When he turned pro in 1991, nobody could foresee what was destined to transpire for a young Italian-born teenager from Canada named Arturo Gatti.
Boasting a name sounding like a gangster from an old mafia movie, Gatti was ready to embark on a run in the paid ranks after missing out on a place at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Gatti turned over on the undercard of 1984 gold medalist Mark Breland’s victory over Henry Anaya Jr. The debut took place at the Meadowlands Convention Center in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Also competing on the bill was Arturo’s older brother Joe, who was four years into his own career in the middleweight ranks.
Both siblings were triumphant on the night. Joe won on points in a closely-fought majority decision, whilst Arturo got off and running with a technical knockout in the third round of four.
Participating in four bouts over the next ten months, everything seemed straight forward for the newly-turned 20-year-old after four first-round knockouts on the spin.
Stepping up to six stanzas a month later, Gatti was taken the distance for the maiden time in his career on the Michael Moorer vs Bert Cooper event.
Six months out followed, until Gatti then came back to suffer the first big disappointment of his career.
Shocked by a debated split decision, Gatti lost to King Soloman. It was the first sign that Gatti needed the bigger and brighter lights in order to get himself up for the crowd.
Dusting himself down, Gatti blasted out eleven of his next twelve opponents early. He picked up the USBA super-featherweight crown along the way.
By this time, elder brother Joe had seen a world title shot ending in dismay before losing for the fourth time in March 1994. Rafael Williams, who had thirteen defeats on his record, almost put Joe out to pasture in Melville.
In 1995, as Arturo pushed towards a championship chance of his own, Joe was losing again to James ‘Buddy’ McGirt. Contrasting paths were about to be pushed even further apart.
Gatti was gaining attention. Not only for his boyish good looks but for his power and excitement. Many of those sharing the ring with Arturo were falling early and the TV networks were taking notice.
HBO had world title plans for the younger Gatti. In that December, he’d challenge Tracey Patterson for the IBF super-featherweight title.
It was Gatti’s big opportunity to shine. It meant a debut at the world-famous Madison Square Garden was on the cards.
Patterson fought hard to retain his belt, although it was Gatti’s moment. He took the red strap to elevate his reputation further. The New York crowd loved him and Arturo loved them back.
Three defenses in five wins followed as Gatti cemented himself as one of the major players at 130 pounds. By 1998, it was time to move up to lightweight.
A January dipping of the toes into 135 pounds was settled. Angel Manfredy was seen as an opponent who could make Gatti look good enough for a world title shot in his next fight.
It wasn’t to be. A situation Gatti would find familiar throughout his career reared it’s head as Manfredy won via TKO. Gatti was stopped on a cut and was contemplating how a second reverse had come to pass.
Little did he know that this was only the beginning of the worst possible twelve months. Joe was also tailing off with his aspirations after yet another defeat.
Now, Gatti was pitched in with Ivan Robinson, himself on the comeback trail from a pair of title fight losses the year previously.
Already gaining a reputation as an all-action fighter, Gatti’s bout with Robinson was seen as a clear crossroads encounter. What came to fruition was a genius match-making move and the 1998 Fight of the Year.
Sadly for Gatti, he lost a ten-round split decision that could have gone either way, but in the process won another army of fans. By this time, HBO firmly had a TV favorite on their hands, thanks also to a 1997 five-round war with Gabriel Ruelas.
HBO immediately commissioned an immediate rematch with Robinson over ten rounds. An out-of-sorts Gatti lost unanimously this time around in another close fight.
Despite the L count on his record rising, Gatti’s popularity went with it. His post-fight interviews were always humble and respectful of his opponent – win or lose.
Fans lapped this kind of fighter up. It was a refreshing change from the likes of Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, Chris Eubank, and Prince Naseem Hamed during the 1990s.
Conferring with his team over what move to make next, Gatti decided the time was right to leave his lightweight dream behind.
Super-lightweight would be the next port of call. Three two victories against solid opposition were followed up by a dream offer landing on the lap of Gatti’s promoter.
Gatti was given notice for a collision against Oscar De La Hoya after a win over Eric Jakubowski that saw Arturo scaling a career-high 149 pounds.
De La Hoya wanted in. He saw an opportunity to have a big weight advantage against a popular fighter and Gatti, as always, wouldn’t turn a fight down.
Given a warm-up fight against Joey Hutchinson, De La Hoya vs Gatti was agreed for March 2001. Just three years prior, nobody would have envisaged such a contest taking place.
