"People will say they weren't the greatest fighters in the world, but you know what? I'll take those two guys anytime."
Most of us have no illusions about how proficient Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward were at the science of boxing. Gatti could make himself appear a highly skilled practitioner against opponents below a certain threshold; against very good opponents he turned into a slugger because he had no other choice, and against great ones, such as Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya, he was hopelessly overmatched. Ward couldn't even trick anyone into temporarily believing he was a slick tactician; he was a brawler, a pressure fighter, a bodysnatcher, and damned good in all of those roles, but you'd catch him sporting a deep suntan before you'd catch him outboxing someone.
The above quote from Pat Lynch, Gatti's career-long manager, heard in the closing moments of the documentary 'Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward' (premiering Saturday night on HBO, following World Championship Boxing: Alvarado-Provodnikov), says it all. Nobody will ever confuse Gatti and Ward with anybody nicknamed "Sugar" or "Sweet Pea." But no other fighters displayed more heart or punched their way deeper into ours than Gatti and Ward did. That can count for more than victories, championship belts, and pound-for-pound rankings. A visit to BoxRec will not explain why Gatti is in the Hall of Fame or why Ward had an Oscar-nominated movie made about his life; a visit to YouTube will. Gatti and Ward remain, 10 years after Ward's retirement and four years after Gatti's death, boxing's reigning kings of drama.
But that doesn't mean the warrior breed went extinct when their careers ended. Boxers with oversized hearts continue to find their way onto our TV screens every few weekends. And on Saturday night in Denver, Colorado, two of the best examples going will do their damnedest to remind us of that exhilarating trilogy.
In fact, Mike Alvarado has a little Gatti in him, and Ruslan Provodnikov a hint of Ward. Alvarado's 2011 fight with Breidis Prescott was his "Gatti vs.Wilson Rodriguez" moment, when he roared back from an early deficit, looking like a lawnmower had run over his face, to produce a final-round knockout. In his two recent Fight of the Year candidates against Brandon Rios, he's proven himself to be, like Gatti, a brawler who can outbox other brawlers during those occasional moments when he isn't being lured into a brawl.
Provodnikov, meanwhile, is relatively one-dimensional. But, as was the case with Ward, that one dimension inflicts a lot of pain. Just like Ward, Provodnikov had to grind his way into the boxing consciousness on the ESPN circuit, then make the most of his opportunities to fight on HBO so as not to end up back in $15,000 fights on basic cable.
While it seemed Alvarado had found, in Rios, the dance partner with whom he would be forever linked, that theoretical trilogy for the ages was interrupted so Rios could take on Manny Pacquiao and Alvarado could battle Provodnikov. And it's not far-fetched at all to believe that if Alvarado is Gatti in this analogy, then Rios is his Ivan Robinson and Provodnikov will prove to be his Ward. Alvarado-Provodnikov is a pairing of like-minded pugilistic sadomasochists that seems guaranteed to, to borrow a Larry Merchant-ism from Ward-Gatti I, humble us.
It's been more than 10 years since the Gatti-Ward trilogy ended, and Merchant wasn't the only one "humbled by watching these two guys take the punishment they are taking." I too was humbled, and honored, and lucky as hell to be among the few who can say they saw all three fights in person. It should come as no surprise that I consider their first bout the best fight I've ever witnessed and round nine of that epic war my favorite three minutes of boxing ever.
In the 'Legendary Nights' documentary, HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley speaks about the moment late in that ninth round when he stopped calling the fight and started calling for ref Frank Cappuccino to end it: "While I'm shouting, 'You can stop it anytime, Frank, stop the fight,' there's a part of me inside that's saying, 'Stop that. This isn't professional.' I literally was out of control. Because the fight was out of control. The crowd was out of control. The moment was out of control." If you were there at Mohegan Sun that night, you know exactly what Lampley is talking about. Little snapshots of the round-nine chaos flash through my mind 11 years later. I remember trying to take notes -- my pen producing one quick streak of illegible scribble before I gave up. I remember Ward adviser Lou DiBella, seated next to me on press row, unconsciously elbowing me in the ribs and eventually bounding out of his seat and sprinting off toward somewhere -- I presume Ward's corner -- thinking the fight was over. I remember Gatti trainer Buddy McGirt climbing the steps with about 30 seconds left in the round, white towel in hand, failing to get Cappuccino's attention, then changing his mind and backpedaling down the steps. I don't really remember breathing.
The second and third fights, both of which took place at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, have become, in my opinion, slightly underrated. The rematch was one-sided in Gatti's favor, certainly, but it was never dull and featured an absolutely classic third round and an absurdly gutsy performance by Ward after a Gatti right hand perforated his eardrum. The rubber match was the 2003 Fight of the Year, a dead-even slugfest until Gatti got off the canvas at the end of the sixth round and took over down the stretch against a 37-year-old Ward who somehow aged a decade in the 60 seconds between the sixth and seventh rounds. Micky reached the final bell on sheer will and muscle memory alone. Winning stopped mattering. But he was determined to finish the fight, and his career, on his feet.
Ward's own wife, Charlene, says of him in the documentary while recalling her husband's trilogy with Gatti, "He's such a sick person." They both were. All boxers are to a degree, but Gatti and Ward were far sicker than most. And when they were put in the ring together, the sickness multiplied exponentially. What they created was more than the proverbial sum of their parts, and that's why their names are eternally hyphenated.
"Gatti-Ward" is a piece of the boxing vernacular that elicits waves of memories, some heavenly, some harrowing, some heart-stopping, all humbling. All you can ask of today's brave warriors like Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov is that they maybe produce a few moments that jar loose memories of how the Gatti-Ward fights felt. If Alvarado and Provodnikov were to somehow come close to actually matching the mayhem and emotion that Gatti and Ward conjured, well, in words spoken by the late Emanuel Steward during that legendary ninth round, that would be "even more than you can dream of."