Boxing’s greatest trilogy: The aftermath
They move to larger homes, drive sexy cars, stay in expensive hotels on the promoter’s dime. When the money starts to run out, they fight again…
Written in conjunction with John J. Raspanti.
Micky Ward joined a very small fraternity when he retired from boxing after his third fight with Arturo Gatti. He was one of those rare birds who apparently walked away from the spotlight with nary a glance in the rearview mirror.
It’s not difficult to understand why a boxer almost invariably makes a comeback—even multiple comebacks. There are multiple reasons, each one as alluring as the others.
Consider first that the vast majority of those who rise to the higher rungs of professional boxing have clawed their way out of difficult circumstances. They most often are the products of dysfunctional situations in their home—usually exacerbated by some level of poverty—and grew up in dangerous neighborhoods, where fighting on every street corner was a right of passage.
For most of them, boxing became the most-important thing in their lives, first as a survival mechanism, then as a heightener of self-esteem among peers.
And then, all of a sudden, the boxer wakes up one morning and discovers he is known. He is recognized on the street, at restaurants, and in the aisles of his local supermarket. He drinks free in local taverns. Children and their parents want his autograph, and beautiful women suddenly find him attractive.
All of that multiplies exponentially when he begins fighting on television against other well-knowns. Suddenly the cheering throngs grow larger and the media attention becomes more intense.
The paydays get much, much bigger—large enough that the fighter no longer has to work 8-to-5 to pay the bills, finding time before and after for training. They are suddenly flush with cash for months at a time, and brimming with optimism that the next big check—bigger than the last one—is coming soon.
They move to larger homes, drive sexy cars, stay in expensive hotels on the promoter’s dime. When the money starts to run out, they fight again, refill their bank accounts, and the party begins anew. As long as they keep winning and remain relevant, all is well.
But few professions on earth are as fickle and unforgiving as professional boxing, where the positive reviews from a fighter’s first 20 or 30 victories can turn ugly after just one or two losses.
And then, abruptly, the joy ride is over. A former top contender, even an ex-world champion, abruptly becomes a “gatekeeper,” a “steppingstone,” for the sport’s young, up-and-comers. Darwin’s law of natural selection prevails, and the former Alpha dog suddenly discovers that he is, once again, just another marginalized member of the pack.
The money and fame evaporates. Those legions of “friends” dwindle. The bright lights grow dim.
Life becomes bleak and cold when the once-glaring spotlight begins to flicker. Depression often sets in. And, inevitably, a predictable thing happens: Old injuries begin to feel better. A tired body becomes rested. The bills stack up and the hunger returns. And the fighter begins to believe—almost always erroneously—that he’s got two or three good fights left in his aging body, and that some unworthy young chump is wearing his old championship belt.
Plus, the idea of fighting again for 10 or 12 rounds to earn the kind of money that would amount to a year’s worth of paychecks at a construction site, or a warehouse, or a gym ... well, it certainly beats working.
Micky Ward felt every bit of that the first time he retired. Remarkably, he experienced little or none of it after hearing the final bell of the third Gatti fight.
“When my brother was done with that fight, he was done, period,” Dicky Eklund said. “I told him, ‘That’s it, Mick ... one more punch could be no more punches.’ And he knew what I meant.
“I walked into the gym one day and caught Micky sparring with my nephew (Sean Eklund), and I hollered at him: ‘Micky, what are you doing? Get those gloves off!’ Sean was unloading on him, and I said, ‘Get the hell out of there—I’ll do that!’”
“Micky didn’t really have any real withdrawal pains at all after he retired, but most guys aren’t that way,” Eklund said. “It’s sad that people want to keep putting old fighters out there and make them fight. I’d rather collect cans on the street than do that.”
Ward went back to driving his uncle’s steamroller, paving streets and parking lots. He stayed connected with boxing as a boxing coach at the gym he opened after his career, and making appearances at area boxing events, and, ironically, joining the entourage that walked Arturo Gatti from the dressing room to the ring on all of Gatti’s remaining fights.
When Gatti beat Ward in the rubber match of their trilogy, he was a month short of his 31st birthday, and still one of the hottest commodities in the game.
Seven months later, he was back at Boardwalk Hall to fight Italian star Gianluca Branco, 32-0-1, for the vacant WBC super lightweight crown. He won the belt with a 12-round unanimous decision, then successfully defended the title by knocking out Leonard Dorin (22-0-1) in two rounds, and former world champion Jessie James Leija in five.
Gatti then put his WBC strap on the line against the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Floyd Mayweather Jr., who was 33-0 and, at age 28, in his physical prime. (More than a decade later, he would still be fighting, and was still undefeated.) Mayweather battered Gatti in an uncompetitive fight, and title changed hands via a Retired Technical Decision (Mayweather led by eight points on all three scorecards) when Gatti’s corner kept him on his stool at the beginning of the seventh round.
Remarkably, Gatti had one more good one left in the tank: He moved up to the welterweight division and won the vacant IBA championship with an 11th-round technical knockout over Denmark’s Thomas Damgaard, who brought a 37-0 record into the ring that night at Boardwalk Hall.
That would be the last hurrah for “The Human Highlight Reel,” who was TKO’d in nine rounds by Carlos Baldomir in July of 2006, and was stopped again, this time in seven rounds, by Alfonso Gomez, who was, at best, a fringe contender with a 16-3-2 record.
A sad photograph from that bout—an image so often seen in a ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest sport—shows Gatti, boxing’s ultimate warrior, on his hands and knees with a waterfall of blood draining onto the canvas from a severely torn upper lip at the end of the fight.
“He was just stronger than I was,” a battered Gatti told Max Kellerman afterward, fighting back tears on HBO. “He was a hungry fighter, a young fighter. I came in thinking I could outbox him, but the ring kept getting smaller and smaller against a bigger man. I don’t belong at 147, and I can’t make 140 anymore, so that means, hasta la vista, baby.”
Gatti’s trainer for the Alfonso Gomez fight was none other than Micky Ward, who embraced him like a blood brother when the interview concluded. Gatti then leaned into the arms of Amanda Rodrigues, the Brazilian beauty he married that same year.
For Gatti, the union with Rodrigues would provide a final twist of fate.
The preceding is an excerpt from Intimate Warfare: The True Story of the Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward Boxing Trilogy, by Dennis Taylor and John J. Raspanti, now available at Amazon.com.