Jan. 29, 2005, a snowy day in Philadelphia. I was in town to cover the Xavier basketball team facing one of the Atlantic 10 Philly teams. Either La Salle in glorious Tom Gola Arena or St. Joseph’s in Memorial Alumni Fieldhouse (nothing more than a high school gym, but one of my favorite arenas in the conference). I don’t remember which. It was an afternoon game, and I probably could have flown home that Saturday night. But when I made my travel plans a few months prior, I noticed the Xavier women were playing the Temple women in Philly the next afternoon. Normally, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have flown him Saturday night anyway.
But I knew there would be someone keeping me in town a little extra longer, someone who would guarantee a great Saturday night, somebody who would honor me with his presence, somebody who would drag me 45 minutes to Atlantic City. His name was Arturo Gatti.
Gatti, I think I can say, is my favorite fighter of all time. So many of his matches were drop-your-jaw incredible. There were the fights with Gabe Ruelas, Angel Manfredy, two with Ivan Robinson, three stunners with Mickey Ward. Look on You Tube, and you can find an incredible Gatti moment with your first click. He wasn’t the most talented fighter in the world – losses to Alfonso Gomez (the fight that whispered to Gatti that he was through as a pro), Ward and Manfredy prove that – but he was perhaps the most fun to watch (he did win two world titles, it should be noted). Gatti would be out of the fight, on the verge of taking a rest on the canvas for good, cut over both eyes, exhausted, hurt, dizzy, probably ready to vomit. And sometimes, he’d land that one punch on his opponent that would end the fight for good. Somehow, that opponent, not Gatti, was on the mat, unable to rise. Sometimes, Gatti would resist every reason in the world to quit and start fighting back. Take this for instance. Round nine in the first Ward fight. Probably the greatest round I’ve ever witnessed in one of the best fights I’ve ever seen (edged out, of course, by the first Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo match).
That was Gatti. Full of hurt and heart, trying to land blows of his own.
That’s why I wanted to stay over in Philadelphia one extra night. So I could drive to AC in a snowstorm to watch him box Jesse James Leija. I made my way over to Boardwalk Hall, found my seat in the sold-out arena and watched Gatti light up the night. Wasn’t a great fight, though there was an exciting knockout in the fifth round. But it was a pleasure just to watch him in his fifth-to-last fight. A legend on the slow decline, but a legend nonetheless.
Gatti died last weekend, allegedly strangled by his wife while drunkingly asleep on vacation in Brazil. I felt terrible when I heard. I feel terrible right now. I’ll treasure my own Gatti memory. I’ll try not to compare every other fighter to him, my favorite. They’d all come up short, anyway. RIP to one of the best.