Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward became blood brothers the hard way. They bled on each other to do it. There's was not a slicing of thumbs and co-mingling of plasma around a campfire. They became blood brothers in a way unique to a sport as elemental as boxing. They pummeled each other into it.
Gatti and Ward engaged in three of the greatest junior welterweight fights in boxing history, a trilogy made all the greater by the fact no title belts were at stake. None were necessary to capture the imagination of HBO's audience or the attention of a larger sporting world that had grown weary of disrespectful trash talk often backed up only by hot air. In Gatti and Ward they found something noble and in each other the two men found mirror images of themselves. Little warriors with heart, pride and a sense of themselves that allowed them to become something more than fierce rivals. From shared blood, pain and exhaustion grew a shared respect, friendship and finally love.
"There wasn't so much respect at first,'' Ward recalls. "We didn't know each other. But after that first fight we had that respect. We both knew the other guy was a tough bastard and a good guy. The more we got to know each other, the more we liked each other. Probably because we're so much alike.''
Pat Lynch has been Gatti's manager throughout his career. He's seen the ups and downs, the championships won and the lonely defeats. But of all the things he's seen nothing has been more remarkable than what grew between Gatti and Ward after they battled each other for 30 brutal rounds.
Three times they sent each other to the emergency room, lying next to each other on gurneys and laughing at their pain like two friends who'd survived a terrible car accident together.
"Arturo has the utmost respect for Micky,'' Lynch said. "You could see a friendship grow between them at the press conferences and in interviews before their fights. The mutual respect was always there no matter who won the fight. They're both so much alike they started to enjoy being around each other.
"You hit either one of them, they hit you back. They understood that but there was something there they liked about each other. Arturo used to tell me, 'The toughest fight I'll ever have will be when I step in with someone like me.' Micky Ward was that guy. The more they tested each other a funny thing happened. They didn't resent what the other guy was doing. They respected him more. From that they began to see how alike they were and that's how a friendship grew.''
The savage love they shared all came to a head before the final round of their final fight. Gatti was winning the rubber match but Ward had dropped him once and although both knew this would be the last time they ever fought each other, neither expected the other to retreat in these final three minutes. They did not but before that last round began they came together in the center of the ring and did more than the traditional touching of gloves. They kissed each other on the cheek.
Less than two minutes later, Ward was attacking his friend as if he'd seen him steal his last meal. He drove Gatti back and, some insist to this day, knocked him down a second time when Gatti was forced to sit on the lowest strand of the ropes, only the tension of that rope appearing to keep him up in a fight Ward knew he could not win without a knockout.
As he had so often in the past, Gatti rallied back, coming off those ropes fighting and winning the decision. When it was done many of Ward's cornermen complained about the non-knockdown and insisted that might have turned the cards in his favor.
All Ward did was shrug and say, "Arturo fought a great fight. He did enough to win.''
Later Gatti would think back and say, "I love Micky Ward. He's a great guy. He's a warrior. He comes to win. A lot of guys would have quit in our second fight (when Gatti ruptured Ward's ear drum in the third round, knocking him into the turnbuckle and knocking out his equilibrium for the night). He just kept trying to win. He's crazy like me.''
They are throwbacks to a time when athletes respected each other and themselves and showed it but even back in boxing's Golden Age their friendship would have been unusual. Born out in three nights of savage competition it grew from respect into a bond that has remained unbroken even now that Ward has been retired for more than two years.
They play golf together in the summer, attend charitable functions together and support each others sporting efforts. Ward is a regular visitor to Gatti's training camps in Vero Beach, Fla. and now accompanies his friend into the ring before every fight. The latter began after Gatti's victory in their third fight, a long night they shared not only in the ring but also at the Atlantic City Medical Center's emergency room where they lay next to each other wearing heart monitors.
"We love each other but when it was time to fight, we fought,'' Gatti said. "By that third fight we both knew each other so well. We liked each other but we knew what to expect too. Anything we do we try to win. It's what we like about each other.''
Ward has since advised Gatti about opponents he'd been in with, like Thomas Damgaard, whom Gatti easily beat in his last fight to set up a July shot at the welterweight title against Carlos Baldomir. He was in Gatti's corner that night, just as he had been in his previous fight, a one-sided loss to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. that Ward quickly said didn't mean his friend was through.
