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Is Katsidis The Next Arturo Gatti?

To the crowd it looks like a prop but to Michael Katsidis it is a transforming moment. When he slips on the gladiator's iron helmet before he leaves his locker room he is taken to the place of his ancestors. To Olympus, and to a time he was perhaps better suited for.

"The moment I put on the helmet I don't care if I get carried out,'' the undefeated Australian lightweight champion said recently after 10 rounds of sparring and a massage at his southern California training base, where he was preparing for the biggest fight of his life on March 22 against RING magazine champion Joel Casamayor.

"That becomes my mindset. That's why I hated the amateurs. They're all running and dodging and slapping and moving about. Real fighting is what I was born to do. Nobody pointed me to this. Boxing was something that chose me.''

It chose the right man. Although having made only one appearance in the United States, Katsidis is already becoming a cult hero as a throwback to the days when the world was black and white and so were the pictures of its bloody warriors.

When the WBO's interim lightweight champion arrived in Las Vegas last July to face Czar Amonsot few beyond boxing aficionados knew much about him. Katsidis had just won that title in February by stopping a British lightweight named Graham Earl in a bout that would later be nominated for both fight and round of the year because of the way both went down, got up and battled through pain and the fog of semi-consciousness that arrived after Earl's corner threw in the towel and referee Mickey Vann threw it back out.

Distracted for an instant, Katsidis let his guard down and Earl put him on the floor. As is becoming his trademark he did not stay there long.

"We knew in England we weren't going to win on points,'' said Brendon Smith, Katsidis' trainer and manager. "Michael had to be very aggressive. He was but his mind wandered for a second and he went down. It happened but he was well prepared for that. "He has always had the heart of a lion. Where he gets it from I'm unsure but whoever he fights is in for a hell of a night.''

On Katsidis' website, Katsidisthegreat.com, there are an assortment of telling clips that show him in battle but perhaps the most chilling is one in which the voice of a phony Australian "gladiator,'' the actor Russell Crowe who won the Academy Award for his portrayal of such a man, is heard to say in a low, rumbling voice "Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night.''

On the screen, in black and white, are the faces of some of boxing's best fighters - Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Diego Corrales, Miguel Cotto. After them comes the image of the Australian gladiator who is stalking them. After them comes Katsidis, fists and blood flying. "A fighter is something born within someone,'' Katsidis (23-0, 20 KO) said. "Things have been against me a lot in life but something in me just says to get up and fight. I'm realistic. The reason I'm here now is I got up and made sacrifices other fighters might not make. I don't blink. Every fight is the fight of my life.'' Certainly his last one could have been. Katsidis and Czar Amonsot were supposed to be preliminary entertainment before Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright squared off at the Mandalay Bay Events Center but what they did to each other for 12 rounds was so startling and gruesome it made the main event an after thought.

Katsidis sustained a terrible gash over his left that bled like a waterfall for much of the fight. He had similarly deep cuts around his right, both above and below. Yet he kept coming forward, constantly pressing Amonsot until he dropped him twice and won a unanimous decision so savagely brutal that Amonsot may never fight again after suffering a brain bleed. When it was over, the crowd stood and roared its approval, the sound washing over the bloody Katsidis as he held his fist aloft in the middle of the arena.

Immediately he began to be compared to a man whose battles were just coming to an end. Arturo Gatti would fight his last fight that same month, leaving behind big and bloody boxing shoes to fill.

Most fighters would want no part of that. Although Gatti won world titles and made millions, the price he paid was often settled up in emergency rooms in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where he was on a first name basis with more doctors than was good for him. On the night of a Gatti fight, the emergency rooms in fight towns put on extra staff. They knew what was coming.

Few would willingly seek to follow such a route despite the rewards. Only a latter-day warrior would even entertain the thought. Yet when Katsidis' name comes up, Gatti's quickly follows.

"He's a throwback like Arturo Gatti,'' admits Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez, who made the Casamayor fight after first thinking he'd landed Katsidis a lightweight unification with Juan Diaz only to watch promoter Don King refuse to allow Diaz to face him.

"There's not too much defense. He relies on his punching power. He's a crowd pleasing fighter. He get's cut. He gets up. He hits like a mule. Fans love the excitement.

"Now HBO is giving Katsidis this great opportunity to break through and please the public. He's got the perfect set-up. He's fighting an aging champion with a big reputation who's been in a lot of wars. It's the history of boxing - the young undefeated kid against the old lion. Now it's up to him to deliver. If he can't fight he'll get exposed by Casamayor. If he can he'll become a star after this fight.

"Excitement wise I'm sold on him 100 per cent. If he can stop Casamayor any non-believers, including myself, will become believers. If he can pull this off I'm excited about all the possibilities for him. Juan Diaz. David Diaz. Manny Pacquiao. Could you imagine a fight between him and Ricky Hatton down the line?''

Ask Katsidis or Smith and they will talk only of Casamayor however, focusing on the fact he is the only man in position to cause them misery at the moment. Yet misery is so much a part of what Katsidis does he barely seems to notice.

This is not to say he does not feel pain because every warrior does. It is what he does once the pain begins that has begun to stop the hearts of people who pay to watch him.

