Live fast, die young: A champion falls

I always just sort of had this feeling that Arturo Gatti would die young, but it doesn’t make it any less stunning when it actually happens.
Iconic Gatti
Hearing about his death on Saturday was one of those times where you simply don’t know what to do next. He’s been my favorite fighter since high school, when about 15 years ago, I saw him beat Tracy Harris Patterson for his first title.

Gatti was never the most talented boxer, not the most successful. But he was by far the most entertaining. Even after he got with trainer Buddy McGirt and stepped up his fundamentals, Gatti’s defense always took a back seat to his offense; he’d take three punches to connect with one. But his determination and threshhold for pain made his fights must-see wars, so much so that I went to three of his fights in Atlantic City, including the final two of his near-legendary wars with Micky Ward.

It’s no wonder people loved him. Gatti was the everyman, with the name and look of a young mafia don, the swagger of a bullfighter and the courage of a firefighter. He was known just as much for his propensity to party as his prowess in the ring. Gatti liked fast cars, fast women, fast punches and fast times. He’d go out to party still bleeding after one of his epic ring wars.

Watching Gatti fight in New Jersey was the boxing equivalent of a Springsteen concert. When AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” hit and he hit the ring, it was a surreal moment. Though he was a Canada native, the Jersey City resident was as beloved a Garden State sports figure as there was, ranking up there with Brodeur, Simms and Kidd. Living in North Jersey, you heard stories about where Gatti hung out, where he trained — the Ringside pub in Jersey City satisfied both categories. I knew people in my town who were friends of his; one got Gatti to make out an autographed picture to me. A few years later, I got a picture with Gatti that I treasure.

The Ward fights were an opportunity to see two athletes form an indelible bond over the most strenuous of competition. With no titles on the line, the two battled each other relentlessly for 30 rounds, then lay beside each other in hospital beds afterward as friends. Ward retired following the third fight, and then helped train Gatti. To a thunderous ovation, they hugged at the end of their third fight — before the final round. I’d never seen anything like it. Their relationship was something to behold. I was so proud of both of them.

As a result of the Ward trilogy, Gatti blew up big. He became a big draw on TV and in arenas, got some big payouts. He fought Mayweather — a painful one to watch, Gatti was so outclassed that he took a savage beating and for once couldn’t give one back. But he got paid, and everyone could respect that.

As entertaining as Gatti’s fights were, I was glad when his career ended. I didn’t want to see Gatti — who was charming and funny — follow the path of so many others whose brain and speech patterns didn’t work quite right after their career, especially considering his breakneck style. When he lost his final couple of fights and called it quits, I was relieved. It was time for him to stop.

With the drinking, the past drug issues, the women… it was hard to imagine a life outside the ring for Gatti. It simply never seemed that this was someone who was destined to live until 75, 80 years old. Ironic that one of those young, crazy women that Gatti was predisposed to would end his life. There’s so much yet to be answered regarding his passing at just 37 years old, but thank God he didn’t die in the ring. I feared that he would.

The day he died, I happened to drive by Ringside that afternoon. The lot was filled with cars, though they were likely there not to pour out a drink in Gatti’s honor, but for the Ultimate Fighting card that night. Even at Gatti’s main haunts, time simply moves on without him. It’s the way the world works.

But those who watched Gatti fight will always remember his heart. The man’s heart will always be an inspiration, and he leaves an indelible legacy.

Rest in peace, champ.



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