These days, apprehension is required before glorifying athletes in combat sports — or even contact sports. Research on the long-term effects of head trauma has made enjoying violent sports a moral dilemma, as it’s now clear that the cognitive life spans of football players, hockey goons, pro wrestlers, boxers, and, as future studies will probably show, MMA fighters, are all compromised by their career choices.
But sometimes you just have to say “screw it.” And today — the 10th anniversary of the first fight between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward — is one of those times. The 10-round war Gatti and Ward waged on May 18, 2002 deserves to be glorified, without hesitation or apology. It helped make both fighters legends. It helped ensure that Gatti will live forever. It helped make Ward a millionaire and part of Mark Wahlberg’s IMDb page. It is the best fight I’ve ever seen live,1 and a decade later, I can still feel the deafening roar of 6,254 fans at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and the silent buzz in the empty arena more than an hour after the final bell. Label Gatti and Ward club fighters if you want; that just makes Ward-Gatti I the best damned club fight boxing ever produced.
Admittedly, this claim is made easier by the fact that I wasn’t in Las Vegas three years later to watch Diego Corrales–Jose Luis Castillo I.
What I saw from the fourth row at ringside that night has been partially obscured in my memory by having repeatedly watched the version captured by HBO’s cameras. This week, I diluted my memories just a bit more by popping in the videotape (yes, the kind that goes into a VCR) for a 10th-anniversary rewatching. We start with the counter at 0:00, as the Boxing After Dark theme sequence — which felt cheesy and outdated 10 years ago, by the way — begins:
3:10: Jim Lampley asks Larry Merchant about the significance of there being no sanctioning-organization titles involved in this fight, and Merchant offers, “To Gatti and Ward, the only title that means anything is ‘warrior.’ The only belts that mean anything are the ones that they punch each other with. These are character actors who won starring roles, soldiers who won battlefield commissions.”
5:50: Lampley notes the names of the cutmen for this fight, which is always promising. He wouldn’t do this for, say, Chad Dawson vs. Bernard Hopkins (although Dawson suffered two cuts from a head-butt and a jab in his victory over Hopkins in April). We go to the “Tale of the Tape” and see that Gatti and Ward, though separated by six years in age (Gatti is 30, Ward 36), are identical in height, weight, and reach. This fight was destined to happen. Here we had the two most entertaining sluggers of their era in the same weight class, before either one was too shot to matter. Hard-core fight fans were giddy in the weeks leading up to this bout.
6:33: As Ward makes his way to the ring wearing a Lowell (Massachusetts) Spinners jersey (if the Gatti fight hadn’t been made, Micky was considering an easy send-off fight at their minor-league ballpark instead), we’re treated to clips of his fights with Poncho Sanchez (the one-punch body shot KO featured in The Fighter), Shea Neary (the climactic fight in the film), and James Leija (Ward’s previous bout). Left out are the two best pre-Gatti fights of Ward’s career, his dramatic rally to stop Reggie Green with 20 seconds left on the clock and his 2001 Fight of the Year against Emanuel Augustus.
8:15: The opening strains of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” signal the arrival of Gatti, tanned, ripped, lightly tattooed, and straight outta Jersey. All he’s missing is a cup of Ron-Ron Juice. Clips from all of Gatti’s best battles make it into his highlight reel: the one that started it all against Wilson Rodriguez; the left-hook leveling of Gabe Ruelas; his losing battles against Ivan Robinson; and Gatti’s cut-induced TKO loss to Angel Manfredy.
10:15: Ring announcer Mark Beiro takes the microphone. In my ringside notepad, I scrawled, “Can’t hear a word of Beiro’s intros.” Lampley illustrates how loud the crowd was by noting that referee Frank Cappuccino instructed the timekeeper: “When you hammer the bell, you hammer it hard.”
14:23: The opening bell rings.
15:43: Merchant: “And there’s a cut on the right eye of Micky Ward!” Well, that didn’t take long. Before the fight, I remember thinking that the only thing that might prevent it from becoming a classic would be someone’s skin not cooperating. Meanwhile, Gatti dominates the first round with smooth, graceful boxing, and Ward is so slow that Gatti almost resembles Muhammad Ali in spots. Seriously. Gatti is on his toes, dancing, exhibiting traces of defense, and when Ward gets close, he quickly ties him up. It’s an easy 10-9 round for Gatti.