"Micky had sparred with Damgaard,'' Gatti recalled. "He told me not to get in a brawl with him. Imagine Micky Ward telling somebody not to get in a brawl? But he said he was so strong he'd tire me out. He told me to box and that's what I did.''
Ward hovered around Gatti's corner, listening to trainer Buddy McGirt counsel his friend and offering him support and an occasional sip of water. Once they had been such fierce combatants they regularly sent each other to the hospital for late night repair work. Now they offer each other water, Ward in Gattis' corner, Gatti at this year's upcoming Boston Marathon, where he has promised to come to support his friends second 26 mile, 365 fight against himself and the hills and valleys from Hopkinton to Boston.
"The first time Micky went to Arturo's camp the people in Vero Beach were shocked,'' Lynch recalled. "After all the hell they put each other through people couldn't believe they were friends. But they're more than that. They're like brothers now.
Micky has become a part of the Gatti team. When Arturo heard Micky was going to run the Boston Marathon he wanted to come and see him. "They're two good guys who learned to respect and love each other. It was lucky for them and lucky for boxing. It would be nice if you could see more of it in the sport but you probably won't see something like this again.''
Never were the two sides of their relationship more on display than in the early morning hours after their third and final confrontation with each other's unbreakable wills. Gatti had won the fight but the packed house at Boardwalk Hall rose up to cheer them both wildly when the final bell tolled. Then everyone left the building. Gatti and Ward to hospital beds.
Less than an hour after 12,643 witnesses to their shared madness had stood and roared their approval for what they'd just done to each other for 10 rounds, the only sound either fighter heard was the constant beep of the heart monitors they were hooked up to in the Atlantic City Medical Center emergency room.
Occasionally, one or the other spoke, but not often and not loudly.
There wasn't much to say, nor much energy to say it. At one point, Gatti turned to a friend who sat next to his gurney, and said through badly swollen and discolored lips, "I wish I was better at golf." Then he laughed. She replied, "I do, too." She didn't laugh.
Barely a foot away lay Ward, who had fought his last fight to the final moment with double vision inflicted upon him by his close friend that would not be repaired for more than a year. He looked better than Gatti did, which is to say he did not look very good at all. Ward's forehead had a huge red lump in the middle of it, as if Gatti had drilled him with one of the golf balls they both like to hit, often wildly, when together on Florida golf courses. A cut above his left eye had been stitched up but a thin red line of dried blood ran down from the tip of it to his temple. No one thought to wipe it off, least of all Ward, who was too exhausted and sore.
His face was red with welts and one cheek looked like someone had run a plane over it a couple of times, sheering the skin raw. His right hand was discolored from the knuckle half way up his finger and both hands were bumpy, bruised and an angry blue.
Ward's chest had four monitors stuck on it. Another was attached to a finger. Occasionally he smiled at his fiancee and talked softly to a friend about what he had just endured. He didn't try to describe it. How do you describe being in three car wrecks with the same driver? How do you describe doing this to each other for 30 rounds? How do you explain to a civilian what the warrior's life is like or why you live it? Most simply, how do you explain that the two of you are friends?
Instead, you make small talk. You say you did your best and you talk about your respect for the other guy. It was what Ward said about Gatti and Gatti said of Ward. They chatted from time to time until they pulled the blue screen closed between them so a doctor could stitch up one or the other of them. Both had cut eyes, bloody noses, faces puffed and scraped.
Gatti's face was disfigured in a way that would have surprised Ward's 14-year-old daughter, who a week earlier had been asked by a New York Times reporter what she thought of the man her father had battled with such severe consequences twice already. She said she thought he was cute. Not after her father was done with him, he wasn't.
"Oh, that Micky Ward," Gatti said, admiration in his voice. "What heart he's got. Anybody else would have quit. Him? Every time I hurt him, he hit me harder. I got great respect for him but I'm glad I won't see him anymore."
People who pay to see such men fight have no idea what follows their hand-to-hand combat. Vaguely they understand there is pain and blood loss involved, but there is nothing concrete about it because the crowd doesn't follow them to the emergency room. They go alone or with a cornerman or family member. Or in the case of Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward they go with a friend - each other.
Outside, a siren screamed and a guy with a puncture wound was brought in. A fight breaks out in the waiting room between family members of the shooter and the shootee. A half-dozen cop cars show up to calm things down.
