As 2005 started, Arturo Gatti‘s star was once again on the rise. He had previously earned the title of “Blood and Guts Warrior” after enduring thirty rounds of violent action against Micky Ward in one of modern boxing’s most celebrated trilogies. He had amassed a large following thanks to participating in half of the previous eight Fights of the Year. And he enjoyed the support of thousands of faithful fans who congregated in Atlantic City every time he entered the ring.
On the other hand, Jesse James Leija, then 38 years old, was on his way out. But at the time he fought Gatti he had scored four wins on the comeback trail after having been knocked out in his previous title shot, losing to champion Kostya Tszyu. And so Leija was making one final run. He had been labelled an underdog most of his fighting life, and against Arturo that’s the role he found himself in once again. And so Gatti vs Leija was a high-stakes affair for both men, with Arturo eyeing a huge payday and Leija looking to restore himself as an elite-level pugilist.
Gatti started off against Leija working behind a flicking jab, keeping his opponent at a distance, setting up the right hand, and occasionally counter-punching with an uppercut to the body. His famous left hook made only sporadic appearances, and it took all of Arturo’s will to refrain from firing away when he got tagged with a significant punch, but this was a new Gatti, more of a boxer than a brawler. It may not have been spectacular, but it was effective against a faded Leija.
Early in round five, Gatti landed a monstrous right on Leija’s jaw, and how that jaw didn’t break after taking that punch will forever remain a mystery. Jesse went down and waited the better part of the ten count before getting up, legs all wobbly, eyeballs rolling around inside their sockets. Gatti went all in, unleashing a barrage of heavy artillery. He eventually connected with a heavy left hand to the top of Leija’s head, sending him down and putting him out.
Gatti vs Leija would come to represent the zenith of Arturo’s career. He was more popular than ever, making big money, and a megafight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. beckoned. For his part, Leija had finally reached the end of the road. He retired after his loss to Gatti.
Life was good for Arturo then. And watching him on the video of the Leija fight, before the opening bell, walking towards the ring to the tune of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” it struck me just how uniquely likable he was. After the fight, once Leija had recovered from the knockout, I see Gatti approach him, all class and cool charisma, and it’s impossible not to feel sad about how his story ended.
This victory was the peak of the “Gatti-as-boxer” bubble that had been developed by new trainer Buddy McGirt and inflated by the media, especially the HBO crew, in an effort to build him up for a showdown with Mayweather. Unfortunately, this robbed Gatti of the only real chance he may have had in that match, of being the pressure fighter, getting inside and forcing Floyd to brawl. Instead, as all of his fans painfully remember, Gatti tried to box Mayweather and the result was a total mismatch.
But all that was still to come. After defeating Leija, Gatti was on top of the world, a champion and still a huge attraction. In a career full of so many amazing fights, and crazy ups-and-downs, this was the final great high. – Rafael Garcia