During Boxing's bare-knuckle era, when palookas spat out their mouthguards and cursed the very idea of protective cups, gloves were for milquetoasts. A.J. Liebling wrote of a fighter in his late 80s who had 140 brutal bouts under his belt. "The last one was with gloves," he grumbled. "I thought the game was getting soft, so I retired."
Arturo Gatti often seems like a relic from that age. The 32-year-old WBC super lightweight champ, who defends his 140-pound title against Leonard Dorin on Saturday in Atlantic City, is one of those pugs whose performances have the power to stun us with their savagery. He's a virtuoso at toe-to-toe brawling, a gruesome art as primitive as cave painting. Blows thud into bodies like mortars; blood gushes down chests like rain in a storm gutter. "Fighting with no gloves would have been right up Arturo's alley," says his trainer, Buddy McGirt. "With padding, he's broken his hands five times. Without it, his hands would still be broke."
Gatti has built a 37-6 record mostly by leading with his skull and catching as many punches as he's thrown. Though capable of choreographing his fists and feet into breathtaking ballet, he's only too happy to oblige opponents who want to mix it up. His comebacks—and there have been many—tend to be monumental. "I love to bleed," says Gatti. "Sometimes I love to bleed so much, I take a beating."
The kind of beatings Gatti takes makes for great TV—his HBO fights routinely command huge ratings—but a short career. "I call him Jason because he's unstoppable, like the serial killer in Friday the 13th," says Micky Ward, whose May 18, 2002, free-for-all with Gatti—the first of three—was inarguably the fight of the century. "You can kill him and kill him and kill him, but he'll just get back up and get back up and get back up."
Pros like Ward have a real appreciation of Gatti's skills. With dreamy wistfulness, old-timers call him a throwback.
"He reminds me of me," says former middleweight champ Jake LaMotta. "He takes a lot of shots to the head and doesn't care."
"He's a gutsy fighter of action who thinks his way through a match in a way you don't see anymore," says Tony DeMarco, who became king of the welterweights in '55. "Nobody today is tougher than Gatti. Nobody."
"He slugs it out as if he's in a barroom: Whatever's in front of him, he pounds down," says former light heavyweight champ Dwight Qawi. "He's got finesse, but [you wouldn't know it looking at] his face."
Years of pummeling have given Gatti's features an eerie geometry: His lips are stretched semicircles; his ears, flattened half-ovals; his nose, a mashed isosceles triangle. His eyes are swollen with scar tissue, the skin around them grooved by needles that couldn't completely mend the ravages of the ring. "People only recognize my face when it's beat up," he cracks. "If I ain't puffy, they don't believe it's me."
Even while standing still, there's a turbulence about Gatti, a constant, restless, unfocused energy he attributes to his father, an Italian immigrant. According to Neapolitan legend, young Giovanni Gatti once decked a mule by socking it in the jaw. Whether the mule went down for the count is unclear. What is certain is that Giovanni left Caserta for Montreal, where he supported his wife and four kids as an electrician. Giovanni homeschooled Arturo and his older brother, Joseph, in the sweet science. "We found a mail sack and hung it up like a heavy bag," Arturo recalls. "Lucky for the mailman he wasn't inside."