17:35: Cutman Al Gavin goes to work on Ward’s gash. Meanwhile, Dicky Ecklund regales everyone with the story of how he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard.
18:40: Moments into Round 2, Ward lands his first good left hook to the body. Ward remains the only fighter I’ve ever seen who would throw left hooks to the head to lure his opponent’s right elbow up and create an opening for the hook downstairs. For every other boxer, it’s the other way around — body shots designed to set up head shots. Ward was basically an average fighter with extraordinary heart and a devastating left to the liver. Take either of those away, and Mark Wahlberg ends up making a movie about Peter Manfredo Jr. instead.
20:45: While Gatti controls most of the second round, Ward does one of his signature moves. He bangs his gloves together in front of his face to announce his frustration at being hit so easily and also to tell his opponent: “Let’s fight!” He doesn’t need to tell Gatti twice.
21:15: Cappuccino warns Gatti for a low blow, which will prove significant. (I’m allowed to foreshadow without typing “spoiler alert” when writing about a 10-year-old sporting event, right?)
21:50: Between rounds, a CompuBox graphic reveals that Gatti has outlanded Ward 57-18 through two rounds. Landing only 18 punches against Gatti in two rounds is like blowing an empty-netter in hockey from inside the trapezoid. It can happen, but you pretty much have to try to miss.
24:10: In the middle of Round 3, Ward lands two clean hooks to Gatti’s body in a span of about 30 seconds and the decibel level in the building rises as the crowd senses the fight growing more competitive. With a minute to go, we see our first sustained two-way exchange of slugging, and HBO analyst Emanuel Steward exclaims, “Now the fight is turning out to be what we expected! So much for the boxing!” Gatti wins another round, but the style of the fight — a brawl — is beginning to favor Ward. As the bell sounds, Merchant states, “That’s what they came here for.” Lampley just cackles, which suits the moment perfectly.
27:25: About a minute into Round 4, Lampley observes that Gatti’s left eye is beginning to swell, and immediately after that, Ward lands his best punch of the fight so far — a massive right hand on that eye. Gatti’s instincts take over and he unloads a combination to hold Ward off. Micky comes back with two big lefts to the body and then a combination, prompting Steward’s first “Oh my gawd!” of the evening.
29:00: With 25 seconds left on the clock, Gatti lands a left hand just below the beltline and Ward drops hard. Cappuccino docks a point from Gatti. Considering the low blow was unintentional and Cappuccino had only given one warning, this feels awfully premature. And potentially significant.
29:50: Harold Lederman offers his first “Jim, let me tell you something” of the fight. Hey, Internet, put together a compilation of Harold’s second most popular catchphrase, “Be as it may,” okay?
30:35: After Ward wins Round 4 10-8 thanks to the point deduction, Gatti enters the fifth leading by a single point on Lederman’s card (and on mine as well). There’s a subtle shift inside the ring, as Gatti continues outboxing and outlanding Ward, but Ward walks through the punishment with an air of inevitability. Gatti is landing bombs but Ward’s overhand right is scoring with regularity, and with blood flowing from above Micky’s right eye, Lampley marvels, “It is man against man in there.”
33:15: Gatti has the round in the bag until, with 15 seconds left, Ward suddenly opens up with a Mayweather-fast (only a slight exaggeration; see for yourself) five-punch combination to the head. Gatti winces, and Ward batters with 14 unanswered punches before the bell rings, stealing the round and evening up the scorecards. Around this point, writers at ringside began to sense we were witnessing something special. Three pieces of evidence: (1) The timekeeper had to ring the bell twice because nobody heard it over the crowd on his first attempt, (2) Ward’s punch stats in the round were 83 thrown, 44 landed, and (3) Gatti’s were 96 and 54.
34:30: Gatti’s trainer Buddy McGirt reams him out between rounds for allowing Ward to drag him into a brawl. As the sixth begins, Gatti is back on his toes, fighting at a pace that seems downright boring for this fight but would be among the better action rounds of most other bouts. After a clear 10-9 round for Gatti, McGirt offers a couple of simple but effective clichés to his tiring charge: “He’s in the same fight that you’re in You can rest all day tomorrow.” It’s not quite “You’re blowin’ it, son!” but it’ll do.
