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Oct 16

Hall of mirrors

Before the obligatory Gatti hospital tripAdmittedly, I used to hold the concept of the Hall of Fame in the highest esteem. When I was a kid reading as much about baseball as I possibly could, Hall of Famers were flawless demigods from a thousand years ago who pitched comets and swung bolts of lightning.

My parents took me on a pilgrimage to Cooperstown when I was in fifth grade, and I dutifully took pictures of the plaques for Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and personal favorite Ty Cobb. As recently as a few years ago, I vowed to be in Canton when Dan Marino was enshrined into the football Hall.

As have many of my stances, my position has changed quite a bit over time. Marino’s big day came and went; I never even made the conscious decision that it was too much of an effort to make the trip from New Jersey. I spent a couple days in Springfield, Mass., for a prep basketball tournament last winter and declined to check out the Basketball Hall, though I drove by it several times. (It was really cold outside.)

The baseball Hall, in particular, seems more and more laughable to me, a morality-soaked tug of war between old school Murray Chass types and new-age Dave Cameron-ites. Omar Vizquel is probably going to make it to Cooperstown, while Barry Bonds probably won’t, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Plus, I’ve gotten to know a few baseball Hall of Fame voters, and though some are sharp, by no means does that apply to all of them. One in particular, I wouldn’t rely on to vote on what I have for lunch. For the most part, I tend to laugh off most Hall of Fame debates – that don’t involve Bonds – as the harmless rantings of fans, and fans with press passes.

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And yet, given how little I typically care about this sort of thing, I was surprised to find how irritated I was over the recent referendum on Arturo Gatti’s career as a result of his posthumous placement on the ballot for the Boxing Hall of Fame.

I’ve seen several writers extol Gatti’s many virtues, while stopping short of admitting he was a great fighter. I’ve bristled at the pervading and patronizing notion that in lieu of actually inducting the man, it would be a fine compromise merely to take his robe and some of his gear and display it. “You don’t have to be in the Hall of Fame to have a presence at the Hall of Fame,” and such. Just throw some Gatti stuff in the corner.

I’m aware Gatti wasn’t great in the way Floyd Mayweather is great. Gatti was far from unbeatable, as evidenced by how widely outclassed he was by Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya. He lost fights he should have won, and he got beat up even in victories during which he should have coasted based on his talent level. Gatti’s legacy was cemented in his trilogy against tough-as-nails but past-his-prime Micky Ward, someone he should never have lost a fight to, and probably should not have even been in danger against.

But that was the double-edged beauty/sadness with Gatti: He was simultaneously a gifted fighter and the everyman, skilled enough to eschew brawling but unable to resist his natural tendencies. Likewise, he was charming and handsome, yet had demons under the surface that he never quite overcame.

There’s no point in glossing over my high level of critical bias: I’ve loved Gatti since I was a kid, and I wrote an ode to his legacy a few months ago at The Classical. A picture of the two of us randomly ended up on his Wikipedia page; they cropped me out.

And Gatti-Ward 3 was the best boxing match I’ve attended, which won’t change. It wasn’t so much the action – which, don’t get me wrong, was stupendous – but the feeling that I was witness to something truly special.

Still amazes me a decade later

Besides Piazza’s 9/11 home run, there’s no moment in my sports-watching life that affected me as much as seeing Gatti and Ward embrace before the 30th and final brutal round. There was something perversely beautiful about the mutual respect the two men cultivated, magnified five seconds later when they resumed beating the living hell out of each other. That last round constituted a three-minute victory lap soundtracked by a standing ovation, the night having become a feel-good celebration of the realization that a sport rotted away by nonsense still had a beating heart.

I asked ESPN’s Dan Rafael on Twitter how an institution that inducted Sylvester Stallone could potentially not have a home for Gatti, a champion in the ring and an ambassador through his story and style. He responded that it’s apples and oranges; Stallone was inducted as an “observer” for the influence he had on the sport. Which begs the question: If they’re putting people in for contributions to the sport, why should that not apply to Gatti simply because he also happened to be a boxer?

I discussed for The Classical the guilt I felt over the very things I loved about Gatti eventually helping to perpetuate his self-destruction. That makes it so much more heartening to see his legacy frequently commemorated on significant anniversaries – his birthday, the Gatti-Ward fights, the day he died. The great hope for the Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado fight this past weekend was that it would be “another Gatti-Ward.” (It was very good, but that would be like saying Mike Trout is “another DiMaggio.”)

Gatti is never far from anyone’s mind because typically, he’s the best thing they’ve ever seen in the sport. I don’t think the number of people who became boxing fans because of Gatti is insignificant. Inducting Gatti into the Hall of Fame would be the ultimate way to pay his legacy back for the vicarious thrills we took watching him put his livelihood on the line time and again.

And if it means this much to me, a longtime fan who only met Gatti one cherished time, I can only imagine what it would mean to his loved ones, who deserve a day like that to be reminded that his pain was far from in vain.

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Yet, there’s a part of me that can’t get past the grandstanding reticence of certain boxing writers to vote for Gatti, leading me to believe he’s not as appreciated as he should be, despite all the ready-made breathless column leads he provided.

I also wouldn’t want his induction to lead to the picking apart of his incredible career. I mean, he did lose nine fights, but he also won championships at three weight classes and participated in four Fights of the Year.

Then there’s the sense that not only was Gatti the best thing about boxing while he was doing it, but that he rose above the sport in which he plied his trade, a ray of sunshine into a caved-in mine shaft.

And taking all of that into account, I kind of feel like if the boxing tastemakers don’t want Arturo Gatti in its Hall of Fame, maybe that’s honestly how it should be.

He’s probably too good for it.

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