They could have come in handy when Ward and Gatti were assaulting each other, but they weren't there because the savagery the men engaged in was not only sanctioned by the state of New Jersey, it was taxed.
Ward laughed when a friend pointed that out then he reconfirmed the decision he made when the final fight of his brutal trilogy with Gatti was announced. "Some retirement party," he added.
On the other side of the thin blue cloth Arturo Gatti hears that and laughs. Then so does Micky Ward. Two friends, laughing through their pain.
For a moment the subject became more serious when Ward talked about a Gatti punch to the temple in the third round that left him seeing double.
His head still hurt enough that he was wheeled in for a CAT scan. When he came back he told Gatti, "They didn't find nothing in there. Why would they?"
They laughed again as hard as they could, which wasn't very hard because Ward's ribs ached and a few feet away Gatti lay wrapped in blankets from his chin to his toes. Even his arms were encased as they tried to raise his body temperature before putting a cast on the right hand he broke on Ward's hip in the fourth round.
Finally, someone said Ward could go. There was no evidence of serious damage to his head. He was told the swelling would go down in a few days and the cuts would heal in a few weeks. His hand would take a little longer and his urine would very likely be red rather than yellow for a time because the vicious body blows he had absorbed caused some internal bleeding. His impaired vision would have to be surgically dealt with later. Gatti had different but equally painful problems to deal with but both had heard this kind of talk before. The difference was this time Ward knew he had the edge over his friend. He wouldn't have to hear it again, unless they got in a car wreck for real.
While others were in various watering holes around Atlantic City debating the decision and who was the tougher man, for Gatti and Ward there was no need to debate those points. The fact for them was they were both tough enough. More importantly, they were something more than that. They were friends.
When Ward was finally discharged around 2 a.m., he walked in stocking feet to Gatti, who still lay on the gurney. They hugged each other. "I love you," Ward said. "I'll see you on the golf course. "
"I love you, too," Gatti said back. "I'll see you soon . . . but not too soon."
Ward smiled, triumphant, at least, in that he was leaving the emergency room first. "Take care of yourself," he said to Gatti and Gatti replied, "You be careful out there.''
Both smiled at the absurdity of what they were saying in light of what they'd just done to each other. Then they waved and Ward was gone with a handful of pain pills and his X-rays, whisked into a limo wondering if anybody knew where his shoes went.
Gatti remained behind for another 45 minutes. When he finally got up to go, he slipped into a blue sweat suit, sandals, and a sling. He held an ice bag in one hand and blue pain pills in the other. He was 31 years old that night, seven years younger than Ward. He'd just signed a lucrative four-fight deal with HBO that was contingent on his defeating his good friend. Everything was right in his world but as he shuffled into the night, he moved like a 100-year-old man.
"A few more fights, then I won't do this anymore," he said. "I'll be like Micky. I'll be out."
It is now going on three years since that night and Arturo Gatti is not only not out he's back on top. Or nearly so. Despite a difficult night with Mayweather that he shared with his worried friend in his corner, he will fight for his third world title in July on HBO. At his side will be someone who knows what he'll be facing. At his side will be Micky Ward, a fighter no more but still a warrior and a friend.
"We were just in Chicago together,'' Ward said of Gatti. "We're on the cover of the new EA Sport (boxing video) game. We went to a charity dinner that night. It's kind of fun, the respect we have for each other.
There was never any bad blood between us.
"I think we became friends because we're a lot alike. The things we do in real life...we're both kind of crazy. But Arturo's crazier than me.
"When he's training I'll go down to his camp for four or five days and hang out with him. We talk, watch movies, take a walk. I try to keep him relaxed. I know what he's going through. Pat Lynch asked me if I'd do it for his first fight after we were done beating each other up and I said 'No problem.' It's been the same ever since. It seems like it grows more and more.''
As Gatti considers the odd birth of this friendship he comes to a conclusion about it that Ward confirms.
"There's a competitiveness in us most people don't have,'' Gatti explained. "When we fought it was like sparring your brother. You loved him but you wanted to win even more because of it. But we were able to turn that (aggression) on and off. It never affected anything between us. We'll probably both be remembered most for that.
"We realized how tough the other guy was. How much he was giving (to win). We knew where that came from. It was like we were the same guy.''
The same guy. Twin warriors who had grown into blood brothers.
They play golf together in the summer, attend charitable functions together and support each others sporting efforts.
Posted 12:00 AM | Apr 21, 2006
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