threw fast, straight combinations while retaining his thunderous power. Because of his combative nature Gatti didn’t always stick to the script but he was talented enough to revert back to it when necessary, as was the case in his dominant decision win over Ward in fight two.

Another one of Gatti’s valuable contributions to the sport was his ability to transform the mindset of television executives. Before Gatti came along the emphasis was on showcasing undefeated fighters and if they stumbled just once they were relegated to the ash heap. When HBO signed fighters to multi-fight contracts during the 1990s, there was a clause nullifying the deal if they suffered a single loss. Gatti changed all that with his blood-and-guts, all-heart symphonies of violence that fueled high ratings no matter the result. Gatti’s unquestioned honesty as a fighter, and the undying devotion of his supporters, persuaded HBO to bring Gatti back for an Ivan Robinson rematch even after back-to-back losses to Manfredy and Robinson on their air. Despite Gatti suffering yet another loss to Robinson, the sheer drama of his effort was still captivating television. From that point forward the parameters had changed; it didn’t matter so much whether fighters won or lost as long as they played the game the way Gatti did – or at least tried their best to approach it. Scores of fighters can thank Gatti for boxing’s equivalent of accident forgiveness.

Three years after his death Gatti’s legend lives on. Every episode of The Fight Game with Jim Lampley ends with the “Gatti List,” which chooses 10 fighters who best epitomized the fighter’s ideals during a given time period. The collective memories of fans combined with YouTube videos and DVD collections have preserved the unforgettable moments and his sudden death at age 37 has only heightened the sense of loss.

Adding to Gatti’s cause are the awards based on his extraordinary efforts. Gatti was twice involved in back-to-back THE RING Fights of the Year in 1997 and 1998 as well as in 2002 and 2003. He also won the magazine’s Round of the Year honors in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

Other notable victories besides the ones mentioned came against Tracy Harris Patterson (W 12, W 12), the 32-0-1 Gianluca Branco (W 12), Leonard Dorin (KO 2), Jesse James Leija (KO 5) and the 37-0 Thomas Damgaard (KO 11).

If ever a fighter embodied the “flame of pure fire” that served as the title of Roger Kahn’s book about Jack Dempsey, it was Arturo Gatti. That flame may well carry him straight into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

The case against Gatti

For all the superlatives one showers on Gatti – and they all are deserved – voters must decide whether Gatti has crossed the threshold between being a beloved action hero and a legend who is worthy of Hall of Fame immortality. Ideally, a Hall of Famer is someone who has demonstrated long-term, consistent excellence during his given era. While no one can question Gatti’s heart and fantastic drive, one can rightly scrutinize his fight-to-fight success ratio.

Although Gatti has been involved in four THE RING Fights of the Year, he lost two of them – to Robinson (fight one) in 1998 and to Ward (fight one) in 2002. Both results were considered surprises and his first loss to Robinson was deemed THE RING’s 1998 Upset of the Year, a commentary on how lightly regarded Robinson was going into the fight and how humbling the defeat must have been for Gatti in terms of his standing in the sport.

Going into Robinson-Gatti I, the Philadelphian had lost consecutive fights to then-IBF lightweight titlist Philip Holiday (L 12) and Israel “Pito” Cardona (KO by 3) – his only defeats to date – then won tune-up 10-rounders against journeymen Dezi Ford and Manuel DeLeon to set up the Gatti fight. Few had any inkling Robinson could upend Gatti but “Mighty” Ivan conjured the greatest performance of his career and won a split decision. When they were matched again less than four months later, Robinson did it again, this time by unanimous decision. Robinson never again reached the heights he achieved against Gatti, for in his next fight he lost a shutout decision to fellow Gatti conqueror Manfredy, and then went 5-9-2 before retiring in 2008. Did Robinson simply catch lightning in a bottle, or was Gatti simply not good enough, not once, but twice?

The hard truth is that from the Gabriel Ruelas victory forward, Gatti was 11-8 with five stoppage losses and three of the 11 wins came against the out-gunned Reyes Munoz, the 20-6 Erik Jakubowski and a massively out-sized Joey Gamache. Is this the record of a genuine Hall of Famer?

Moreover, when Gatti faced truly elite opponents his shortcomings were graphically exposed. Oscar de la Hoya hand-picked Gatti as a comeback opponent following his first loss to Shane Mosley and “The Golden Boy” knew what he was doing in terms of matchmaking. De La Hoya towered over the 5-foot-7½ Gatti, who was making his debut at 147, and used his canyon-esque advantages in hand speed, mobility, power and talent to floor Gatti with a left uppercut in round one, swell both of Gatti’s eyes by round two and unleash a volley of more than two dozen punches to register a standing stoppage in round five. Gatti’s power shots mostly found air while De La Hoya’s visibly shook him in every round.

The CompuBox stats in De La Hoya’s favor were equally damning – “The Golden Boy” landed an astronomical 62 percent of his total punches to Gatti’s 28 percent, 68 percent of his power shots to Gatti’s 37 percent and out-landed “Thunder” 192-87 overall and 130-53 in power punches.

