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]
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."
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
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
His fiancee 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
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.
The tides almost stopped turning in the ninth, when a left hook
to the liver dropped the weary Gatti. Things looked so grim that
McGirt climbed onto the ring apron to throw in the towel, but
Gatti rose from his knees and, drawing from a hidden reservoir of
strength, fought on. He threw 100 punches to take the 10th and
almost pulled out a victory. He lost a majority decision by the
thinnest of margins.
Having failed to follow McGirt's instructions to box and move in
that fight, Gatti was a model student in the rematches. Rather
than trade shots, he danced invitingly beyond the flailing Ward's
reach, frustrating him. Though Gatti broke his right hand late in
the first rematch and mangled it so badly in the third fight of
the trilogy that he fought the last seven rounds one-handed, he
won both bouts comfortably on points. "Standing and swinging away
is fun," Gatti reasons. "But if I box, I create openings and make
it easy on myself."
Expect Gatti to box the unbeaten Dorin, an intractable banger
from Romania. "The only way he can hurt me is if he gets in
close," says Gatti, who will defend the title he won in a
12-round decision over Gianluca Branco last January. "I like
being the champ too much to get into another slugfest."
The only thing he loves more is golf, another merciless sport.
"It improves my focus, my patience," Gatti says.
On the links his most formidable foe has been his partner in
pain, Ward. Gatti hasn't won a match--yet. "I'll play till I beat
him," he says, grinning. "I'm a sore loser."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE FACING FACTS In his title defense this week, the oft-battered Gatti plans to use his head--and not just to catch punches.
COLOR PHOTO: AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES INSIDE JOB Gatti got the upper hand on Ward in the first of their toe-to-toe rematches (above) and won the rubber bout as well.
The bell would ring, and you'd think, THERE WAS NO WAY THE
FURIOUS ACTION COULD LAST ANOTHER ROUND--and yet it did.