39:15: Gatti is again outboxing Ward in the seventh, and Micky is even backing up in the face of Gatti’s combinations. Ward’s punch output and movements are beginning to slow; suddenly, he looks all of his 36 years. After the round, Ward’s trainer threatens to stop the fight: “Don’t be a punching bag. If you’re going to be a punching bag, I’m not going to let this go like this.”
44:45: The first two-plus minutes of the eighth round look much like the previous two rounds, with Gatti controlling the action. But with 45 seconds left, Ward lands a right cross-left uppercut combination, and Gatti does the “wince and slouch” routine. Sitting next to me was Lou DiBella, the former HBO Sports executive who had recently become a promoter and, who, unbeknownst to me, was working as an adviser to Ward. This was the first moment in the fight where I specifically recall DiBella elbowing me in the ribs.
45:25: I lower my right arm to protect my rib cage as Ward gives DiBella — and the delirious Mohegan Sun fans — something to lose their minds over in the final 10 seconds of the eighth. Micky hurts Gatti with a left uppercut, then a combo, and then Gatti stumbles back into the ropes, where Ward unloads. Gatti looks out on his feet as the bell rings, and Ward has stolen another round by hurting Gatti late. The commentators all find themselves in uncontrollable-chuckling mode. DiBella, meanwhile, is practically puncturing my right lung.
46:35: The bell rings for Round 9. If you want to find out if someone is a true fight fan, say the words “Round 9” and see if they know what you mean without explanation.
46:50: Fifteen seconds into the round, Ward’s trademark left to the body cracks into Gatti’s side and puts him on the canvas! The crowd goes absolutely apeshit, and Gatti, looking like he wants to vomit, cry, and do a DeNiro impression all at once, gets up at the count of nine and a half. You know when fighters intentionally wait until the last second to get up, so they can maximize their rest and recovery time? This wasn’t one of those situations. Gatti was a half-second away from being counted out.
47:05: Ward storms across the ring and goes right back to the body, doing everything he can to take Gatti out. DiBella’s left elbow is working overtime as both warriors are slugging away.
47:40: An exhausted Ward stops punching, and Gatti seizes the moment and opens up, dominating the next 30 seconds. Lampley: “Can you believe there’s still a minute and a half to go in the round?” Gatti backs Ward into the ropes, landing a succession of flush punches, and after Ward retaliates with a combination, Gatti comes right back and hammers him to the body.
48:40: With a minute to go in the round, Gatti and Ward fall into a clinch in the corner, but Ward comes out of the clinch and hurts Gatti with a right hand. A left hook to the body leaves Gatti in agony. Steward, who has been calling for that body shot for most of the round, screams, “That’s where he needs to go, to the body!” I just got my first chill of the rewatch — not bad for a 10-year-old fight that I’ve seen at least two dozen times. In a sound bite that will be replayed countless times on HBO over the next decade, Steward says, “You know, you dream of fights like this, but very seldom do they live up to the expectation. This is even more than you can dream of!”
49:05: As Ward hammers Gatti with rights to the head, a scene unfolds in the corner that HBO’s cameras fail to catch and that most fight fans remain unaware of to this day. McGirt climbs the steps, white towel in hand, prepared to stop the fight with about 30 seconds to go in the round. Lampley says, “You can stop it anytime, Frank.” But Cappuccino is turned the wrong way and doesn’t see McGirt, and Gatti summons a desperate combination that convinces McGirt his man isn’t quite finished yet. McGirt backpedals down the steps, completely unseen by Cappuccino.
49:35: With two seconds on the clock, Lampley gives one of the fight’s signature calls, “Gatti’s gonna survive the round!” and Arturo staggers to his corner in full zombie mode. Steward gets in his own timeless call, “This should be the Round of the Century!”2 Power punch totals for the round: Gatti, 42 of 61; Ward, 60 of 82. Damn! That’s some awful defense.
I interviewed Lampley for a “Fights of the Decade” piece in 2009, and here’s what he said about the ninth round and Gatti-Ward I in general: “Once every few years, I’m going to see a fight which, even though I’ve been calling fights for 22 years, still challenges at a gut level the question of how men do this and why they do it. And to me the ninth round of Gatti-Ward is the ultimate in that regard. To look at that round is to marvel that human beings can survive this experience. I remember when I stood up at the end of the fight to move from my seated position at ringside to where we did on-cameras, a distance of no more than eight or nine feet, I almost could not stand all the way up to a straight position, because my stomach hurt so much from the tension. I had stiffened up, and my stomach had tightened like a board, just from the fear that they were going to kill each other.”
