Lee Groves

The Time Machine: Arturo Gatti vs. Wilson Rodriguez

 

Note: This is the first installment for what will become an occasional series on RingTV.com. Like the “Closet Classics” that became the basis for the book “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Closet Classics,” “The Time Machine”  will relive fantastic fights of the past. However, the scope will be expanded to include well-known classics along with those that flew under the radar.

In most cases profiled fights will be timed to current events and will largely follow the “Closet Classics” format: A prologue detailing the circumstances surrounding the fight, a thorough rendering of the action and an epilogue that follows each fighter’s path after their date with destiny.

Today’s trip into “The Time Machine” will relive Arturo Gatti’s sensational come-from-behind knockout over Wilson Rodriguez, the first act of what would become a theatrical, thrilling and tumultuous career.

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Seventeen years ago today Arturo Gatti laid out his heart for the world to see. And the world was left thunderstruck by what it saw.

Gatti’s sixth round knockout over Wilson Rodriguez remains a testament to his deep reservoir of courage, his titanic will to win and his matchless ability to dig deep within himself to overcame adversity. Although Gatti had already logged more than half of the 49 fights he eventually engaged in, the Rodriguez bout vaulted him from the ranks of “bright young titlist” to “must-see superstar.” 

Four months earlier inside Madison Square Garden’s main arena Gatti out-pointed Tracy Harris Patterson to win the IBF junior lightweight belt. He also won an even more lucrative prize: A long-term contract with HBO, which aired the Patterson bout. This first defense of the title – this time staged in the Garden’s smaller arena – not only was to be Gatti’s initial fight under the new deal but was also a showcase for HBO’s new series Boxing After Dark.

The original mandate for “B.A.D.” was to use HBO’s financial muscle to create matches between outstanding fighters campaigning in otherwise overlooked weight classes. The first “B.A.D.” main event – an unforgettable firefight between Marco Antonio Barrera and Kennedy McKinney – was a rousing success and on paper this night’s doubleheader of Junior Jones-Orlando Canizales and Arturo Gatti-Wilson Rodriguez appeared equally promising.

Gatti-Rodriguez offered many pleasing comparisons and contrasts. Both fighters were men of the world; Gatti was born in Italy, raised in Canada, based in New Jersey and was trilingual (English, French, Italian) while Rodriguez, a native of the Dominican Republic, had spent the last six years living and fighting out of Madrid, Spain. Both had overcome early stumbles to reach the highest levels of the sport, for Gatti (24-1, 20) had won 18 straight (15 by knockout) since losing his only fight to slickster King Soloman in November 1992 while Rodriguez (43-7-3, 24) had gone 27-1 over the past five years, the only loss being a 10th round TKO to then IBF junior lightweight titlist John John Molina six fights earlier in November 1994.

While Gatti was a mercurial slugger who could box when necessary, Rodriguez was a level-headed stylist that banked on mobility, intelligence and marksmanship. Even though 10 of his last 11 wins were by stoppage Rodriguez wasn’t known for producing devastating knockouts; rather, his KO string was more a product of his mediocre Eastern European opposition. On the other hand, Gatti was a genuine knockout artist because he owned a sledgehammer left hook and a robust body attack that was among boxing’s best.

A few minutes after Jones won an action-packed split decision over Canizales, Rodriguez walked to the ring accompanied by the 1994 rap tune “Rumble Young Man Rumble” by Max and Sam – the “Max” half being future HBO analyst Max Kellerman. As usual, AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blared over the sound system as an equally energetic Gatti jogged toward the squared circle. Following the introductions by ring announcer Michael Buffer, the fistic theater began.

And what theater it would be.

Gatti started the fight with his customary aggression as he curled hooks and crosses to Rodriguez’s ribs while the challenger fired hard jabs and crisp rights while wisely circling away from Gatti’s hook. Within 90 seconds Rodriguez’s piercing punches began to mark up Gatti’s angular face and a ramrod left caused the champion to take a half-step back. By the two-minute mark the mouse under Gatti’s left eye had grown uncomfortably large and the sudden reduction in vision caused him to blink heavily as he continued to march forward. The first round clearly belonged to Rodriguez, who out-landed Gatti 30-16 and landed 38 percent of his total punches to Gatti’s 26 percent.

