May 18th, marks the anniversary of something truly special. Special not just for me personally, as my youngest son is named after boxings “Blood & Guts Warrior”, but something truly special happened for the world of sports. Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward squared off for the first time at the Mohegan Sun Casino, in Uncasville, Connecticut. A location that was home away from home for both fighters, the midway point for both the Boston area fan base of Micky Ward and Gatti’s NY/NJ fan base. Both were in attendance and well accounted for. As Jim Lampley stated in the epic 9th round “Just Imagine if you bought a ticket!”
Entering the May 18th build up fight fans knew that this matchup could produce fireworks. I don’t think anyone knew they were going to get the greatest fight of all-time, which is what the capacity crowd in Connecticut and the boxing world got that night. Neither man possessed technical wizardry by any means, however, both men proved enough skill and more than a conceivable amount of heart. Each, certainly had their warrior card confirmed and renewed.
Arturo Gatti entered the fight on the comeback trail after his jump up to welterweight and his fight with Oscar De La Hoya, who thoroughly beat Gatti down, but whom Oscar is on record saying hit me harder than anyone else. Not a bad partying gift considering Oscar has been in the ring with middleweights, Shane Mosley, Felix Trinidad and Manny Pacquiao. Gatti took a 10-month layoff after the fight and came back in January of 2001 at his best weight of 140 and took apart lightly regarded Terron Millett who was once upon a time a major prospect following wins over Freddie Pendleton and Vince Phillips. Gatti destroyed Millett knocking him down three times in route to a fourth-round stoppage at Madison Square Garden. Gatti had already established himself as the sports “blood and guts warrior” with fight of the year type of fights with Wilson Rodriguez, Gabe Ruelas and twice with Ivan Robinson. The boxing world knew what they were getting with Arturo Gatti. Likewise, fight fans knew what they were getting with “Irish” Micky Ward, who was making one last stand he was coming off of a fight of the year life and death type fight with fellow tough guy Emanuel Augustus and a TD lost to Jesse James Leija, a fight that Ward was doing quite well in and winning on most ringside cards, but he was in Texas against a hometown favorite and Gale Van Hoy was a judge and did Gale Van Hoy things and was the decising vote in stealing the fight from Ward and awarding it to Leija. The loss did not much to tarnish the reputation as Ward, as he accounted quite well for himself and was winning on the majority of scorecards of those who watched.
“Hopefully, it is significant,” said Merchant on HBO. “Hopefully it means that in addition to the best and the brightest, we’ll be bringing you more of the bravest and the boldest.” It certainly was significant and it certainly was a display of the bravest and boldest the sweet science could possibly offer. In the beginning rounds, Gatti had great success assuming the role of boxer out-quicking and out-moving Ward the stationary slugger. Throughout the first two rounds, Gatti would open up with quick combinations, and nail the stationary target that is Ward and circle out of the way. The first six-minutes saw Gatti perfectly executing his trainer, Buddy McGirt’s game plan. Ward was cut and bleeding badly and Gatti looked like he was going to walk away with a clear-cut victory. But, this is Micky Ward we are talking about, we know he is going to make a stand and wasn’t about to go away quietly.
In the middle of Round 3, Ward landed multiple clean hooks to Gatti’s body as the decibel level in the Mohegan Sun reached new levels as the crowd sensed the boxing match was turning into a brawl. With a minute to go, we got the first sustained two-way exchange of slugging, and HBO analyst Emanuel Steward exclaims, “Now the fight is turning out to be what we expected! So much for the boxing!” Jim Lampley stated the obvious when he said: “That’s what they came here for.” By the end of the fourth, the momentum had changed as it shifted from fight of the year to brutal exchange of blistering body shots won by Ward. When one too many of Gatti’s thunderous body shots strayed south of the border, referee Frank Cappuccino deducted a point from his pisano. But the momentum had shifted and it appeared that Micky Ward had gained the advantage in the fight and with the 10-8 round in the fourth perhaps on the scorecards too. But, could that really matter? No way both fighters were going to sustain this for six more rounds.
