It was not skill, but will, that elevated Arturo Gatti to superstar status.
Two years ago in July, one of boxing's leading attractions, Arturo Gatti departed from this world at age 37. To commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Canadian ring warrior, this installment of the "Golden Sports" column seeks to reflect on Gatti's legacy objectively from a business standpoint.
Gatti apparently does not belong to the legend category skill-wise, yet he has a large and devoted following, including in the Far East in China. His fascinated fans didn't care whether or not he is an elite caliber fighter, what they care was when he was fighting again, win or lose.
Boxing is a business, above all else, and when Gatti fought, you bought.
The ticket selling machine single-handedly revived boxing in Atlantic City after Mike Tyson moved his act to Las Vegas MGM Grand, repeatedly putting on electrifying shows from 1997-2005 and consistently selling out Boardwalk Hall.
Mr. Sellout was not only loved by the adoring fans, but by the TV networks as well.
HBO, the world's leading premium boxing network, developed a 12-year long love affair with Gatti, from 1995 until his retirement in 2007, televising 21 of his fights.
There have been quite a few skilled professional boxers in the history of the sweet science, but only a very few marquee pugilists could reach superstar status within the sport, people who perform on the most prestigious stages for the biggest money. Gatti was one of the rarities in the ring.
As a long-time fan of him and a China-based journalist who had covered his fights quietly for years in a language that is far from familiar in the boxing world, yet spoken by 1/4 of the population around the globe, in a region where professional boxing is at its infancy but is experiencing major shift, I’ve been pondering what made him such a great fighter business-wise?
Gatti Gave What The Fans Craved
Professional boxing, in essence, is not purely a sport, but an industry, which belongs to the cultural creative industry, like movie or music, aimed at maximizing its economic profits and social effects.
The boxing match performed by two boxers is a product that they created, used primarily for recreational purpose. Its monetary value, for the most part, rests on in what extent it can satisfy the market demands.
Why people go to watch boxing? Opinions differ. But what they generally craved was what Gatti exactly gave.
Action, taking punishment, spilling blood, knockdowns, comebacks, drama and sportsmanship, Gatti's fights had all the makings of a classic.
On the other hand, no matter how skillful a prize fighter is, if he fails to please the crowd, his fame will soon be drowned.
Style Clash Made Splash
There's an old saying that styles make fights. In the boxing market, a high quality commodity of a Hollywood-esque fight is not literally produced by one heroic figure, but by two engaging rival sluggers. When two stars with the clashing style clash, it will sure make a huge splash.
Before meeting with Micky Ward, the two-fisted Montreal warrior had had all the makings of a boxing superstar.
What he needed at the last stroke on his journey to superstardom was another epic fighter. Ward was The One.
His epic trilogy with Ward, two fights of which were named Fight of the Year by the prestigious Ring Magazine, not only won him the unofficial title of "the most exciting fighter in boxing", but also consolidated his status as boxing's "Human Highlight Film".
The first two wars ended with a 1-1 draw, with Gatti losing the first and gaining revenge in a classic second slugfest. The trademark battle of the drama king is the third and deciding fight, in which Gatti broke his right hand in the fourth round, and almost unbelievably fought on. Despite being floored in the sixth, he dominated the rest of the fight with his iron will to win on a unanimous decision.
There sure are numerous ins and outs involved in Gatti's rise to prominence from a commercial perspective, like building a demographic fan base, negotiating with cable networks, and rounding out stories to get maximum media exposure etc. But those are not the deciding factors that propelled Gatti to the famed status.
They were his will, and the thrills and chills he gave when the fans craved, that immortalized him in the business history of boxing.
(This is a reprint from TheSweetScience.com, a worldwide leader in boxing.)
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Zhenyu Li, a contributing columnist for a variety of the world's leading publications, authors the column "Golden Sports — Inside China's Sports Industry With Zhenyu Li", for Bleacher Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.