There was a reason for that. It was solely down to bulk. De La Hoya was huge when the pair took to the ring at the MGM Grand for what was Gatti’s Las Vegas debut.
It was a painful five rounds. Clearly apparent Gatti just didn’t belong in the welterweight division.
Taking some time to regroup, Gatti knew his future lay at 140.
Terron Millet was up next in a timely return to Madison Square Garden. A fourth-round stoppage gave Gatti a 34th victory against five losses.
Then, an explosion hit Gatti’s waning career like a thunderbolt.
Needing another warm-up to see if he was ready for a world super-lightweight title shot or whether he’d consider retirement, Micky Ward was drafted in. Ward was an eleven-loss campaigner who always gave as good as he got when in the best shape he could be.
A win for Gatti could see him challenge a champion in his next bout. Predictions before the HBO clash were that he was simply too strong.
Jessie James Leija had halted Ward in five rounds last time out, handing the Irish descendant from Lowell his first stoppage defeat.
But this was deceptive to the narrative as Ward was hard as nails. The veteran would prove it when they fought on May 18, 2002.
Recalling how the fight was made, Gatti’s promoter Kathy Duva takes up the story.
“There were no titles were at stake. The outcome had no significance at all as far as the rest of the division was concerned,” Duva exclusively told World Boxing News.
“It was simply a fun fight. It was made in order to give Arturo the send-off that HBO agreed to provide him after he took on near-impossible odds in his fight with Oscar DeLaHoya.”
The first bell rang Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville and all hell broke loose. One of the most amazing battles in history went down.
Two consummate professionals full of admiration and humbleness to boot gave their all in an instant classic. It was the kind of fight you could watch and then immediately rewind to watch it again.
The ninth round was a miracle three minutes (watch above), which referee Frank Cappuccino will forever be thanked for as long as boxing exists.
Only one thing was ever going to happen after that final bell. A rematch. It was simply a fight that nobody lost. No matter the outcome.
Duva was as amazed as anyone that Gatti vs Ward spawned this historic trilogy. But that was a testament to Arturo, especially at that stage of his career.
Ward too, as that initial meeting he was competing for his life. To his great credit, he took Gatti to the depths of hell.
Gatti won the next two meetings with Ward and eventually took the WBC title from Gianluca Branco, something Duva hadn’t seen coming in 2002.
“What happened after that was not planned. Nobody expected that there would be a second or third fight,” pointed out Duva.
“No one expected Arturo to go on and win another world title. And no one expected nine consecutive sold out events in Boardwalk Hall!
“But it all happened because Arturo was magic.”
Asked whether she sees ‘that magic’ in anyone of the new era, Duva replied: “I’m always looking for that kind of thing when we sign someone new.
“Arturo was undoubtedly special. But then again, when you work with as many fighters as we do, I often see little bits and pieces of Arturo in them.
“Fighters are, of course, a kind of a tribe. We make a point to try to just sign athletes who have chosen to box simply because they love to fight.
“Sergey Kovalev certainly has a lot of Arturo in him. Though, fortunately for Sergey, he is not as much of a brawler. But he is one who immediately comes to mind when you ask me that question.”
Gaining a second career nobody thought he’d have at the age of 32, Gatti didn’t have much left in the locker. Micky had basically taken the fight out of him and vice versa.
Ward never fought again. Whereas Gatti was triumphant against Leonard Dorin and Leija himself before landing a huge fight with Floyd Mayweather.
Another bridge too far for Gatti. But he went down on his shield as he always does.
A lowly-regarded title win at 147 saw Gatti in a final farewell to the world championship scene as Carlos Baldomir put a penultimate exclamation point on the end.
Alfonso Gomez completed the Gatti swansong a year later in 2007 when the world saluted one of their heroes into a deserved retirement.
Two years later, we lost a warrior in the worst way possible. All we can do now is keep his name alive.
First-balot Hall of Fame honors came calling in 2012. Duva believes ‘Thunder’ fully deserves his place and could have hung with anyone in his own weight class whatever the year.
“I think he would have fared very well in any era. I can’t think of too many fighters who are active today who would have known how to handle his tenacity.
“There are so many fighters today who never face an elite opponent and then get handed a world title. Gatti would have had a lot of fun with them!”
Writing this on the eve of what would be his 48th birthday comes with sadness, something Duva shares as she recalls the events which ultimately led to Arturo’s passing.
“I’m still angry. I still grieve for him, especially whenever we are involved in a big fight,” she stated. “I take a moment to think about how I know he would have been there.”