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Arturo Gatti: Badass of the Month August 2009
On July 11, 2009, Canadian/Italian boxer Arturo Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Ipojuca, Pernambuco, Brazil. His estranged wife Amanda Rodrigues was first arrested for his murder and then released. The Brazilian police deemed Gatti’s death a suicide, though blood was found on the strap of his wife’s purse and she could not explain how she spent ten hours in a hotel room with a corpse without noticing. Gatti’s family has requested a second autopsy. Doubtlessly, there will soon be un-disprovable allegations of spousal abuse (Gatti was charged with assaulting Rodrigues in March 2009). Doubtlessly, the truth of all this will never be known. This article is not about the circumstances of his death, but of his life.
I come today not to bury Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, but to praise him.
For everyone who loves a sport, there are a few rare and precious moments of awe that burst without warning into what starts out as an ordinary contest. They are different for everyone. For me, those moments include watching Roger Clemens throw fastballs so powerful that I cringed from my seat in my living room; Secretariat’s unbelievable drive in the first quarter of the first turn of the Preakness passing the entire field like the other horses were standing still; watching Stephen Hendry shoot a perfect snooker game in the World Championship – and sitting, open-mouthed and humbled, as Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward faced off in their final fight.
Gatti and Ward fought three times. I have seen – and loved – all three fights, but it is Gatti-Ward 3, fought June 7, 2003 that is seared in my mind. I cannot say that it was a beautiful fight – both men were punchers in the old style, taking many, many hits (Gatti always looked like a side of meat at the end of his fights).
Unlovely, imperfect, yet that match was gorgeous to behold. The sheer heart of each man blazed like fire. I remember turning to my father during a break in the fight, almost weeping (as I am now) and saying “These men are WARRIORS.” Ward was magnificent, refusing to give in to the hammering he was taking. Gatti fought from the fourth round onward with a broken hand. Let me repeat that:
In the fourth round of the fight, Arturo Gatti broke his right hand. He fought six more rounds, getting knocked down (and nearly out) in the sixth just at the bell, then rallying and winning a unanimous decision. At the end of the fight, as they had before, both fighters embraced in the ring, and it was clear that they loved and respected each other. They were gracious and classy towards each other. They acted as men, and as fighters, should.
It is from that fight that my impressions of Gatti were formed. I obviously do not claim I knew the man, and I was hardly shocked to discover he had been accused of assaulting his girlfriend earlier this year. But in the extremity of the ring, he fought his best without hating, demeaning or mocking his opponent. That is indicative of something decent in a boxer, obscured by human nature as it might inevitably be.
He was obviously far from a perfect human being. In 2000, he faced off with former world champion Joey Gamache. Gatti fought in multiple weight classes over his career, from super feather weight at the beginning to welterweight at the end. In this match, fought as a lightweight, Gatti won by a knockout in round two. A lawsuit by Gamache's handlers claimed Gatti had gained 19 pounds between weigh-in and the fight. Gamache never fought for a title again, and alleged in the lawsuit that Gatti had caused him to become brain damaged. If that is true, it’s sickening to think it was a deliberate action, and totally at odds with my personal impressions. I have no idea of the truth in this case; I must reserve my judgment. The lawsuit sounds plausible, but I have not heard the defense of the claim and I will neither condemn nor exonerate anyone without evidence.
That was in the past by the time Gatti and Ward fought their third and final time (Ward retiring after the fight). Less than a year later, Gatti had recovered from his broken hand and defeated Gianluca Branco of Italy for the vacant WBC junior welterweight title. Watching his post Ward fights, I was astonished by Gatti again.
His style had clearly been that of a natural puncher, absorbing a lot of damage to deal as many punches as possible (hence, the face like a pug dog and the raw meat look he always sported at the end of a bout). But after Ward, I saw a puncher who had turned himself into a boxer, patiently waiting for his openings, calmly distracting opponents with his front hand to slam a cross in behind when their vision was obscured. As always, his heart and courage were there. This was a man who simply refused to fall.
In 2004, Gatti fought the unbeaten former world champion Leonard Dorin, and dropped him with a single body shot. Anyone who boxes knows how hard that is to do, how much punishment a human can take and still stand. Gatti's second defense of his WBC title came against former world junior lightweight champion Jesse James Leija, in 2005; the fight ended in a fifth round knockout for Gatti.
Then came Mayweather in June 2005. To say Gatti was overmatched is an understatement. Mayweather destroyed him, ironically with body shots, and Gatti’s side threw in the towel. That was the beginning of the end for Gatti, though he did take the empty IBA Welterweight title in 2006. But he was knocked out in his next fight, and switched trainers to his old opponent and friend Mickey Ward.
His “comeback” fight in 2007 also ended in a knockout, and that was that. Arturo Gatti retired from boxing at the age of 35. He had fought 49 times, with 40 wins (31 by KO) . A rumored second comeback in 2008 never happened. Now, in 2009, he is dead, possibly murdered, possibly a suicide. An ignominious end for a man who inspired at least me to remember that boxing is called “the sweet science” for a reason.
Arturo Gatti was not a great boxer, nor great man. He was flawed, and unpredictable and human, with all the baggage that entails.
But he absolutely inarguably had courage. He was a skilled and ruthless fighter, and at least later in his career a gracious opponent. I am not one to hero worship athletes as so many people do, nor live vicariously through them, nor support anyone based simply on which country they came from. But Arturo Gatti made me proud that he called himself a Canadian.
Rest in Peace, Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, Bullshido Badass of the Month, August 2009.