On May 18, 2002 Boxing
tuned into HBO
's Boxing After Dark to see what was expected to be the Fight of the Year. Instead, they got an early front-runner for Fight of the 21st Century
. There were no belts involved
in the fight and neither boxer is well known outisde of Boxing. Yet both of these fighters had what every boxing fan loves to see: tremendous heart
. In this fight both Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti were pushed to the absolute limit and still managed to not only keep figthing but to completely change the course of the fight several times.
"Irish" Micky Ward (37-11-27) was well known among Boxing fans as a great "club fighter" for most of his career. Ward is best known for his devastating left hook to the body, which is usually set up with a left to the head (reverse of how body blows are normally used). Ward has occasionally been given a chance at greatness in the past but has fallen short. After taking a break from boxing he returned in excellent fights in 1999 and 2000. In 2001 Ward appeared on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights against Emmanuel Burton and both fighters gave a memorable performance that was considered by many to be the Fight of the Year. He was then matched up against Jesse James Leija in hopes of a repeat but the fight was stopped early because of a bad cut on Leija's eye. Though Leija won the decision it was Micky Ward that Boxing fans wanted to see in another "war".
Arturo "Thunder" Gatti (34-5-28) began his career as a "Boxer" who could also punch hard. He found success with this formula but switched to being a slugger. While this change made Gatti a more "exciting" fighter it also lead to him losing several very tough fights. Gatti then teamed up with trainer Buddy McGirt who helped him change back into an effective "boxer". In January 2002 Gatti showed off this new style to a national audience against Terron Millet who he KO'd in 4 rounds with an impressive display of boxing skill and power. At then end of this fight Gatti actually stated that he wanted to fight Ward and HBO knew they had a spectacular match.
The two fighters entered the ring to their chosen music but with no real "razzle dazzle" as found in many fights. They both had the air of men simply "going to work". They knew what they had to do and when the opening bell rang they went to it.
Through the first three rounds Arturo Gatti laid out the blueprint for a decisive victory against Ward. Using his legs and boxing skill Gatti continually landed combinations as Ward moved in. When Ward finally got through these barrages and threw a punch Gatti was already gone. Micky Ward never seemed discouraged by this though and by the end of the third round was starting to get to Gatti.
In round 4 Ward finally caught up to Gatti landing several big right hands. Gatti fought back though with combinations pushing Ward back. Near the end of the round Gatti threw a powerful punch that landed squarely to Ward's groin sending him to the mat in pain. Referee Frank Cappuccino immediately ruled it a low blow and took a point away from Gatti. Even though Ward officially had up to five minutes to recover, the bell rang after only 10 seconds because of a miscommunication between the ref and timekeeper. Ward didn't complain though and didn't hesitate to start the next round.
Ward, obviously still in pain, took a beating through the beginning of round 5 and almost looked in trouble. But he would battle back through the middle of the round. The round was back and forth with Ward landing several telling body blows at the end of it.
Though rounds 4 and 5 had devolved into more of a brawl (a big advantage for Ward)Arturo Gatti managed to shift control of the fight back to "Boxing" in rounds 6 and 7. In these rounds Ward would absorb a tremendous amount of punishment. After round 7 Micky Ward's trainer/brother Dick Ecklund told him that he wouldn't let him continue to take this beating. Ward needed to change the course of the fight and soon.
Through most of round 8 Gatti continued to control the fight but Ward suddenly came back to life landing combinations to Arturo's head. Gatti would come back but as the round drew to a close Micky Ward landed several telling blows that seemed to have Gatti nearly "out on his feet". Luckily for Gatti, the bell rang and he was given a minute to recuperate.
Later, HBO's boxing commentator Jim Lampley would round 9 "one of the three greates" he had ever seen. Gatti would later say, "Wow, that was a long round!" Knowing that Gatti was hurt Micky Ward immediately attacked. 15 seconds into the round Ward threw a flourish causing Gatti to back away and then suddenly take a knee grimacing in pain. The replay would show that Ward had landed his patented left to the head, left to the body combination. Somehow, Gatti forced himself to his feet at the count of 9. Micky Ward rushed at Gatti and threw everything he had at him landing a barrage of punches but Gatti wouldn't go down again.
With only 1 minute in the round gone Gatti somehow managed to start fighting back against the now "punched out" Micky Ward. No one could believe it as Arturo Gatti started pushing Micky Ward around the ring. Ward was pushed back into the ropes and now it was Gatti throwing everything he had.
With the round nearly over it became obvious that now it was Arturo Gatti who was "punched out". Ward took over and again starting landing shots to Gatti's head. Gatti was now the one falling into the ropes in the corner of the ring. Ward somehow found energy reserves great enough to unleash one final flurry on Gatti. The ringside commentators were sure the fight would be stopped but before Cappuccino could step in Gatti slipped out of the corner and tied Ward up. Gatti had survived the round.
Before the beginning of the tenth and final round Gatti's corner indicated that they might stop the fight. When the bell rang and Gatti didn't immediately get up from his stool Ward thought he had won. But Gatti did get up and the ref got the round started. Both men were completely exhausted by this point but it would be Gatti who somehow found the last reserves of energy. Gatti pounded at Ward who stumbled several times. In the last moments of the fight both men threw their final wild punches and fell into a clinch as the bell rang. The clinch turned into an exhausted hug as both men congratulated each other for surviving one of the greatest battles in sports in recent years.
Before the official judgements were announced HBO's "un-official official" judge Harold Lederman stated that he had the fight a draw. I also had the fight a draw. The scores were finally announced as 94-94, 94-93 and 95-93, a majority decision for "Irish" Micky Ward much to the delight of the MA crowd.
I think a draw would probably have been the most fair decision but it's easy to score it for either man. Gatti won rounds 1-3, 6, 7 and 10. Ward won the other rounds and picked up an extra points for the low blow and knockdown. That gives you a 94-94 fight. For Ward to win you could give him the 3rd round or, as one judge did, score the 9th round 10-7 for Ward. There were complaints about the point deduction since the ref didn't give Gatti the customary warning. But this isn't true. Cappuccino did warn Gatti about low blows in the previous round. 10-7 seems like a bit of a stretch but Ward scored a knockdown and many people feel the fight should have been stopped at the end of the round. It can also be noted that even though Gatti heroicly fought back he didn't actually land very much or hurt Ward in round 9. For Gatti to win you could score the 4th round 9-9 (instead of 10-8) or give him the 8th round. Either way, the fight was very close and could have gone either way.
I think every boxing fan gets asked why they would watch such a brutal "sport". I now have Gatti vs. Ward on tape and will gladly show it to anyone as my answer. The fight was certainly brutal, but it exemplifies everything that is good in boxing. George Foreman once said, "Boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire." In it's moments of greatness Boxing simply transcends all other sports. They become nothing more than men "playing" and vicariously "battling" through the medium of a ball. In a great match like this one Boxing pushes the limits of what sport can be as it becomes not just a methapor but truly a War itself.