49:50: McGirt says to Gatti in the corner, “I’m not going to let you take this punishment.” He seems to be probing to see how Gatti responds. Or if Gatti is capable of responding.
50:40: When the bell rings to start the 10th and final round, Gatti’s cornermen are all still in the ring, including McGirt, who is positioned in front of Gatti, as if to block him from walking to the center. Ward raises his arms, thinking the fight has been stopped. But Cappuccino delivers the bad news: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. No. Fight ain’t over. Fight ain’t over. Nah.” Gatti comes to the center of the ring and Ward looks genuinely depressed that he has to endure one more round of this.
51:05: The round finally starts, and 25 seconds have already ticked off the clock thanks to the is-it-over-or-not confusion. Gatti immediately starts outboxing and outpunching Ward, who would tell me later in an interview that he lost his mental edge in the three seconds that he believed the fight was over. But the story here is Gatti: How is he breathing, much less throwing punches, after what he endured in Round 9? He looks as fresh as he did in Rounds 6 and 7, landing hard body shots and clearly winning the round to make it nearly impossible to pick a winner on the scorecards.
53:00: Merchant gets in his own signature line of the fight, “I am humbled by watching these two guys take the punishment they are taking.” CompuBox stats reveal Gatti threw 99 punches and landed 50 in the shortened final round. The fighters fall into a deep embrace at the bell, then Gatti returns to his trudging-zombie posture, and Steward giggles like a schoolgirl.
56:50: Not that the scoring and the idea of a “winner” and a “loser” really matter much in a fight like this, but Lederman has it 94-94 and I have it 94-93 for Ward. Beiro announces a majority decision — 94-94, 94-93, and 95-93 — in favor of Ward. The crowd goes berserk.
58:55: Merchant interviews the two fighters together, and a remarkable personal relationship begins.3 Gatti doesn’t dispute the decision — though he does dispute Cappuccino’s point deduction. Frankly, I can’t believe he even remembers the fourth round.
Ward and Gatti would fight two more times and become close friends by the time they were done, with the retired Ward even training Gatti for what would be Arturo’s final bout. I interviewed Ward for a tribute feature in The Ring magazine after Gatti died at age 37 in 2009, and Ward revealed the depth of their relationship: “What I miss most is the phone calls. The calls at different hours. We both kept odd hours, so I’d call him late sometimes or he’d call me late sometimes. It’s funny, when we’d be together, we’d talk to each other, and people would be like, ‘What are they talking about?’ We understood each other, but other people were like, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ We had our own little language.”
1:01:05: The fighters watch a replay of Round 9 together with Merchant. Ward: “What the hell’s he got in his head? I don’t know.” Merchant asks Ward whether he was exhausted. “I don’t know what I was,” Micky responds. Merchant asks Gatti what he was thinking toward the end of the round, and Arturo says, “Wow, that’s a long round.”
1:04:05: Merchant asks, “Do you guys want to do this again?” Gatti: “I would love to, I would love to, a rematch if it’s possible. I think we should do it again.” Ward, a little less enthusiastically: “If we can do it, we can do it.”4
Ward lost a rematch with Gatti as well as their third fight, taking significant punishment in each, and though he earned a seven-figure payday for the final bout, he suffered from dizziness and vision problems for several years afterward. I asked him in 2009 if, knowing the toll the third fight took, he would have gone through with the rubber match. “Honestly, I probably would have stopped,” he admitted. “My health means way more to me than any money. All these champions that make millions of dollars and now they’re incoherent, they can’t really speak I look at some guys, they don’t even know what their name is. They made all kinds of money, but what good is all the money in the world if you can’t enjoy it and you’re not coherent? There’s no price tag on that. So, with the problems I had after that fight, if I knew that in advance, I wouldn’t have done it.”
1:06:05: Merchant ends the broadcast poetically: “Prizefighters sign on for a life of pain and struggle, risk and reward, and those fighters who honor that contract are the ones who move us and thrill us the way Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward did tonight.”