After cut man Joe Souza furiously worked the Enswell over Gatti’s right eye, the fighter tried to preserve Souza’s handiwork by executing an exaggerated bob-and-weave during the first minute of round two. Rodriguez waited until Gatti’s head movement lessened before launching another attack and when he did the effects were unmistakable. Rodriguez’s jabs and straight rights not only worsened the mouse around Gatti’s left eye, they created an even more severe knot under the right orb. In less than five minutes of action Gatti’s shockingly lumpy face threatened to end his title reign after just 99 days.

If the facial damage wasn’t enough for Gatti to deal with, Rodriguez compounded the crisis by landing a compact hook to the jaw that floored Gatti for a three count. Once the action resumed Rodriguez unleashed an 11-punch flurry that mostly landed flush while Gatti’s answers mostly found air. A savage exchange of hooks closed out a drama-filled round and its stresses left Gatti so disoriented that he walked toward the wrong corner.

Once Gatti sat on the stool, the hard realities were laid out in no uncertain terms.

“Listen to me, listen to me; you ain’t got no time,” Souza said through clenched teeth as he worked multiple Enswells. “You got to get out there and do it, all right?”

“You’re gonna get him, Arturo,” chief second Hector Roca added. “Put the pressure on him.”

Ever the compliant warrior, Gatti started the second by racing out of his corner and nailing Rodriguez with an overhand right. The emboldened Gatti tried to follow up with a fusillade of power shots but the challenger deftly ducked under most of Gatti’s fire. Despite the misses Gatti remained undeterred. Confronting a situation that would have discouraged others to the point of paralysis, Gatti vigorously chased after Rodriguez with fire in his eyes and mayhem on his mind. A huge hook swiveled Rodriguez’s head but the Dominican’s legs remained oak-strong. The crowd, sensing the depth and breadth of Gatti’s challenges, tried to lift him by chanting his name but Gatti’s first wave eventually petered out.

When Gatti tried to launch a second wave 30 seconds later Rodriguez responded with one of his own. A blazing nine-punch salvo forced Gatti to seek the safety of a clinch.

The good news for Gatti was that he now had the rock ‘em-sock ‘em fight he wanted but the bad news was that Rodriguez was more than holding his own. Worse yet, Gatti’s face was falling apart, for the swelling under the right eye was the size of a golf ball.

Souza leaped into the ring the moment Gatti sat on the stool and the ringside physician was right behind him. The following 13-second exchange between the doctor, Souza and Gatti would become one of this fight’s more iconic moments:

Doctor: “Back off. I said back off!” (using his elbow to wedge his way into the corner)

Souza: “Hey, don’t push on me God damn it.”

Doctor: “I’m not pushing you. (Turning to Gatti) Cover your left eye. Cover your left eye.”

Gatti: “I’m all right.”

Doctor: “Cover your left eye or it’s over. (Gatti raises his glove) How many fingers… (Gatti then lowers his glove just long enough to see the doctor’s two fingers raised)…I said cover it! (Gatti raises his glove again) How many fingers?”

Gatti: “Two fingers.”

Doctor: “Now?” (shifting to one finger)

Gatti: “One.”

Doctor: “All right.”

Temporarily safe from the doctor’s fight-ending power, Gatti focused on the Herculean task at hand. Meanwhile, the HBO commentators marveled at the drama unfolding before them.

“This is world class stuff, folks,” Larry Merchant said.

“This is World War III, folks,” Roy Jones Jr. replied with a chuckle.

Gatti opened round four by gunning for the grand slam with every punch while Rodriguez, knowing time was on his side, slyly worked for openings. A right to the body forced Rodriguez to retreat and a heavy hook to the hip connected moments later. For the next several sequences Rodriguez did more defending than punching but as the final 60 seconds began he unloaded a seven-punch volley that pushed Gatti to the ropes and a follow-up salvo that had the champion badly wobbled.

Even as Gatti’s crown teetered on his head he kept going for broke. In the final 10 seconds Gatti hit pay dirt with an out-of-nowhere 14-punch barrage that flew in the face of reason. The attack’s intensity grew in direct proportion to the crowd’s reaction to it. At round’s end a defiant Gatti stared daggers at Rodriguez and nodded his head at him even as he stumbled toward his corner.

