Like some relic from the era of bare-knuckle brawling, the bout between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward last Saturday night in Atlantic City was breathtaking in its brutality: two iron-faced pugs with iron wills, trying to beat each other's brains out. The bell would ring, and you'd think there was no way the furious action could last another round, and yet it did and it did and it did, even after Gatti broke his right hand in the fourth and Ward, suffering from blurred vision from the third round on, started seeing three Gattis in the ring. At a time when boxing cards are larded with oversold, overpaid poseurs who don't deliver, it was a novelty to watch a pair of bangers unafraid to stand their ground and pound away. By the end Gatti had done most of the pounding, winning by unanimous decision.
This was the rubber match in a three-fight nontitle series that promoter Lou DiBella called an "epic trilogy." Over a span of 13 months the two junior welterweights of comparable skill squared off for 90 unyielding, unforgettable minutes of mayhem that will forever link their names.
A free-swinging pinwheel of a prizefighter, Gatti has built a 36-6 record on electrifying victories and equally high-voltage defeats. The 31-year-old Montrealer is geared to box in only one way: Crowd 'em and crack 'em. "If I crack 'em," he reasons, "they're going to sleep." The kind of beatings this reckless crowd-pleaser has taken make for great TV but short careers.
Six years older than Gatti, Ward (38-13) has been an animated if somewhat anonymous club fighter for most of his years in the ring. The Lowell, Mass., native quit the sport at 26 after losing four straight bouts and confidence in his brittle right hand. He used the swag he made on a road-paving crew to have some of the bones in the hand fused together, drawing bone from his pelvis. At 28 he quit the crew and launched a comeback. "The machine I drove only went forward and backward," he says. "Never side to side."
That pretty much describes the way he steamrollered Gatti on May 18, 2002, in one of boxing's great free-for-alls. The momentum swung back and forth until Round 9, when Ward dropped Gatti with a left hook to the liver. Gatti rose from a knee at the count of 10 and fought on, winning the next round and almost pulling out the fight. Ward got a majority decision, but if one judge hadn't given him the ninth by a generous 10-7 score, the result would have been a draw, which is how most everyone remembers the most two-sided fight in history.
That night Ward and Gatti wound up in a trauma center in Norwich, Conn., where they sat side by side and chatted amiably about their golf games. Six months later, in the third round of their second bout, Gatti wobbled Ward with a right behind the ear, propelling him face-first into a turnbuckle. Eardrum shattered, eyes like glazed Krispy Kremes, Ward fell to his knees. The ref was waved off by Ward, who tottered groggily and hung on. Gatti shot in punch after punch at the half-helpless target but couldn't finish him off. Gatti won easily on points. "I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin," Gatti said after the fight. "Now I know."
In this third and final installment—Ward says he's retiring—Gatti showed quickness and slickness. Rather than trade blows in the early rounds, he waltzed tantalizingly beyond the reach of his ever-charging opponent's hooks, sticking him with jabs and crosses, 30 straight in the third round.
Ward never really wavered, much less wobbled. He made a remarkable recovery in Round 4, landing five successive left uppercuts before Gatti responded with a barrage of lefts of his own. The 12,643 delirious fans at sold-out Boardwalk Hall showed their appreciation with one of a half-dozen standing ovations.
The crowd rose again in the sixth after Ward decked Gatti with an overhand right. Referee Earl Morton was forced to stop his count when the bell sounded, and then Gatti got his second, third and fourth winds. Though Ward flailed at him like a sea anemone, Gatti was never in much danger again. Two of the judges scored the fight 96-93; the third, 97-92.
When the bell rang at the end of Round 10—or was it 30?—slugfest turned lovefest. The twins embraced (as they had in a moving moment before the final round) and shared a bottle of water. Ward was taken to the hospital with badly bruised hands. Gatti, nursing the broken hand that had reduced him to a one-armed fighter for the last six rounds, joined him minutes later.