For the latter half of the 1990s, Arturo Gatti was the most exciting man in boxing. There was no room for debate or discussion. From his unthinkable rallies to knock out Wilson Rodriguez and Gabriel Ruelas to his never-say-die defeats to Angel Manfredy and Ivan Robinson, Gatti's fights provided a drama that hadn't been seen this consistently since Matthew Saad Muhammad two decades earlier.
But as one decade ended and another began, Gatti slipped from the spotlight a bit. He went more than three years without engaging in a Fight of the Year contender. And it was Micky Ward who stepped in and filled that void. He produced classic after classic: a final-round stoppage of Reggie Green, an upset of unbeaten Shea Neary, a toe-to-toe punchout with Antonio Diaz and a legendary scrap with Emanuel Augustus.
Ward was a career-long junior welterweight, and in 2002 he was joined at the weight class by former junior lightweight titlist Gatti. It was almost too good to be true: The two most fan-friendly warriors of their time, two beloved throwbacks, in the same division, with fan bases on the same coast, were at just the right points in their careers to need this fight.
If there was one cause for pause, it was that Gatti had rediscovered his boxing skills under new trainer Buddy McGirt, while Ward was thought to be slipping at age 36. So it was possible that the 30-year-old Gatti would outslick the Lowell, Massachusetts, brawler at Mohegan Sun and win a little too comfortably.
But to believe that was to sell short "Irish Micky's" ability to apply pressure and, more importantly, Gatti's inability to resist an invitation to slug it out.
"This was two kind of glorified journeymen going against each other in that Connecticut casino world, which is more about character fights than the big marquee shows," recalled HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley. "You knew that it was going to be a violent confrontation. It's just no one could have predicted in advance the level to which they'd go."
It began as many predicted: Ward found himself unable to match the skills of the Jersey-based Canadian. Ward was cut on the right eyebrow in the very first round, and though he had his moments, he quickly found himself in a two-rounds-to-none hole. Gatti won the third round too-but the last minute of the round was different than the eight minutes that had preceded it. Ward succeeded in turning it into a fight. The crowd was roaring, and Gatti knew, win or lose, it was going to get more and more grueling every round.
"It was almost like Arturo Gatti looking at his Irish mirror image," Ward adviser Lou DiBella observed.
Gatti committed a pivotal infraction with 25 seconds remaining in the fourth round, landing a left hand about two inches low and earning a 1-point penalty from ref Frank Cappuccino. "Thunder" was on his way to getting the point back in the fifth, until a two-fisted barrage from Ward in the final 30 seconds stole him the round and evened up the fight on all three cards.
Although his brawling made him a living legend, Gatti's best bet against Ward was to box, and that's precisely what he did in rounds six and seven. He was doing more of the same in the first two minutes of the eighth, until Ward staged another of his late-round rallies, leaving Gatti stumbling back to his corner.
And that set the stage for what is assuredly the most spectacular round of boxing seen this decade. HBO's Emanuel Steward even proclaimed it "the round of the century!" It began with Ward landing his trademark left hook to the liver full-force, sending Gatti down for a count of 91/2. Maybe 93/4.
"I definitely thought I had him," Ward remembered. "But it's just like I'm fighting Jason [Voorhees, from the Friday The 13th movies]. You just can't keep him down. It's crazy."
Over the next 30 seconds, Ward was relentless, but Gatti's incomparable heart kept him up long enough for Ward to slow down. When that happened, Gatti took control, firing away at a defensive Ward through the middle minute of the round.
But Ward turned the tables once more with a sickening bodyshot at the 2:10 mark of the round. The beating amplified and Lampley suggested to Cappuccino on the broadcast, "Stop it, Frank. You can stop it anytime." McGirt climbed toward the ring apron to do precisely that, but Cappuccino never saw him, and when Gatti fired back a few punches in the closing seconds, his trainer snuck down the steps, white towel back at his side.
"I've always wondered, when guys are fighting a round like the ninth round, is there an observer somewhere in them that says, 'My god, this is incredible! Look what I'm doing here!'" Lampley said, looking back on the fight. "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."
Ward mistakenly thought the fight was being stopped before the 10th round, and when Gatti instead came out of his corner to fight on, it was Thunder who had more energy. Gatti swept the 10th on the cards, but he still came up just short. Frank Lombardi had it a 94-94 draw. Steve Weisfeld scored it 95-93 for Ward. And Dick Flaherty saw it 94-93 for his fellow New Englander, his 10-7 scoring of round nine making all the difference.
The amazing Ward-Gatti rumble was named Fight of the Year by The Ring, USA Today, and, well, everybody who had the slightest clue about boxing.
"Sometimes, before a fight I ask, 'Is it time to demand a rematch?' You could see it coming with Gatti and Ward," Merchant told HBO.com. "You could see them fighting as often as they could stand it. This fight had a profound effect on a lot of people."
Indeed, Gatti and Ward were back in the ring with each other, this time on Gatti's turf in Atlantic City, six months later. And deservedly, there was more money in the pot after the stir they'd created in Mohegan Sun.
As the following anecdote from Lampley suggests, the first Ward-Gatti fight was the sort of magical night that enriches both men's legacies, the official result being almost an afterthought.
"I'll never forget, there was a postfight party in a bar right outside the doors of the arena," Lampley said. "And I bumped into [Gatti's manager] Pat Lynch walking into that party, and he was very upset about the decision-the judging, Flaherty's scoring, etc., and I looked at him and said, 'Pat. Who in their right mind is going to remember who won this fight? I can't even tell you right now!' I was kidding, of course, but the bottom line is unless you were directly connected to one of the fighters, why would you even think of it? It was the last thing on anybody's mind, who was the winner.
"Obviously, the winner was all of us, anybody who was there, anybody who saw it, anybody who cared about boxing. We were all the winners."