This was the beginning, the dawn of the legend that was to become Arturo “Thunder” Gatti. 23 years ago today, the world discovered a boxer who would go on to epitomize the very concept of “warrior,” become one of boxing’s most popular, blood-and-guts gladiators, as well as one of its tragic stories.
But before all the glory, before the amazing come-from-behind wins and the agonizing losses, before the famous trilogy with Micky Ward and the big money showdowns with Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr., there was his first chance to win a world title at the age of 23. It took place at New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden and it was there Arturo first proved beyond any doubt that he was something special.
Going into this match the focus of the boxing media and HBO was as much or more on Gatti’s opponent, the defending champion, Tracy Harris Patterson, and the story of how he had been guided to boxing success by a former heavyweight champion. Tracy was the adopted son of Floyd Patterson, two-time heavyweight champ and former opponent of Archie Moore, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. A lonely child, he had gone from hanging around Floyd’s gym to being adopted by Patterson, and to then becoming a successful boxer and a champion. It was a heart-warming story, made for TV.
This was Patterson’s first defense of his second world title and HBO saw a potential new star in the making, though in fact he and his famous father were currently not on speaking terms. Thankfully, they would reconcile years later. Gatti vs Patterson was the main undercard attraction for Oscar De La Hoya’s bout with an overmatched Jesse James Leija and it completely upstaged a disappointing main event. The next day, boxing fans were talking about Gatti, not De La Hoya.
Patterson would later say that he knew nothing about Arturo Gatti except that he had a big left hook and liked to slug it out; his misjudgment of his challenger’s boxing skill would be a key factor in the fight. Patterson waited for chances to counter the supposed reckless brawler, but instead of wading in, Gatti boxed smartly. Arturo controlled the action with a stiff left jab before scoring a flash knockdown with an uppercut in the second round. Gatti continued to dictate the terms in round three until a hard left hook seemed to wake Patterson up. He responded with a hook of his own and then a sharp right hand and the two traded heavy shots to the bell.
The combatants boxed on even terms in round four, Gatti keeping the fight in the middle of the ring, but now the challenger’s left eye was swelling up, though he continued to keep Patterson on the end of his left hand. The champion worked to land his right over Gatti’s jab and he had some success in round five, but Arturo answered in round six as he began working the left hook and responding to every right hand Patterson landed with quick flurries. A pair of hard hooks had Patterson backing up just before the bell.
Round seven saw a fast-paced jabbing contest in the middle of the ring until Patterson landed his best punch of the fight thus far, a right hand counter flush on Gatti’s jaw. But the young challenger didn’t waver and didn’t hesitate to come right back with his own counterpunches. Both men landed heavy shots to body and head in the remainder of the round, with Patterson getting the better of it, but in round eight Arturo asserted himself again, boxing beautifully behind that sharp jab and landing some good blows to the body.
At this point, the champion had to know he was behind, that he needed something dramatic to shift the momentum. Most at ringside had Gatti ahead by five or six points and it appeared Patterson’s title was slipping away. But at the start of round nine it was the challenger who came out aggressively, throwing 93 punches and having his strongest round of the fight since the early going. But even though Patterson was now hopelessly behind on points, he took the fight to Gatti in the tenth as an already entertaining match became a thrilling action battle. In the final 30 seconds of the round, the crowd came to its feet as the fighters traded toe-to-toe.
Gatti listened to his corner and got back up on his toes in round 11, using the ring and pumping his jab, until the champion buckled his legs with a right hand near the end of the frame. Briefly, Arturo appeared in trouble, but he regrouped and landed a big right of his own before working the jab again.
Now it was official: Patterson needed a knockout to win and his corner told him so, but Gatti, even after 11 hard-fought rounds, still had plenty of bounce in his young legs. Halfway through the final round, Patterson hurt the challenger with a desperate right hand and attacked, looking for a miracle and having his best round of the entire fight. But Gatti showed the heart and courage he would come to be known for as he battled back and survived the champion’s final charge.
The announcement of the decision was a formality; while the match was competitive, it was clear Gatti had done more than enough to take the win. Looking back, the irony of the bout is not lost on anyone who paid attention to “Thunder’s” career in the years that followed. While he is best known for being a reckless brawler who absorbed loads of punishment in violent slugfests with Ivan Robinson, Micky Ward and others, the fact is he secured this crucial victory and his first world title by boxing with discipline, listening to his corner, and using his ring smarts. Clearly, this remains one of Gatti’s finest ring performances.
It was more than two decades ago and it seems now like a lifetime. Arturo Gatti is gone but we recall on this date, not just his courage and toughness, but also his talent.
— Robert Portis