People are a product of their environment; to a great extent, where and how you grow up shapes what you become. The same is true for boxers and how they box. Cuban pugilists favour a style that emphasizes fundamentals, with sharp counterpunching and precise footwork; think of a master technician like Guillermo Rigondeaux. Conversely, Mexican fighters are known for their aggression and suffocating pressure, for demonstrating their machismo, never quitting or surrendering. We might look to Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. as a prime example; he was the ultimate pressure fighter, breaking his opponents down with his relentless attack.
Boxers from Philadelphia are also known to have a unique style, one that is a hybrid of the scientific and the ferocious. While they possess undeniable skills, including the handspeed and footwork to stage masterful boxing clinics, at the same time, they pride themselves on their fighting spirit, their willingness to exchange heavy shots to prove their toughness. When it comes to the quintessential Philly fighter, one need look no further than Meldrick Taylor, who gave a prime Chavez one of his toughest battles and who also gave his own take on what defines a boxer from “The City Of Brotherly Love.”
“A Philadelphia fighter,” said Taylor, “is basically [one with] a lot of heart, a lot of desire, [and who] comes to fight every minute of every round.”
Ivan “Mighty” Robinson, who grew up just a few blocks from Taylor’s home in Philadelphia, fulfills that definition as well as anyone. After a solid amateur career, he worked his way up the lightweight ranks, earning a title shot against IBF champion Philip Holiday in South Africa. He dropped a 12 round decision and then suffered a stunning upset to unheralded Israel Cardona, but after those back-to-back defeats, Robinson regrouped and put together enough wins to earn a chance against Sugar Shane Mosley. However, he suffered a cut in training, thus derailing that big-time opportunity. But Ivan’s loss was boxing’s gain. The end result was that instead of Mosley vs Robinson, boxing fans got Gatti vs Robinson. And a war for the ages.
By that point, Arturo “Thunder” Gatti’s name was already engraved in boxing lore. His boxing skills were on display when he outpointed Tracy Harris Patterson to win a junior lightweight title, but he also demonstrated his grit and warrior spirit on multiple occasions, taking tremendous punishment before coming back to score brutal stoppages of Wilson Rodriguez and Gabriel Ruelas. Having abandoned his world title to campaign as a lightweight, Gatti, who hailed from Montreal, was nonetheless, in terms of his heart and will to win, a “Philly fighter.” Thus, serious boxing people knew that a Gatti vs Robinson showdown at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City meant fistic fireworks, a forecast proven correct moments after the opening bell.
From the outset, Gatti and Robinson battled at a furious pace. In the first round, Robinson demonstrated his impressive hand speed as he pumped out sharp jabs and rapid-fire combinations. Effectively alternating his boxing and fighting tactics, he kept Gatti guessing as to what was coming next. Arturo landed a few good left hooks but Robinson took them well, retaliating with flurries. With 30 seconds remaining, both fighters ratcheted up the intensity and traded at a frenetic pace. Robinson got the better of it, out-landing Gatti with a variety of hooks, uppercuts, and crosses and at the bell he pumped his fist in celebration, knowing he had won the opening round.
But in the second, Robinson’s willingness to trade cost him as “Thunder,” who appeared to be the stronger fighter, landed several hard hooks. Near the round’s end, Robinson turned Gatti and connected with a hard uppercut that snapped the Montrealer’s head back, but it was Arturo who had more success in this round, his punches heavier and more damaging. That didn’t go unnoticed by Robinson’s corner and between rounds his trainer admonished him for standing in front of his opponent and not using his jab more.
In the second half of round three, the two continued to trade power punches, with Ivan again doing the better work. He used exquisite footwork to pivot around Gatti and land shots from all angles. Outgunned, the former champion resorted to covering up and waiting for Robinson to stop punching, but Ivan wasn’t slowing down and he peppered Gatti at every opportunity. “If you want to cultivate fight fans anywhere,” declared commentator Dave Bontempo, “show them Gatti fights as his opponent usually steps up to make it exciting.” As round three came to a close, it was clear to all that Ivan Robinson had indeed “stepped up.”
The Philly native maintained his momentum in the fourth stanza until Gatti threw an overhand right which landed behind the ear and sent Robinson to the canvas. The man from Philly beat the count and appeared unhurt but Gatti pursued aggressively, throwing a plethora of hard power shots, and Robinson, wanting to prove the knockdown hadn’t affected him, obliged Arturo and went toe-to-toe, matching his opponent’s intensity and output until the end of the round. Gatti vs Robinson was now officially a legit, hardcore slugfest and a Fight Of The Year contender.
The middle rounds saw no let-up in the action and viciousness at close quarters. In round six, Robinson visibly stunned Gatti for the first time in the fight with a hook and then poured it on with more hard shots, forcing his opponent to clinch. But a hurt Gatti is a dangerous Gatti and soon enough he retaliated with a hard right that wobbled Robinson and sent him stumbling about the ring. “Thunder” pushed forward, throwing hooks with both hands and looking to end the fight but Robinson refused to fold and fired back. Both warriors went at it until the bell sounded, concluding the best round of the fight thus far, a round that epitomized what everyone loved about Arturo Gatti. He was tagged and hurt but he summoned energy from the depths of his soul, miraculously coming alive to land a huge shot and reverse the momentum.
But with heavy swelling around his left eye, Arturo was having ever more trouble avoiding Robinson’s flurries. With a minute to go in round nine, Ivan unleashed a series of hard hooks that swiveled Gatti’s head around its axis and rocked him. When Gatti tried to counterattack and land another fight-altering punch, Robinson used his slick upper body movement and footwork to avoid almost every shot.
It had already been a thrilling back-and-forth slugfest but the final round of Gatti vs Robinson offered even more excitement, with both men slinging heavy leather. His confidence high, Ivan put together sharp flurries on the inside before Arturo got home a left hook to the forehead that wobbled Robinson and caused his upper torso to lean back like The Tower of Pisa. Desperate to land the big shot that could save the fight, Gatti pursued, and with just ten seconds remaining he connected with another left hook that caused Robinson to stagger awkwardly, his legs bending as if they suddenly forgot how to move. “Thunder” poured it on until the bell and then raised his arms in celebration, no doubt thinking he had done enough to edge a close points verdict but the judges disagreed, awarding the man from Philly with a split decision victory and the biggest win of his career thus far.
Robinson discussed the importance of this impressive upset victory in a 2015 Boxing News interview: “[The Gatti fights] were the highlight of my career. That was me at my peak. I never knew it at the time, but the Gatti fights were me at my absolute best … I wanted to show I belonged in the mix with anybody, that the name Ivan Robinson should be mentioned against any fighter. The Gatti fight put me there. I was a boxer but I did what I had to do to win.”
And what he had to do was slug it out with a battle-tested warrior who possessed one of the biggest hearts boxing has ever seen. Robinson absorbed heavy shots throughout, was hurt on several occasions, but managed to survive and still execute his gameplan. Not many fighters can say they went toe-to-toe with Arturo Gatti and won. And for a fighter from Philly, a city whose pugilists pride themselves on their heart, there isn’t a more respected achievement. — Jamie Rebner