Legendary Nights: Gatti vs. Ward, and a Bond Bigger Than Boxing

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Legendary Nights: Gatti vs. Ward, and a Bond Bigger Than Boxing
Image courtesy of HBO.

Micky Ward got the last shot in against his eternal rival Arturo Gatti. Paying his final respects at Gatti's funeral, the aging warrior tapped his old foe's coffin with one more left hand.

"I got you last," he says by way of explanation, a tear not quite daring to fall from his blue eyes.

I wasn't quite as strong. Neither were most others who appeared on camera discussing Gatti, the boxing Hall of Famer who died in mysterious circumstances in 2009.

HBO's Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward, picks up right where the Emmy Award-winning series left off in 2003. It's an emotional retelling of a special tale. It's the story, not just of the charismatic Gatti, but of his blue-collar foil Ward, the journeyman from Lowell, Mass., who refused to give up or give in.

And though tears flow freely, as it's bookended by visits to Gatti's beautiful crypt, Legendary Nights is not a maudlin story. Rather than a funeral, HBO has given us an Irish wake, a tribute to both a series of special fights and to a special man.

"I saw it in their eyes," Legendary Nights producer Bentley Weiner told Bleacher Report. "Everyone spoke of them with such emotion. And no one more than Micky. You could see in his eyes what the fights meant to him and what Arturo meant to him. He was a guy a lot of people loved. And a lot of people love Micky as well."

The idea that Micky Ward would one day be celebrated as one of the defining boxers of his generation would have been laughable when the first fight between the two men was made in May 2002. Ward was the opponent in that fight, an aging club fighter selected to get Gatti back on track after losing to Oscar De La Hoya in 2001. 

Instead of a tune-up, Gatti found himself in a war, one that would eventually last 30 incredible rounds. They were the kind of fights no one who witnessed them will ever forget. 

"They emptied themselves for us," HBO announcer Larry Merchant told Bleacher Report. "Gatti was a drama king. At the moment of greatest peril, he was able to turn the fights around."

Some, even at the time, dismissed the fights outright as mere entertainment. Neither, after all, was among the very best in the world. It's a claim Merchant can respect—and dismiss. 

"Many of the great drama kings of boxing might not have been the best fighters in boxing. Gatti didn't fill the arena in Atlantic City eight times in a row because people thought he was the best fighter in the world," he said. "They came to see what he had to offer. Sometimes you see a 3-2 or a 2-1 baseball game. And maybe you enjoyed the play in the field and the great pitching. But maybe you like an 8-7 game with the lead changing hands better?"

Most pundits and fans embraced the bouts with open arms. Today, the three bouts that took place over the course of 13 months are remembered as all-time classics. The first and third were named Ring Magazine Fight of the Year in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

The fighters, of course, had more than fading recollections to remember the fights by. They carried them on their bodies, accumulating scars and wounds that would never heal. For Gatti, it was a cyst under his rib cage, courtesy of a Ward left hook to the body that likely won him the first fight.

"I call it my Micky Ward lump," he told Esquire's Chris Jones in 2004.

Ward, likewise, didn't come through the bouts unscathed. No one could. Gatti shattered his eardrum with a right hand in the second fight. The third sent him to the hospital, with permanent eye damage. It was there that a curtain was slid back to reveal an unlikely companion—Gatti on a gurney of his own. True to form, and the kind of man he was, Gatti's first words to Ward were to the point and selfless.

"Micky," he asked. "You alright?"

The 30 rounds had changed the relationship that much, respect turning to friendship with each blow landed. In the 20th round, the two men hugged in the middle of the ring. Even I couldn't blame them. The fighters, like everyone else, knew they were involved in something bigger than the both of them. 

"The fights were very special," Weiner said. "But it was the bond between the two guys, one that grew after every fight and continued to grow when the fights were over is what this story is really about."

Promoter Kathy Duva tells HBO that when the trilogy started, it was your typical "us and them" boxing battle. Her guy, Gatti, against the other guy, Ward.

"By the time it ended," she said, "It was just us."

When Ward retired after losing the third fight, and the trilogy, he joined Gatti in his entourage. Eventually he would become his rival's trainer and drinking buddy. The two had finally come full circle. 

That the film ends at a mausoleum should tell you that this was no storybook ending. Gatti's untimely death hangs over every interview and every moment. But it never drains the energy out of the film. Instead, HBO has crafted a documentary that acknowledges Gatti's tragedy while also celebrating his life and legacy.

This is special television, well worth going out of your way to see. It's the perfect tribute to a series of fights that redefined the essence and heart of boxing. HBO has scored what neither fighter managed in their great trilogy—an absolute knockout.

 

Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward debuts Saturday, Oct. 19, at midnight ET/PT on HBO. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports Writer. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were gathered first hand.

 

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