Souza devoted his energies to the right eye, which was in an appalling state. The ringside physician conducted another vision test, this time making sure to cover Gatti’s left eye with his own hand. Gatti earned a passing grade by correctly stating the number of fingers three straight times.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s corner was urging their charge to keep his distance.

“Stay away from him,” said trainer Jose Luis De La Sagra, who went 1-0-1 in back-to-back fights with Rodriguez in July and September 1990. “Push him off.”

Like Gatti, Rodriguez tried to heed his corner’s instructions. He began round five by shooting a quadruple jab while Gatti stalked and worked the challenger’s body with both hands. Several body blows strayed below the belt and after one ill-aimed right referee Wayne Kelley deducted a point from Gatti. Kelly’s action only crystallized what everyone already knew: If Gatti wanted to leave the ring with his title intact there was only one way to do it – by knockout.

With 36 seconds remaining Gatti took a big step toward doing just that. A scything hook to the ribs first froze Rodriguez, then forced him to take a knee near Gatti’s corner. It took everything he had to rise by Kelly’s count of eight and the pumped-up champion did everything he could to put over the finisher.

“Can you believe this kid?” an incredulous Merchant asked.

As Gatti barreled in Rodriguez nailed him with a rocket-like hook to the jaw but the single-minded Gatti shook it off and continued to fire. A second hook stopped Gatti in his tracks and suddenly the tide had turned a second time in less than 30 seconds.

The plot twists were almost too much to absorb and yet one didn’t want the exhilaration to stop. At the end of a rare 9-8 round, the two fighters touched gloves as they passed each other. As is the case with many fights like these, animosity had turned to admiration.

“You’re winning this fight,” De La Sagra told Rodriguez through HBO interpreter Hector Garcia. “Keep your distance. You have to fight and keep the distance. Keep away from this man.”

The contrast in visages couldn’t have been more stark as the sixth round began. While Gatti’s face was an ugly collection of knots and bruises while Rodriguez’s was startlingly clean. The scorecards weren’t nearly as lopsided, for Rodriguez led 48-45 on two cards while Gatti held a 47-46 edge on the third.

Rodriguez tried to apply the tactics that had worked so well early on – staying on the move while shooting hard punches down the middle – but now they couldn’t keep the beast named Gatti away for long. While Gatti’s blows to the head had no discernable effect, the ones that slammed Rodriguez’s body brought tell-tale flinches. A shotgun jab knocked Rodriguez back and a whipping hook to the belly caused him to grimace ever so slightly.

That grimace told Gatti that the time had come to close the show, and he did so in melodramatic fashion. Just before Rodriguez set his feet to throw a hook, Gatti snapped himself into position and fired his own.

Bull’s eye.

The punch caught Rodriguez on the side of the jaw and the after-effects finally caused his rock-solid legs to crumble. Lying flat on his back, Rodriguez no longer had the energy to resist. He could only roll over onto his right side by the time Kelly reached the count of 10. At the 2:16 mark of round six, Gatti not only retained his IBF title, he had created the first cut of what would become a legendary highlight reel.

The CompuBox numbers reflected the contest’s savagery. Both men threw and landed nearly the same number of punches – 236 of 445 for Gatti, 237 of 449 for Rodriguez – and they connected at an incredibly high rate. They each landed 53 percent of their total punches and while Rodriguez led 94-54 in landed jabs and was more precise with them (50 percent to 36 percent), Gatti led 182-143 in landed power shots and connected on 62 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts to Rodriguez’s 55 percent.

When Merchant asked Gatti when he knew his situation was desperate, he replied “it’s when I got dropped – I would never have believed I would ever get dropped, you know – I could get dropped and I got scared when I went down.  I didn’t even know I was down until I looked around and I said, ‘oh my God, I’m going to lose the fight.’ When I started going to the body…I loaded up a little too much, then when I started working normal to the body I started hurting him.

“I have the heart and I have what it takes to be a champion – and I did it.” he concluded.