"Michael has been through a lot at a young age,'' said Smith, who trained him briefly when he was an 11-year-old amateur only to move on to exclusively handling professionals soon after. Nine years later they were reunited after Katsidis lost in the quarter-finals of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and they've been together ever since. "He's the most determined fighter I've seen in a long time.''

If he wasn't, you might not have seen him at all because not long after those Olympics Katsidis was arrested for assault after a street fight in his hometown of Toowoomba, Queensland. He argued he'd been assaulted and was acting in self-defense, a position Smith says even the judge agreed with.

But the conclusion was he'd also done a bit more than defend himself and so he was sentenced to eight months in prison, including six in a high-security facility near Brisbane, after he refused to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Katsidis had opted to do in both cases what was his nature. He fought...and then paid the price for it.

"Michael can hold his head proud over what he did,'' Smith said. "He had no choice in that situation. He was a 20-year-old kid walking to his car after work and he got approached by a guy just out of prison. He had no choice but to defend himself.

"They made an example of him because he'd just come back from the Olympics. It was a terrible thing for a clean living young man to face. Even the judge said he had no doubt it was self defense but he said he went too hard. How do you judge that when you're fighting for you life?''

To go from Olympic hero to incarceration in months is a steep fall from which many people might not recover. But not many people choose to wear the gladiator's helmet and skirt, so what would they know of Michael Katsidis?

"It was tough in jail, particularly the six months in the high-security prison,'' Katsidis told The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, when he last talked about it two years ago. "But I knuckled down and was eventually made activities supervisor. My prison report even said I was a calming influence.''

No one in a boxing ring with him would ever come to that conclusion and that includes an Olympic teammate named James Swan. Only months removed from prison and in just his second professional fight, Katsidis won the Australian lightweight title from Swan, who had fought on several Australian Olympic teams before turning professional. To go 12 rounds in your second professional fight is completely unheard of. Or at least it was until Katsidis did it.

Ever since he has been a legend Down Under, stopping 19 of his next 20 opponents before going the bloody distance with Amonsot. That victory led him to what he thought would be a showdown with the unified lightweight champion, Juan Diaz. When that fight fell apart, Golden Boy Promotions, which had won the purse bid only to be threatened with a lawsuit by King if they went through with it, quickly convinced Casamayor to step in.

At 36, Casamayor (35-3-1, 21 KO) is still considered by many to be the true lightweight champion because the only belts he's lost at 135 pounds were stripped from him. RING has continued to recognize him and although he is coming off a poor performance in his last outing after sitting out for more than a year while various contractual disputes were settled, he remains a formidable presence in the division.

If Katsidis can beat him he will not only add the RING belt to his WBO interim title but he will also have again made Australian boxing history, as he did the night he defeated Swan. No Australian, amateur or professional, has ever beaten a Cuban fighter. The Cubans have long ruled amateur boxing, dominating the Olympics and world tournaments, and in recent years a few, like Casamayor, have defected to pursue their boxing dreams and become world champions. Now the gladiator from Down Under intends to see what he can learn about himself by facing such a test.

"Once you get in the ring there are no lies,'' Katsidis said. "If you cut corners you know the difference. If you don't want to be there I can see it.

"I'll be proud to fight someone like Joel Casamayor. He's a legend. He can do everything. I'll have to fight the fight of my life.''

That is Katsidis' philosophy every time he gets into the ring. He expects the worst and he expects to do more than survive it. He expects to triumph. The price of such victory is not something he thinks about.

"The last one (Amonsot) was tough fight but that's how I like to win 'em,'' he said. "It was a great fight for my first time in America. I said I was going to introduce some new blood into the sport and I guess you saw a lot of it.

"That fight was tougher than I thought it would be but then again they're all tougher than I think they'll be.''

To prepare himself for such nights, Katsidis does things to trick the mind as well as the body. He often gets up to run at 3 a.m. because he believes no one else is doing it and so his sacrifice is the greater.

When he learned the Diaz fight would not happen he was already in training. Most fighters would likely have stopped for a bit until they were sure what was next but he trained on until he learned it would be the great Casamayor. Once he knew he didn't stop for a break, training even on Christmas Day after giving Smith a new set of hand mitts as a gift and accepting a new pair of boxing gloves from his trainer before they went off to the gym. That day is immortalized on Katsidis' website with a video that begins with "Silent Night'' and Christmas scenes until a soft voice is heard to whisper, "Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor!''

In an instant the silence is broken by heavy metal music and images of a crazed Katsidis pounding those mitts for 12 rounds at a furious pace and doing situps and pushups like a fanatic before turning to the camera, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and letting an impish smile cross his face as he looks into the camera and says, "Joel Casamayor, here we come.''

What's coming after Joel Casamayor may be the next Arturo Gatti, a fighter who bleeds and bangs to please his public. In the ring he is non-stop action, a fighter who knows only one direction. Retreat is not an option he often considers and because of it he is seemingly wide-open to be hit and hit he has been, but not ever often enough to dissuade him from doing what he believes he was born to do. FIGHT to win. FIGHT to the end. FIGHT because what else is there that makes you feel alive?

"I'm honored and flattered to be compared with Arturo Gatti,'' Katsidis said. "If it takes people relating me to someone else for them to follow me, then it's all well and good.

"But I'm at war here. Arturo Gatti won't be in the ring with me. I'll be in there alone. I made the sacrifices. This is my religion.''

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