Gatti, Hill Selections Highlight Differences Between Boxing and Baseball Halls

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - JULY 14:  Arturo Gatti is revived after being knocked out by Alfonso Gomez in the seventh round of  their Welterweight fight on July 14, 2007 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

A guy with a career resume like Arturo Gatti would not get selected for the Hall of Fame if he played baseball. If Gatti were a baseball player, he'd be a guy like Bernie Williams, a good player who was front and center for some very big moments in the sport, but whose overall career numbers just don't quite add up to greatness.

Nice player, but he's only going to Cooperstown as another tourist paying a visit.  

In a sport like baseball, intangibles only mean so much when evaluating an individual's standing among the all-time greats. In the end the numbers always weigh more.

But boxing isn't baseball. In this sport the final numbers need to be put into context with the drama and intensity that was created while collecting them.

We call it the sweet science, but we all know the truth—that more often it resembles a brutal war. You don't play boxing, as the old timers have always said. It's a form of combat, with some specific rules designed to rein in the violence to make it safe enough to pass for good, sporting fun.

Boxers fight to win and to collect championship belts but beyond that, they fight for paying fans, for the ability to justify a big purse in exchange for their efforts. It is called prize fighting, after all.

When you talk to other fans about the all-time greats in baseball, you might remember a certain big play or two, but when it comes down to it, you are going to keep bringing back up the numbers, accumulated day by day, season after season. 

But when it comes down to talking about boxing, the big moments are what it is really all about. A flashy record is well and good, but the important question is always: how was it created?

What were the big moments in the ring?

When it came down to thrilling the fans, with creating high drama and never-to-be forgotten moments in the ring, very few in the sport's history surpass Arturo Gatti. There is a category of greatness he achieved that doesn't necessarily translate into a lot of belts collected or long, dominant reigns as a champion. 

And so on Monday, December 10, Arturo Gatti was announced as one of the selections for the International Boxing Hall of Fame Class of 2013. 

Gatti did achieve world title status in his career. He won the IBF Super Featherweight Championship from Tracy Patterson by unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden in December of 1995. During his run-up to the title he built a reputation as a wrecking crew, stopping 10 opponents in the first round and several more inside of three. 

He was probably at his pound-for-pound best when fighting at 130 or 135 pounds, weight classes where he was bigger than the majority of his opponents and therefore in perfect position to implement his bullying, aggressive style.

Nobody can deny that when fighting truly elite, world-class fighters he was over his head. Both Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather selected him as the perfect raging bull to showcase their superior matador skills.

But it was at moments like those when the fans loved him most of all. When thrown into the truly deep waters, Gatti was the kind of fighter who would struggle heroically to keep swimming as long as possible.

Against Oscar De La Hoya, when Gatti's corner had thrown in the towel to prevent him from taking any more punishment, a still fully conscious and visibly disappointed Gatti tried to wave off the ringside physician, before breaking into a set of jumping jacks to humor her, his trademark swollen-shut eye squinting as he smiled.  

No matter how bad it would get for him, Gatti could be counted on to keep coming forward, determined to land the big shot that would put him back in the fight, still seeming full of confidence that he still had a shot to win it. 

When matched against opponents of a similar mind and skill set Gatti routinely engaged in the kind of action-packed wars that are usually only seen in the movies. First one and then the other would take turns unloading on each other with the hardest hooks, uppercuts and overhands that they could muster. 

Indeed, if not for the epic drama of Gatti's three tilts with Irish Micky Ward, the movie franchise now based on the latter's life would likely not have come about. 

Four times Gatti was involved in The Ring magazine's Fight of the Year, two with Ward in 2002 and 2003 and once each with Gabe Ruelas in 1997 and Ivan Robinson in 1998. 

That means that four times Gatti participated in the fight recognized by the boxing bible as the most dramatically compelling of the year.

That's the kind of stat for which baseball doesn't have an equivalent. It is the kind of intangible greatness that puts a fighter like Gatti over the top and makes him a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame.

Former light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion Virgil Hill would also be a long shot for Cooperstown if we were able to convert his career into a baseball equivalent. In the first place, his history of failing performance-enhancing drug tests alone would probably keep him out.

After all, in baseball, it looks like just the strong suspicion will keep the best pitcher and position player of their eras out of the HOF: Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, respectively. And Virgil Hill was not a Clemens or a Bonds.

He's not even a Rafael Palmeiro. He's maybe a Bert Blyleven type: a guy who succeeded at a very high level for a long time, without ever exactly crossing over into "great" for any length of time.

So Hill's a borderline case that was banned in France for failing a drug test. But for whatever reason, these sort of things are deemed more forgivable in boxing than in baseball. 

A silver medalist on the famous 1984 Olympic squad, Hill held versions of the light heavyweight title for a decade. He started his career winning 30 straight, collecting the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship along the way.

In June of 1991 he faced all-time great Thomas Hearns and lost by unanimous decision. The Hitman was a former welterweight, but had no problem carrying 174 pounds on his lanky frame while outboxing Hill. 

Hill recovered and collected more belts. He won back the vacated WBA title by beating Frankie Tate by unanimous decision. He defended successfully nine times before adding the IBF strap to his collection via split decision over Henry Maske. 

But he dropped both belts his next time out to WBO champ Dariusz Michalczewski. The fight after that he was KO'd in four by Roy Jones Jr. 

Hill would later make a come back at cruiserweight, winning the vacant WBA "regular" world title, after Jean-Marc Mormeck was upgraded to "super" champion status. Hill would end up losing twice to the future Klitschko opponent, once by stoppage after eight and once by unanimous decision.

Hill was a pretty big star during the 1980s. I can remember watching one of his fights broadcast from his hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota. I am pretty sure Hill remains the biggest sports star that community has ever had to this day. 

Next summer the son of Bismarck will be inducted along with the sports legends, in Canastota, New York. 


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