Some men enter the International Boxing Hall of Fame by acclamation, the door swinging open for them the moment they are first eligible to scale prize fighting’s Mt. Olympus. Most fight fans do not even need to hear their full name to know of whom we speak: Sugar Ray (I). Ali. Louis. Dempsey. Chavez. Hagler. Duran. Sugar Ray (II). Rocky. Homicide Hank.
Others arrive based solely on their numbers, their many victories transcending their few defeats and their belt collections overwhelming any other factor, such as stylistic preferences that caused all but the most technically appreciative fan to reach for No-Doz to get through one of their fights.
And then there are the special ones, special not because they were the best boxers of their time but because most often they were not. Despite those flaws, they captured more than a title or two. Most of all they captured hearts, the hearts of their opponents and even more so the hearts of the people who matter most in sports: the fans.
Few fighters in history can be included in that latter category more readily than Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, an apt nickname for a face-first stylist with a heart, as Joe Frazier would put it, “That don’t pump Kool-Aid.”
When it was announced recently that Gatti would be in the IHOF’s latest class of inductees on June 7 in Canastota, N.Y., the blogosphere erupted in debate. Gatti had fierce supporters but also some who argued a guy who loses twice to Ivan Robinson and arguably all of his biggest challenges (Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr.) is suspect.
As Buffalo boxing maven Rick Glazer remarked, “He never won a fight he wasn’t supposed to win.”
Well, most of the people making that argument must have never seen him fight. Or, if they did, they must not understand that Arturo Gatti was the embodiment of what brings people to boxing and what keeps them there even though the sport often makes life as hard on its fans as it does on its practitioners.
“Not everyone gets to the Hall of Fame simply because of the greatness of their numbers,” said long-time HBO Boxing commentator Larry Merchant, whose erudite musings lifted HBO Sports from cable unknown to televised champion of boxing over the past 35 years.
“Some get there because they have made fans and kept fans and that has its own value. Boxing is not like other sports in a lot of ways and that’s one of them.
“It’s always been easier to be a champion in boxing than to be a star. Not everyone has the personality or the body language to do it. Gatti had “IT.” “IT” is that most difficult thing to define but something we know when we see it. In him we saw it often.
“If you can build a great fan base, even if you are not technically the most skilled fighter, you can become a star and the opposite is also true. You can be technically proficient but not a star.
“When you watch Classic Boxing on ESPN how often do you see Pernell Whitaker fights? What you see is Thunder Gatti. Arturo was a star. Now he’s going into the Hall of Fame and that’s great.”
Not everyone agrees, of course, but even a purist and historian like J Russell Peltz, who co-promoted Gatti most of his career along with Dan Duva at Main Events, has a soft spot for him and not simply because he made money with him.
When it comes to the historic purity of the sport, Peltz can be a hardcore critic. He believes greatness is limited to the few, and favored the kind of testing matches that landed Gatti his first loss by split decision only six fights into his career when he put him in tough for a kid of such limited experience with a cutie named King Solomon at the legendary Blue Horizon in Philadelphia.
Yet in Gatti’s case he sees the same thing that made Rocky Graziano and Danny “Little Red” Lopez Hall of Famers and one day may do the same for Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. They made great fights because they made dramatic fights.
“I voted for him because it’s the Hall of FAME,” Peltz said. “He was the franchise in later years. He wasn’t the most talented fighter, as he’d be the first to admit, but he was special.
“He was selling out 16,000 seats at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City when so-called more-talented fighters couldn’t. The Miss America pageant wasn’t even selling it out any more. The place was cavernous but he kept filling it when few others could.
“He could do it because he was as exciting losing as he was winning. Fans came because they loved him and they knew they would be entertained. You had to shoot him to beat him … twice.”
Gatti (40-9, 31 knockouts) fought professionally for 16 years and won two world titles, the IBF junior lightweight title in 1995 and the WBC junior welterweight title nearly a decade later, in 2004. He was 7-2 in world title fights and one of the losses was to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2005, at a time when Gatti was already fading.
But what truly made his case is that four times in his career RING selected him as half of the Fight of the Year (1998, 1999, 2002, 2003) and he won only two of the four. He also fought in the Round of the Year three times.
Almost without fail each of those fights resulted in Gatti being at one point or another in deep trouble, rising off the deck to win or battling with closed eyes, bloody cheeks and swollen lips.
His essence is captured in one memory his long-time manager, Pat Lynch, instantly recalled when asked to describe how Gatti should be remembered.
“He lost to Angel Manfredy (after relinquishing the junior lightweight title and moving up to 135 for the first time) in a fight where he got cut badly early but rallied back the way he did so many times,” Lynch said. “He was down in the third round and had a terrible cut over his left eye but he was coming back. He won a couple rounds in a row but the doctor stopped it because the bleeding was so bad.