As bold as the differences in class were between De La Hoya and Gatti, they were neon-bright against Floyd Mayweather Jr., who showed a rare streak of savagery in stopping Gatti in six rounds. The opportunistic Mayweather took advantage of a brief moment of confusion regarding a break – Gatti heard the instruction and relaxed while Mayweather blasted Gatti’s unguarded chin with a hook – to score a knockdown in round one. From then on it was a tour-de-force for “Money” Mayweather as he landed whistling combinations that swelled Gatti’s eyes and scorched his defenses.

The overwhelmingly pro-Gatti crowd at Boardwalk Hall could do little but ooh and aah as Mayweather dismantled their man with explosive volleys. The beating Mayweather meted out in round six was beyond brutal and only McGirt’s compassion saved Gatti from a potentially tragic end. Mayweather went through Gatti like a hot knife through butter, and the numbers offered further proof: Mayweather landed 57 percent of his total punches to Gatti’s 17 percent and 63 percent of his power shots to Gatti’s 18 percent. Few pay-per-view marquee fights – before or since – had been this lopsided.

The De La Hoya and Mayweather fights do not speak well for Gatti’s Hall of Fame credentials, but here’s something else to think about: Does a bona fide Hall of Famer go life-and-death against Ward, a terrific warrior who nevertheless was perceived to be a level or two below him in terms of pedigree?

Does a genuine great struggle against a faded Grove – who did his best work at featherweight – or a still-emerging Hutchinson? Rodriguez was supposed to be a showcase fight for Gatti after the title win against Patterson, and yet Gatti was plunged into a nightmare that called for his legendary reserves to kick in. One can understand if an elite fighter is forced to flip the switch against fellow greats – Ali against Frazier, Leonard against Hearns – but Gatti had to pull out his best stuff in fights where he was heavily favored to win, if not dominate.

Gatti was thought to be the better man going in until the very end. He was a nearly 2-to-1 favorite to dethrone welterweight champ Carlos Baldomir and to defeat Gomez but instead he was a knockout loser in both. The beatings he absorbed over the years took an unspeakable toll on what had been thought to be limitless reserves. In retrospect, the odds were more a product of sentiment than reality. One could say the same for his worthiness for Hall of Fame enshrinement.

The Verdict

The feeling here is that Gatti is a virtual lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame on his first try – but he’ll do so without this writer’s vote. As stated earlier, Gatti’s legacy as boxing’s ultimate warrior is as well earned as his fans’ fierce love and loyalty. But when a voter considers the worthiness of a candidate, he must do his best to remove emotion and bias from his deliberations. He must take into account the record in his most notable fights as well as his historical impact on the sport. On the latter Gatti is worthy but on the former he is wanting.

Matthew Saad Muhammad is a close cousin to Gatti in terms of mindset and excitement quotient, but “Miracle Matthew” is a genuine Hall of Famer based on his nearly three-year title reign that included eight thrilling defenses. Gatti has a 7-2 record in title fights, but he was never able to duplicate Saad’s string of successes at the highest levels. Granted, Gatti had three defenses as IBF junior lightweight king and three more as a WBC junior welterweight titlist, but compared to the all-time greats in both weight classes, those numbers are too small to make a genuine historical dent.

The closest equivalent to Gatti currently in the Hall is Rocky Graziano, a wildly popular bomber with a life story so compelling that it transcends his ring accomplishments at the top level of the sport. Graziano was part of THE RING’s first three Fights of the Year (KO 10 Red Cochrane I, KO by 6 Tony Zale I, KO 6 Tony Zale II) while Gatti had a share in four. Graziano was part of two Rounds of the Year (Round 6 vs. Zale I, 1946, Round 10 vs. Charlie Fusari, 1949) while Gatti logged three such honors. Gatti’s record in title fights is much better than Graziano’s 1-3 mark and if he is voted in this year it will mostly be because of the excitement he generated rather than the statistical body of work. In other words, Gatti’s elevation will be a product of heart over head, which, given the way Gatti fought, would be fitting.

The other reason behind this writer’s rejection is because there are other fighters whose top-shelf credentials are superior and deserve to be enshrined ahead of him. They include Myung Woo Yuh, Hilario Zapata, Yoko Gushiken, Naseem Hamed, Dariusz Michalczewski, Miguel Lora, Santos Laciar and Wilfredo Vazquez Sr. Virgil Hill, who joins Gatti as a first-time ballot entrant, is a serious contender for enshrinement and the other new name on the ballot, longtime IBF light heavyweight king Henry Maske, will earn his fair share of votes. Other fighters who also merit consideration include Sven Ottke, Samuel Serrano and Masao Ohba, each of whom made their mark at the top of their respective weight classes. 

Is Arturo Gatti a Hall of Famer? These eyes and this mind say no. However if he is voted in, that opinion will be buried by fact and title, for if enough voters say Gatti is a Hall of Famer, then he is a Hall of Famer – for all time.

 

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All photos by Al Bello-Getty Images

Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at l.groves@frontier.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.

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