As the fight entered the middle rounds Gatti assumed the role of boxer again and was schooling the slower Ward. Gatti continues outboxing and outlanding Ward and Gatti begins to open up and really dish out punishment landing an attack of two-fisted bombs that Ward somehow walks through. Ward’s overhand right is finding the mark with 15 seconds left in the round, Ward rocks “Thunder” with a five-punch combo landing perfectly on the head of Gatti who if not hurt is certainly slowed down allowing Ward to land 14 unanswered punches before the bell sounds. The round would go down as the best round of the year thus far and would keep that crown for another 15 minutes or so when the fight turned from great to epic in the 9th round.
Enter “Gatti Vs Ward fight 1 round 9” AKA the greatest round in the history of boxing. AKA The greatest three minutes in the history of the sport. Fifteen seconds into the round, Ward cracks Gatti with a trademark hook to the ribs sending Gatti to the canvas. The body shot leaving Gatti in a state somewhere between crying and vomiting. The blood and guts warrior somehow gets up at the count of nine. Ward seemingly fighting for life and death swarms across the ring and goes right back to the body, doing everything he can to take Gatti out. And, in doing so punches himself out letting Gatti seize the moment dominating the next 30 seconds, leading Lampley to cry out “Can you believe there’s still a minute and a half to go in the round?” Gatti and ward stand toe-to-toe and deliver better action than anything any Rocky movie ever produced. With a minute left in the round Gatti and Ward clinch in the corner. Ward works out of it hurting Gatti again with a right hand-left hook combo. Ward tees-off with the right hand again. Buddy McGirl climbs up the steps towel in hand, Frank Cappuccino’s back is turned and can’t see Buddy, but perhaps Gatti did and unleashed one last ditch effort that hurts Ward and sends his trainer off the steps “Gatti’s gonna survive the round!” proclaims a besides himself Jim Lampley. In between the ninth and final round, McGirt says to Gatti in the corner, “I’m not going to let you take this punishment.” Proving to be an empty threat as Gatti went out to start the 10th and final round.
20-30 seconds ticked off the clock thanks to the is-it-over-or-not confusion. Gatti immediately starts outboxing and outpunching Ward. Amazing, Gatti looked like he was left for dead after round nine and a minute later he is outboxing Ward and letting his hands go like nothing ever happened. Looking as fresh as he did in round 2 landing hard body shots and clearly winning the round to make it nearly impossible to pick a winner on the scorecards. The two embraced each other immediately as the bell rang. Clearly earning the respect of each other and knowing that they had done something special. Not knowing who had won but knowing they managed to somehow get through ten rounds of warfare.
I watched Gatti-Ward in my dorm room at Hofstra University, I was a freshman at the time. Gatti was my favorite fighter and my casual fan roommate was from Boston and asked me “hey is that Gatti/Ward fight on tonight?” I said, “yep, you wanna watch it?” “Yea, I am going to stay in and watch it” as it was the last day of school and everyone was heading home for the summer the next day. As the fight progressed round after round, one guy after another rolled into my dorm room, not even saying a word, glued to my TV. Most of them never watched boxing and weren’t fight fans. But the action that took place on May 18th, 2002 turned everyone into a fan of the sweet science, even if just for one night. If you asked most people who watched the fight in my Hofstra dorm room that night who won? They couldn’t tell you who got the decision. Heck, many fight fans don’t remember who actually won Gatti/Ward 1. It didn’t really matter nor did it matter that no belt was on the line. Jim Lampley asks Larry Merchant about the significance of there being no world titles involved in this fight, and Merchant responded, “To Gatti and Ward, the only title that means anything is ‘warrior.’ The only belts that mean anything are the ones that they punch each other with. These are character actors who won starring roles, soldiers who won battlefield commissions.”