“Arturo was so mad he wouldn’t even let (cut man) Joe Souza work on it in the corner after the stoppage. He kept walking away, cursing. He couldn’t believe they stopped it. He felt the fight had just started. I finally told him, ‘Arturo, that cut is all the way to the bone.’ He looks at me and says, ‘That’s right. It can’t go no deeper!’ That’s the way he was.
“He never won the real, real big one but he meant so much to the sport. He stood for something. He was the rare exception who could lose a fight and HBO would bring him back because he brought so much to an event.
“There was no quit in that guy. Fans felt he was like them: a working class guy. He’d fight on a Saturday, and Monday I’d have calls all day asking when he was going to fight again. The swelling wouldn’t have gone down yet on his face!”
Gatti first became a legend when he rallied despite being half-blinded by Wilson Rodriguez, knocking him out with a massive left hand with 44 seconds left in the sixth round in his first defense of the 130-pound title. A couple rounds earlier, his right eye nearly swollen shut, Gatti had responded to the ringside physician’s televised instruction to cover his left eye by saying “I’m all right!”
When the doctor threatened to stop the fight if he didn’t cover his left eye and tell him how many fingers he saw with his right, Gatti covered it with his glove and then, as the doctor put up two fingers, took it down and said “Two!” Fans loved him for it.
Four fights later he would win again in a similarly desperate circumstance against Gabriel Ruelas, a former champion himself who had wobbled Gatti badly with several deadly uppercuts, sliced open his left cheek and had that problematic right eye closing when Gatti began to stand toe to toe and hurt Ruelas to the body.
“All out war!” HBO analyst Roy Jones Jr. roared in the midst of the fifth round, just before Gatti stopped Ruelas with a stunning left hook and then collapsed on his knees in the neutral corner, weeping in joy and bloody relief.
Those fights and many others like them not only made Gatti the stuff of legend but also the staple of a new series called Boxing After Dark that HBO started in the mid-1990s to try and revive what had become a fading sport at all but the most elite levels. Gatti’s place in that, Merchant argues, cemented his deserved place in Canastota as well.
“He was one of the guys who made Boxing After Dark and that series was very important because it showed people who maybe had forgotten that you could make great fights out of guys you maybe hadn’t heard of yet,” Merchant said.
“He wasn’t on the highest level of the sport but he was certainly a reflection of the sport. One thing about that show when Arturo Gatti fought on it you were pretty much guaranteed to see drama and blood fighting and that led to a re-energizing of the levels below the heavyweight division and the pay-per-view fighters at a difficult time for boxing. Frankly that, in itself, was a palpable contribution to the sport.”
Yet those are not even the fights for which Gatti is best remembered. Those belong to him and a tough journeyman named Micky Ward. Between them they shared 30 rounds. Each of their three fights was a Promethean battle against not only each other but also enormous pain, creating what is considered one of the best trilogies in boxing history.
Gatti won two of the three, splitting the two that were chosen Fight of the Year. And, in the loss, he appeared to be finished after Ward’s body attack finally seemed to beat the life out of him. Ward’s corner thought the fight had been stopped by Gatti’s deeply worried trainer Buddy McGirt and began celebrating but Gatti not only answered the bell for 10th, he somehow won the round.
Didn’t matter to Gatti what McGirt, Ward or anyone else thought. He fought on and so did Ward. Because of it, the two became etched together in stone. Gatti-Ward is all you have to tell a fight fan to make them smile or to understand what type of fight you’re talking about.
Isn’t that the true aim of boxing? Isn’t it to entertain by taking the measure of another man and in so doing also measuring yourself? Arturo Gatti, who died too young under suspicious circumstances 3½ years ago at 37, was rewarded with fistic immortality for being perhaps the king of taking such measurements.
Next June he will enter a hallowed place, not at center stage perhaps but where he truly belongs: the place that houses the greatest FIGHTERS of all time as well as the greatest boxers.
What is sad is not that Gatti was selected even though Peltz admits “it may be the most controversial selection in the history of the Hall of Fame.” What is sad is that he won’t be there to share it with the fans who loved him so completely, not because he was the perfect fighting machine but because he triumphed even though he wasn’t.
“Arturo was a hard guy,” Lynch said. “Maybe he wasn’t the most talented guy but the most talented guys knew if they got in with him they’d have to go through hell to beat him. He wasn’t the greatest fighter but he made the greatest fights.
“In those days you usually had to win your fights to keep your contract with HBO. They had a clause in the contracts with all their fighters that if they lost, the contract was voided.
“They had it in Arturo’s contract too but it never seemed to matter. HBO never enforced it. It was in his contract for the Manfredy fight when they stopped it on that cut. Next fight was RING’s Fight of the Year and he lost it. Six years later he won another world championship. In between HBO kept showing him because the fans wanted to see him. They knew what they were getting: a fighter. That was Arturo Gatti.
“He used to ask me from time to time, ‘Do you think I’ll get in?’ You could tell how proud he would be and how much he would have enjoyed it.”
Probably about as much as the fans whose love put him there enjoyed him.