On May 18, 2002, Arturo Gatti squared off against Micky Ward in one of the greatest fights that boxing fans had any right to hope for.
Neither man was a technical wizard by any means, but the fact that they were so hittable made their contest every bit as dramatic in real life as it looked on paper.
Both men were proven warriors going into the bout. Gatti had incredible fights with Wilson Rodriguez, Gabriel Ruelas and Ivan Robinson, and Ward had recently been involved with the 2001 Fight of the Year against Emanuel Augustus.
Both men had proved over and over that when the going got tough, they were capable of biting down on their mouthpiece and letting it all hang out. Putting two such men together seemed like it would yield the kind of result that would make it an instant nominee for Fight of the Year for 2002.
Once the fight was over, we knew that it had surpassed our expectations.
Before the bout, Jim Lampley talked with Larry Merchant about those expectations and the men who were generating them.
“Hopefully, it is significant,” said Merchant on HBO. “Hopefully it means that in addition to the best and the brightest, we’ll be bringing you more of the bravest and the boldest. To Gatti and Ward, the only title that means anything is 'warrior.' The only belts that mean anything are the ones they punch each other with. These are character actors who want starring roles—soldiers who want battlefield commissions.”
He then said: “As James Elroy has written, this is one of those fights that’s balls-to-the-wall.”
And that is exactly what it was, and more, it gave us perhaps the greatest Round 9 in the history of the sport, bar none.
Both men entered the ring wearing Cleto Reyes gloves, which are known for being the gloves of hard punchers—a clear indicator of the violence to follow. There was little in the way of false pretense as both men just seemed happy to be there in a fight that was gaining great attention for all the right reasons.
They were good guys about to give us a great fight, and that was worth all the fanfare in the world.
In the beginning rounds, Gatti had great success playing the role of boxer to Ward’s stationary slugger. Gatti would open up with combinations, and Ward would stand still—as if his feet were nailed to the floor—with his guard high and just taking the shots.
Then, Gatti would circle away, and Ward would begin his almost ponderous stalking, waiting and watching, almost like a spectator.
This saw Ward suffer a cut around his right eye in the very opening round, as Gatti outworked and outboxed him for the first two rounds. Ward managed to land a few body shots here and there, but Gatti was beginning to walk away with the contest after the first six minutes.
Round 3 saw a slight shift in the action in terms of what Ward was willing to accept without reprisal. Gatti was still the sharper fighter, landing well with both hands, but Ward was getting to the body more, slipping into that range and rhythm easier than before. No longer was Ward the passive aggressor; now, he was the aggressive stalker, letting both hands go and landing more than ever before.
In the corner, Gatti’s trainer Buddy McGirt admonished his fighter for taking unnecessary body shots, telling him to adhere to the clinical rather than his previous brawling history. Gatti was ahead three rounds to none, and like a good trainer, McGirt wanted to stretch that out as far as possible.
In Round 4, we learned what McGirt was worried about.
After taking numerous potshots from Gatti in the opening moments, Ward landing a thudding right hand that rocked Gatti’s head to the side with nearly two minutes left in the round. Gatti came back moments later with a spirited combination. Meanwhile, Ward went back to work on the body in addition to landing left hooks to the jaw.
Gatti was suddenly standing still a lot more than he had in previous rounds, and Ward was making the most of it, as both men spun and turned each other. Ward continued to land short, chopping punches to the head and hard shots to the body, while Gatti backed him off with hard combinations and powerful left hooks and right hands to the head.
With a little less than 30 seconds left in the round, Gatti caught Ward with a hard blow that was just above the cup, dropping him to the floor. Ward punched the canvas in anger and managed to climb back to his feet, as the referee deducted a point from Gatti for the low blow.
The round expired as Ward was resting, and both men went back to their corners the worse for wear. Ward was bleeding from his eye and nose and mouth, while Gatti had swelling around his right eye.
Both men came out hard for Round 5, and what a frame it was.
Ward continued to stalk Gatti around the cage, and the latter was now moving and brawling rather than boxing, exploding with combinations and then gliding away as far as Ward would let him. Gatti was letting his hands go and landing with hard combinations that would have felled just about anyone else in the division at the time.
Ward absorbed them all and kept marching forward, seeming to know his time would come—and it did inside of the first minute of the round, with Ward continuing to find a home for his left hook, which was landing hard to the head and then the body. Just as Gatti seemed hurt, he came roaring back with hard punches upstairs and down, keeping Ward a very honest man.
With a little more than a minute left, Ward found another favorable groove, raking Gatti with lefts and rights upstairs, over and over. The action up to that point inspired the late, great Emanuel Steward to draw comparisons to great fights of the 1950s, specifically Carmen Basilio vs. Tony DeMarco.
Gatti poured it on in an attempt to capture the round, landing hard, winging hooks to both sides of Wards head and ribcage. Then, with less than 20 seconds left, Ward seemed to catch Gatti napping for just a second, unloading a shockingly fast and pinpoint combination to the head that rocked Gatti and sent him reeling back against the ropes.
Ward put his foot on the gas pedal and spent the remainder of the round knocking Gatti from pillar to post, cranking his head back with hard uppercuts while digging vicious left hooks to the body.
Suddenly, Gatti’s right eye was bleeding, and he was stumbling from one combination straight into the next. When the round finally ended, he looked like a man who was just glad to be upright, and Ward looked a little surprised that he hadn’t put his man down.
As both men sat on their stools, they each had landed more than 50 percent of their punches in Round 5—a shocking statistic. McGirt implored Gatti to get out of the phone both to avoid unnecessary body punishment; this proved to be prophetic later in the fight.
