Sunday July 12th, 2009

Arturo Gatti won't be remembered by anyone for his superior boxing skills. His name won't be recalled for the handful of titles he won over the course of a 16-year career. And, to be fair, Gatti won't be canonized as one of the greatest fighters in his weight class. But he will be remembered for one thing, something perhaps no fighter will ever be able to match.

His heart.

Before boxers became movie stars and before fighters were more concerned with avoiding punishment than inflicting it on their opponent, their was Arturo Gatti, a 5-7 human cyclone who regularly thrust his skull in harms way, who broke his hand five times in his career and who once said that he "liked to bleed." Gatti, who was found dead in a Brazil hotel room on Saturday, was a warrior's warrior, a relentless puncher who was never happier than when he was standing toe-to-toe with an opponent -- any opponent -- and trading haymakers.

His signature moments came in an epic trilogy of fights with Mickey Ward, the first of which is considered by many boxing historians to be among the greatest fights of all time. In that fight -- a furious flurry of fists that nearly killed both men -- Gatti was battered and bruised in ways that few fighters allow themselves to be today. His lone motivations was winning, and despite dropping that first fight in the narrowest of decisions he rebounded to take the next two from Ward in decisive fashion.

"You can kill him and kill him and kill him," Ward once said. "But he'll just get back up and get back up and get back up."

It's unfortunate that many people will remember Gatti as the shell of the fighter who limped his way to two lopsided defeats at the end of his career; the first to welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir in 2006 and the second to journeyman Alfonso Gomez in '07. Because Gatti was so much more than that. In his prime, Gatti was as flashy as Oscar De La Hoya, pounding opponents -- he won 26 of his first 27 fights, 13 in the opening round -- and captivating crowds with his heavy handed style and engaging personality. In Atlantic City, Gatti's adopted home where he fought many of his fights, Gatti was as beloved as De La Hoya in Los Angeles or Julio Cesar Chavez in Mexico. The blue-collar south Jersey crowd admired him for his courage and loved him for his willingness to absorb a big shot if it meant he could deliver an even bigger one.

His peers admired him too, as several attested to in a 2004 Sports Illustrated story:

He reminds me of me," said former middleweight champ Jake LaMotta. "He takes a lot of shots to the head and doesn't care."

"He's a gutsy fighter of action who thinks his way through a match in a way you don't see anymore," said Tony DeMarco, who became king of the welterweights in '55. "Nobody today is tougher than Gatti. Nobody."

"He slugs it out as if he's in a barroom: Whatever's in front of him, he pounds down," said former light heavyweight champ Dwight Qawi. "He's got finesse, but [you wouldn't know it looking at] his face."

In a few years, Gatti's name will begin to fade. His record (40-9) is far from exceptional and the next generation of boxing fans will only be able to measure the greatness of Gatti if they choose to dig a little deeper. Here's hoping they do; they will surely find something special.

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