By the time they were ready to fight for a third time, just putting the names "Arturo Gatti" and "Micky Ward" together on the same billboard was all the hype you needed. Their first fight, in May '02, was the early frontrunner for Fight of the Millennium, and the November '02 rematch didn't leave anybody feeling ripped off either.
After dropping a majority decision on Ward's New England turf the first time around, "Thunder" got his revenge in the rematch, winning a landslide decision in his adopted home arena, Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. He knocked Ward down (and injured his own hand) with a right to the ear in the third round, and with a busted eardrum and the accompanying equilibrium deficiencies, guts and determination were the only things keeping "Irish Micky" in the fight.
It seemed clear by the end of the second bout that the more versatile Gatti was the superior pugilist, but the fans still hungered for a rubber match, and the money-more than $3-million combined, triple what they made for the first fight-sealed the deal.
The only obstacle, as Ward's then-adviser, Lou DiBella, revealed to HBO.com for this retrospective, was the 37-year-old brawler's health.
"The fact that there was a third fight was somewhat remarkable," DiBella said. "Very few people know this, but Micky bluffed his own doctors. He really wasn't fully recovered from the second fight, where he busted his eardrum. He really was damaged in that second fight. And he knew that if his management and myself knew how beaten up he was, there wouldn't have been a third fight. So he basically bluffed his way through. The second fight was a total profile in courage. When the fight was over and we were walking back to the dressing room, he had to lean on me because his balance was off. And the doctors later said that they have no idea how physically he was able to complete that fight. When I said to him later, 'How'd you do that?' he was just like, 'Hey, I wasn't going down.'"
That pretty much sums up Micky Ward, who came into the rubber match having announced that, win or lose, it would be his final fight. Gatti, on the other hand, was six years younger and hoping for another run at a title if he could beat Ward one more time.
"The second fight, predictably, was more tactical than the first," remembered HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley. "It was still a very, very good fight, but nothing could ever match the first fight. Or so I thought. And then, surprisingly, the third fight came pretty doggone close."
It was old-school from the start, with both fighters entering the ring without any musical accompaniment. The roar of the sellout crowd of 12,643 was all you needed to hear.
Color analyst Larry Merchant said before the fight, "Micky Ward says that good things happen when you don't give up. When both fighters don't give up, sometimes great things happen." Those words proved prophetic.
The first round was close, but Gatti dominated the second and third with his superior speed and slickness. The action was outstanding, but there was a sense that the fans were witnessing a one-sided continuation of Gatti-Ward II.
That shifted, however, with an unfortunate punch from Gatti early in the fourth round. He landed a right hand on Ward's left hip and immediately shook the oft-injured mitt in pain. We later learned he had both a broken bone and a torn tendon. And Ward recognized that an opening had been created. The older man pounced, dazzling the crowd at one point with a series of five consecutive left uppercuts to Gatti's jaw. Gatti did everything he could to keep up with only one hand, but Ward won the round and, with a little help from Lady Luck, had gotten his opponent out of boxing mode and into brawling mode.
But Gatti didn't give a moment's thought to quitting. He came back to box beautifully in the fifth, and he was about to pull out to an insurmountable points lead in the sixth when, again, a single punch flipped the fight in Ward's favor. A right to the temple with two seconds left on the clock dropped Gatti to the canvas. The local favorite quickly shook it off and got up, but he went back to his corner knowing this was no blowout. Ward led by a point on one scorecard, Gatti led by a point on the other two.
"In the first fight, I said something to the effect of 'I'm humbled by what they are giving,'" Merchant told HBO.com. "So if I was humbled in the first fight, I was brought to my knees by what happened in the third."
With the fight up for grabs, round seven was one of the best of the entire trilogy. Back and forth they slugged, both bleeding over their eyes by round's end. At the midway mark, Gatti scored with a pulverizing counter left hook, and Ward lurched forward, nearly went down, but somehow willed his body not to touch the canvas. From that point on, it was Gatti pulling away, while an exhausted Ward looked for openings to pull out a one-punch miracle.
The 10th round began and ended the same way: with a heartfelt embrace. Incredibly, Ward seemed to stun Gatti with a left halfway through the round, but Gatti was still the one doing most of the damage. With 30 seconds to go, the entire crowd rose to its feet in a show of appreciation that had to send chills up any sport fan's back. After the final bell, Gatti and Ward spent a solid 30 seconds locked in a hug.
Judges Joe Pasquale and George Hill both saw Gatti a 96-93 winner, while Luis Rivera scored it 97-92. For Gatti, it was a perfect way to launch the next phase of his career. For Ward, it was a perfect way to end his.
After the third fight, Ward suffered from dizziness and vision problems for several years, and he revealed to HBO.com that if he had it to do over, knowing what he knows now about the health scares he endured, he would have sacrificed his seven-figure purse and another Fight of the Year winner and left the game one fight sooner.
"Honestly, I probably would have stopped," he admitted. "My health means way more to me than any money. All these champions that make millions of dollars and now they're incoherent, they can't really speak. I look at some guys, they don't even know what their name is. They made all kinds of money, but what good is all the money in the world if you can't enjoy it and you're not coherent? There's no price tag on that. So, with the problems I had after that fight, if I knew that in advance, I wouldn't have done it."
What resonates most today about the Gatti-Ward trilogy is the way that two men who pounded each other within an inch of their lives for 30 rounds emerged as extremely close friends. Ward recalled that they had respect for each other from the start, and could feel a friendship developing from one fight to the next, but it wasn't until the final bout ended that they could fully let their guards down and got to know each other.
"I remember in the hospital after the third fight," Ward said, "My doctor says, 'Hey, your buddy's next door,' and he opens the curtain up, and there Arturo was, right in the bed next to me. First thing Arturo asked was if I was all right. That's a man, that's a friend."
Gatti and Ward talked on the phone regularly in the ensuing years, Ward often walked to the ring with Gatti as Thunder enjoyed a highly lucrative end to his career (he won another title belt, fought seven more times, all at Boardwalk Hall, all in front of massive crowds), and after Gatti split from trainer Buddy McGirt, he hired Ward to be his trainer for what turned out to be his final fight, a seventh-round stoppage at the hands of Alfonso Gomez in 2007.
"It's almost a cliché to those of us within the sport, but always a revelation to people outside the sport, the friendship between the two of them," Lampley observed. "How very close to each other they grew because of the shared experience, it's very counterintuitive to people outside of boxing. They can't fathom that guys go in and seem to try to kill each other the way these guys did and become best buddies and play golf together and one of them winds up carrying the other guy's belt into the ring behind him after he's retired. It's like Nino Benevenuti inviting Emile Griffith to become the godfather to his son, or Max Schmeling and Joe Louis becoming good friends. Arturo and Micky became something like blood brothers, and it was beautiful."
Unfortunately, that friendship came to a premature end this past July when, at just 37 years of age, Gatti met a tragic end during a trip to Brazil. Whether his death was murder or suicide remains uncertain, but one fact is clear: Arturo Gatti was taken from us too soon.
Thankfully, his legacy will live on for many decades to come, thanks to the thrills he provided in the squared circle. And never was he more thrilling than when Micky Ward stood across the ring from him.