I appreciate boxing skill as much as anyone, but no one can deny that a furious slugfest keeps eyes fixated on the screen, while a technical masterpiece rarely does. Everyone remembers Ali vs Frazier III, Hagler vs Hearns, or Castillo vs Corrales I; the same just can’t be said for Mayweather vs Baldomir.
And when it comes to unforgettable action and the warriors who have generously provided it, Montreal-raised Arturo “Thunder” Gatti is near the top of the list. He was a true blood-and-guts champion, one of the most exciting battlers of recent decades. And that’s not to say he didn’t have boxing skills, because at times he did display quick hands and deft footwork, but for the most part, fleeting moments is all they were. Such tactics were abandoned as soon as he got tagged hard, which was a common occurrence in his fights, and then the brave slugger came to the fore.
While it may not have been the smartest move for his health, longevity and winning percentage, Gatti’s eagerness to throw down and slug it out is what propelled him into the Hall of Fame. All the legendary wars in which he was a willing participant are what endear him to boxing fans around the globe. He was willing to take two heavy shots to land one of his own, and that warrior spirit deserves to be forever recognized and respected.
One of Gatti’s most memorable scraps was the first defense of his IBF junior lightweight title against Wilson Rodriguez, which took place 20 years ago today. He had won the belt in his previous match, outpointing Tracy Harris Patterson over 12 rounds at Madison Square Garden. Rodriguez entered with a record of 43-7-3 and was riding a five fight winning streak, albeit against sub-par opposition. He was a proven contender in the weight class with solid boxing skills, but most expected him to give Gatti little trouble. They were quickly proven wrong.
The opening round saw Gatti in the role of the bull to Rodriguez’s matador and to the surprise of many it was the bull who was getting gored. Staying on the outside and using lateral movement, Rodriguez got off first and landed clean jabs and right hands. He avoided Gatti’s aggressive charges, creating countering opportunities that he immediately capitalized on. This was a clear round for the Dominican native, based on his effective stick-and-move approach. When the round ended, Gatti was already sporting significant swelling around his left eye.
Gatti came out for the second hell-bent on applying more pressure and getting inside. He was moving his head more but still getting hit, a fact evidenced by swelling now developing around his right eye. He targeted the challenger’s body with hooks, but Rodriguez countered with force, dropping Gatti with a sharp right-left-right combination. Arturo was up at the count of three but immediately met with a storm of leather, Rodriguez unleashing a fusillade of head shots. Gatti refused to clinch and landed some good shots of his own, but there was no denying the champion was off to a terrible start. In his corner he was told the swelling around his eyes meant time was not on his side, that the course of the fight had to change, and change fast.
Gatti responded and the result was an amazing action round. It began with a looping right hand that wobbled Rodriguez and prompted Gatti to unleash a series of huge hooks, most of them missing, but enough landing to prove the sturdiness of the challenger’s chin. The two battled on the inside, Gatti’s preferred territory, but Rodriguez landed clean shots. The final minute of the round was fought at a furious pace, both warriors snapping each other’s heads back with clean blows. Courage and toughness were on full display, neither fighter willing to concede an inch, and the fans cheered them on.
After such a hellacious round, the pace naturally slowed somewhat in the fourth, but in the final minute it ratcheted up again with Rodriguez unloading several rapid-fire flurries. With 30 seconds remaining, he hurt Gatti, sending the champion staggering about the ring. But Arturo refused to back down and he turned the tide with his trademark left hook followed by a hard low blow. The ref didn’t see the foul and Gatti turned it on in the last ten seconds, punctuating the close round with a series of unanswered power punches.
The fifth started slowly, with Gatti applying pressure and Rodriguez boxing off the back foot. Gatti continued to attack the body, landing some solid legal shots, but also some which strayed low. With a minute left in the round, Gatti landed a right below the belt that forced the referee to step in and deduct a point. Knowing he was already behind on the scorecards, Gatti responded to the penalty with urgency. Pressuring Rodriguez to the ropes, he threw a right hand to the head, followed by a brutal liver shot that forced Rodriguez to take a knee. Rodriguez beat the count but took more heavy body punches before coming back at the end of the round with a hard right to the head and a quick flurry. Another dramatic finish.
Round six was fought on even terms, with both fighters battling hard and landing crisp shots. Gatti, spurred on by the fans in attendance loudly chanting his name, continued to have success with the left hand. And then it happened: both fighters threw lead hooks but Gatti’s was the more compact and it found the target squarely. The punch exploded on Rodriguez’s chin and sent him crashing to the floor. Flat on his back, the brave challenger was counted out.
What an incredible war. To start the sixth and final round, HBO commentator Larry Merchant offered a statement that beautifully summed up this unforgettable struggle: “When you see fights like [this one], it redeems all the bad stuff you ever hear about boxing. What we’re seeing is the pure spirit and skill of terrific athletes.”
Spirit and skill. And while both warriors deserved the applause of the crowd, this was truly quintessential Arturo Gatti. The way he battled through adversity from the opening round to come away with the victory was remarkable. His ability to take savage punishment and stay on his feet remains astonishing. And even when he did go down, he got right back up and tore in for more.
Though he is no longer with us, Arturo Gatti will forever live on as one of the bravest warriors in the history of boxing. We were lucky to have him. Rest in peace, Arturo. — Jamie Rebner