Rounds 6 and 7 saw Gatti back on his bike, circling and moving, boxing well behind his jab and avoiding the pressure of Ward, who was still landing meaningful punches but simply not enough of them. Gatti was boxing well and landing more punches, gliding out of danger and winning both rounds big.
Round 8 saw Ward finally realize the range and urgency that had served him so well in Round 5, albeit near the very end of the frame.
He was aware that he was behind on points; he stalked with more purpose and was letting his hands go. Gatti continued to slip and move, firing off hard shots one moment and holding the next, perhaps to get a little breather.
Then, with 45 seconds left, Ward began to land again to the body and head with one and two punches at a time. Gatti was suddenly looking like a very tired man who couldn’t help but drift back into the phone booth.
Ward welcomed him with both fists, rocking him with a short right hand that sent him stumbling back across the ring. Ward followed and landed a left-right-left combination that forced Gatti to the ropes.
From there, Ward began to land with both hands to the head, but his left hooks to the body were brutal and would be very telling in Round 9.
As the round ended, Jim Lampley gave voice to what we were all feeling. “Oh my god,” he said. “Oh my goodness! What a fight!”
It’s hard to believe that with all the action we had seen to that point that we still had not seen it reach its crescendo. Little did we know that we were just one minute away from seeing arguably the greatest Round 9 in the televised history of the sport.
But when the bell rang, we found that out quickly.
Ward came out fast, swarming Gatti, who seemed to lean into his aggressor rather than back away. This led to Ward unloading his left hook with utter freedom, first to the head and then the body. Gatti tried to turn, but Ward was constantly on him, keeping him in the shoebox and unloading his hands.
Then, just 13 seconds into the round, Ward landed that same combination again—left hook to the head and then to the body—and Gatti staggered back, face twisted in pain, and dropped to a knee.
Just like that, he was down, and more than that, he was badly hurt with nearly a full round to go.
“This is it,” Steward said. “He’s not going to recover; it’s not like a head punch.”
Merchant: “He may not be able to recover.”
Steward: “I don’t think so.”
Gatti made it to his feet before the 10-count had been reached, but an expression of true pain was spread all over his face.
Instantly, Ward was back on the attack, throwing hard lefts to the body before unloading to Gatti’s unprotected head, which was getting knocking around the ring like a balloon as it drifted this way and that while his body stumbled and staggered under the assault.
For nearly a full 30 seconds after the knockdown, Ward conducted target practice on Gatti uncontested, firing at will, landing brutally hard hooks to the head and body and getting full extension on his shots. Gatti wasn’t rolling with the shots; he was getting knocked around by them like a man in a 10-car pileup. The fact that he managed to absorb so much punishment after such a damaging knockdown is nothing short of unbelievable.
The fact that he was able to mount a comeback after Ward had punched himself out by delivering a full minute of such abuse was the stuff of legend.
Gatti began to return fire, throwing nearly his entire body into brutal hooks, landing with both fists to the head and body and causing Ward’s head and body to buckle and jerk like a puppet on a string. Ward was rolling with most of the shots, but he was still eating some heavy leather, and the crowd could not believe it.
With 90 seconds to go, there were no boxers to be found in the ring—no lofty ideals about the wisdom of tactical retreat. There was only aggression and the will to endure toward the end of honest victory.
With 80 seconds remaining, Gatti pinned Ward against the ropes, letting both hands fly. Ward took the shots and waved Gatti in as if they were just beginning Round 1.
Gatti obliged him, Ward returned fire, and we still had nearly a full minute to go.
As Gatti tried to wade in again, Ward began to mount his second offensive of the round, catching Gatti as he came forward with a jarring right hand. He took the blow, only to eat another that seemed to take the role of aggressor right out of his hands.
From there, Ward began to let his left hook fly, digging to Gatti’s body and head, which in turn set Ward up for another hard uppercut-hook combination that landed flush. Gatti threw in return, but it was Ward who landed the hard combinations, once more putting Gatti on his heels and hurting him. He sagged against the ropes, and Ward poured it on, throwing both fists in a left-right pattern that never seemed to stop unless he decided to attack the body again.
Gatti’s head was being knocked side to side, time after time and near the 27-second mark Jim Lampley summed it all up: “Stop it, Frank [Cappuccino, the referee]; you can stop it at any time!”
Instead, Gatti managed to hold onto Ward, get some distance and from there survive to the 10-second mark, when he began to fire back with hard punches on Ward until the rounds end.
“This should be the round of the century!” said Steward as both fighters staggered back to their stools.
And he was exactly right. CompuBox numbers yielded yet another staggering statistic: Gatti had landed 42 of 61 power punches for a 69 percent connect rate, while Ward had landed 60 of 81 for a 73 percent connect rate.
After such an incredible round, the next and final frame passed without much incident; Gatti showed incredible recuperative powers, got back on his bike and used his superior boxing to keep Ward at bay and win the round, thus putting it firmly in the hands of the judges.
The judges awarded the victory to Ward by a narrow decision, but it really didn’t matter whom the judges declared as the winner; the fight was so great that it transcended the opinions of three men ringside and was destined to be a trilogy.
Of course, for boxing fans, the fights were only part of a well-known story. Both men became great friends, and that friendship lasted until Gatti’s untimely demise in 2007.
It was a classic fight at a time when the sport needed it most; it spoke to the best aspects of the sport, and it was, and always will be, a defining fight for both of those great men.
Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward: Fight of the Year for 2002.
Nothing more needs to be said.