In a sport full of hard-luck stories, Gatti's is about as soft as they come. His childhood and adolescence seem remarkable for their lack of unwholesome incident. The only setback: When he was 18, his obstinate old man fell off a ladder at a job site, refused treatment and died a week later of internal bleeding. By then Joseph, a promising junior middleweight, had already left home to pursue a career in the states. Arturo followed less than a year later, in 1991, and immediately turned pro.
Gatti's ascension was lightning-quick. By crowding 'em and cracking 'em, he earned the nickname Thunder. He won 26 of his first 27 fights—13 in the opening round. In '95 he outboxed and outfoxed the more technically accomplished Tracy Patterson to win the IBF 130-pound title. In his first defense he rallied to victory against Wilson Rodriguez. Eyes narrowed to slits and his vision blurred by blood, Gatti soaked up everything the challenger threw and floored him with a single left hook in the sixth.
For an encore he KO'd former WBC champ Gabriel Ruelas with a fifth-round swing-and-a-prayer haymaker. Along the way he got carried away by his mystique. "He got caught up in the hype from those come-from-behind knockouts," says his manager, Pat Lynch. "He tried to be a fighter and rock star." He drank. He partied. He got lazy.
After Gatti dropped three in a row to relative nobodies in 1998, the days of Thunder seemed numbered. Gatti could still level opponents—three within two rounds—but the thunderclaps were fading to a distant rumble. In 2001 HBO fed him to welterweight champ Oscar De La Hoya. Gatti, with only a couple of fights at 147, prepped for four months. "The truth is, the bout was HBO's going-away present to Arturo," says Lynch. "The idea was, Give him a big payday and thanks for the memories."
Gatti's recall of the encounter is hazy, at best. He remembers hitting the canvas in Round 1 and the barrage of blows that cut him under the right eye in Round 2. He remembers his trainer throwing in the towel after another hail of head shots in Round 5. "I realized I had to change my lifestyle," Gatti says, "and my boxing style."
His fianc�e at the time, Vivian Penha, took care of the lifestyle part. "She got me to drop some friends and live a cleaner life," Gatti says. It was McGirt who rediscovered the beauty in the beast. "To a certain degree Arturo's story is similar to my own," says the former WBC junior welterweight and welterweight champ. Both lived large, both lost their way, both regrouped. "The difference," McGirt says, "was that Arturo's bank account was plus, mine was negative."
After quitting the ring in 1997, McGirt blew his money. He faced mortgage foreclosure, and his car was repossessed. About all he had left were his wife and three children. He hooked up with Gatti three years ago in a Vero Beach, Fla., gym. Gatti, just off the loss to De La Hoya, asked McGirt to train him.
McGirt taught Gatti to stick to the fundamentals: Keep cool, circle away from body punches, counter with deft precision. "Buddy had a great right hand, and he's taught me how to throw it," Gatti says. "In the old days I would load up my left hook, and everybody expected it."
Their first fight together was against the onetime IBF 140-pound champ Terronn Millett in January 2002. Though left hooks had accounted for all 27 of Gatti's KOs, McGirt predicted his pupil would drop Millett in the fourth round with a right. Sure enough, Gatti knocked him down twice with rights and finished him off in the fourth with a four-shot combination. The coup de grace was a solid right.
Gatti's three nontitle fights with Ward over a span of 13 months solidified his standing in boxing history. The first was like a soap opera in which there's a crisis every 13 seconds and a hero is resurrected every minute and a half. The bell would ring, and you'd think there was no way the furious action could last another round—and yet it did. "It was 10 rounds of ebb and flow," says Ward.