“He’s a true champ and he will go far,” Rodriguez told Merchant through Garcia. “I can’t believe the way he came back against me, and he will go very, very far.”

All the way to Canastota.

 

Epilogue: Rodriguez fought just six more times over the next three years, going 4-2 (1). After stopping Manuel Fatima Diaz in Spain nearly nine months after losing to Gatti, Rodriguez returned to HBO’s airwaves in February 1997 to fight the volatile and dynamic Angel Manfredy. “El Diablo” treated Rodriguez like hell en route to a decisive 12-round decision. His final four fights were staged in Spain, where he defeated Vadim Gabrielyan (W 8), Aleksandr Danilov (KO 2) and Daniel Langerman (W 12) before losing his final fight to Miguel Angel Pena (L 8) on April 23, 1999. His final record was 48-10-3 (27).

Gatti’s road after Rodriguez, of course, was filled with hairpin turns, stratospheric summits and cavernous potholes. After dusting Feliciano Correa (KO 3) in a non-title fight nearly four months after starching Rodriguez, Gatti repeated his 12-round victory over Patterson to retain his title, struggled to dispatch Calvin Grove (KO 7) in a non-title go and ended his 130-pound reign with a tumultuous fifth round knockout over Gabriel Ruelas, which earned Gatti his first Fight of the Year designation from THE RING.

Gatti’s 1998 campaign was nothing short of disastrous record-wise as he lost three straight fights to Manfredy (KO by 8) and Ivan Robinson (L 10, L 10). But in terms of legacy, 1998 saw Gatti enhance it by capturing his second consecutive Fight of the Year award during his first fight with Robinson and producing enough pyrotechnics to justify his return to HBO’s airwaves – the first fighter ever to break through the network’s previous “one-and-done” stance regarding losses.

Gatti fought just once in 1999 (KO 1 Reyes Munoz) but bounced back with three wins in 2000 (KO 2 Joey Gamache, KO 2 Eric Jakubowski, W 10 Joe Hutchinson) to set up a March 2001 showdown with Oscar de la Hoya, who was looking to rebound from his first loss to Shane Mosley. “The Golden Boy” was utterly dominant as he polished off Gatti in five rounds and the defeat moved Gatti to hire Buddy McGirt as his new trainer.

Their first fight together produced a stunning transformation in terms of technique as Gatti skillfully used his legs and hand speed to demolish Terronn Millett in four rounds. That victory set the stage for another legacy-defining series of fights – the trilogy with Micky Ward.

Ward’s 10-round majority decision over Gatti in May 2002 was a war whose intensity almost defied description and it earned Gatti his third Fight of the Year designation and Ward his second consecutive award (Ward’s sensational battle with Emanuel Augustus won him the honor in 2001). Gatti gained revenge in the rematch six months later not by brawling but by skillfully out-maneuvering his quarry. The rubber match, won by Gatti, managed to blend the two extremes and gave Gatti and Ward yet another Fight of the Year award.

Gatti captured his second divisional title – the vacant WBC super lightweight belt – by decisioning Gianluca Branco and he defended it by blowing out Leonard Dorin (KO 2) and Jesse James Leija (KO 5). The battle-scarred Gatti concluded his career by losing three of his last four fights to Floyd Mayweather Jr. (KO by 6), WBC welterweight titlist Carlos Baldomir (KO by 9 six months after Gatti decisioned the previously undefeated Dane Thomas Damgaard) and “Contender” alum Alfonso Gomez (KO by 7). Gatti’s final record stands at 40-9 (31).

Almost two years to the day after he retired, the 37-year-old Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil, where he was vacationing with his Brazilian wife Amanda Rodrigues. Rodrigues initially was charged with first-degree murder but 18 days later Gatti’s death was ruled a suicide and Rodrigues was released. In August 2011, private investigators ruled that the fighter was a victim of homicide, ensuring that final answers surrounding Gatti’s last moments on Earth will remain a mystery for years to come – if not forever.

In December 2012, the International Boxing Hall of Fame announced that Gatti was elected in his first year of eligibility and the induction ceremony is scheduled for June 9, 2013.

 

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Photos / THE RING-Getty Images

 

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. 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 at l.groves@frontier.comto arrange for autographed copies.

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