Welcome to another edition of What If, the boxing column that always goes the full championship distance:
When Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini killed Duk Koo Kim in a fourteen-round televised execution on November 13, 1982, the major boxing sanctioning bodies used that as the catalyst to reduce championship fights from 15 rounds to 12. The WBC acted immediately; their first 12-round title fight happened only four months later, while the WBA followed suit in 1987 and the IBF, the last holdout, adopted a 12-round championship distance on June 3, 1988.
There has been some talk in boxing-fan circles that championship fights lose a certain something by cutting out what have historically been the rounds that separate legends from paper champions. Had Rocky Marciano fought in an era of 12-round fights, he would not have retired undefeated; he was losing on the scorecards against Ezzard Charles after the twelfth round and won that fight by virtue of coming on strong in the old-school championship rounds to earn the unanimous decision victory.
Similarly, on June 18, 1941, Billy Conn nearly became the heavyweight champion of the world, leading Joe Louis after twelve rounds of their title fight. Unfortunately for Conn, Louis knocked him out in the 13th round to retain his title; Conn would lose the rematch by 8th-round KO, consigned to be remembered more for his exploits at light heavyweight than atop the glamour division of pugilistic fame.
So let’s take a jumping-off point that I alluded to two episodes ago in this What If series when I talked about Salvador Sanchez, and let’s also follow the same conceit in that article that Sanchez remains alive and consider this article a sort of sequel. To catch up those who missed it, my rationale for a Mancini-Sanchez fight in the slot reserved in the real world for the death of a Korean fighter and a boxing tradition:
“The thing is, some no-name Korean wasn’t going to stand a chance against a money fight, even if the Korean in question was the WBA’s #1 contender. The WBA allowed the fight to go on as an optional defense for Mancini, mandating that the winner would face Kim no later than May 13, 1983, six months out from this fight.”
Over the past thirty years, what would the greatest 15-rounders have been? In chronological order:
April 6, 1987: Marvin Hagler KO15 Sugar Ray Leonard
The fight that sent Marvin Hagler into retirement was an interesting exercise in Ray Leonard prolonging what many before the fight believed to be inevitable. Leonard had been put into a brief retirement by a detached retina in 1982 and fought only once between that incident and this fight, a win over journeyman Kevin Howard that Leonard himself described as an embarrassment as prelude to returning to his retired status.
At any rate, someone must have signaled to Marvin Hagler that something smelled funny about the way this fight was being judged, because in the 13th round Hagler, fearing that he would not get a fair shake from the judges and possibly wearing down a bit from having been arguably out-boxed throughout the contest, started bull rushing Sugar Ray into the corner, and Leonard howled at referee Richard Steele that Hagler had thumbed him in the eye.
Whether it was malice, accident, or just the vagaries of human health, Leonard lost a good amount of his vision as a result of the attack that worsened throughout the remainder of the championship rounds. Rather than a travesty of a decision that sent Hagler into retirement disgusted with the state of boxing judging, the other pride of Brockton, Massachusetts (along with Rocky Marciano) would go on to break Carlos Monzon’s record for successful defenses of the middleweight title, including epic duels with the great fighters of the late 1980s and early 1990s that we’ll get to in a future installment of this series.
Point of the matter is that the chaos butterfly was able to set right what judge Jose Juan Guerra put wrong with his 118-110 scorecard in favor of Sugar Ray Leonard on that night in 1987, all made possible by the application of the championship distance to what was already an all-time classic fight.
November 10, 1993: Pernell Whitaker UD15 Julio Cesar Chavez
One of the greatest robberies in boxing history came when Julio Cesar Chavez inexplicably escaped with his hide after twelve rounds of boxing where the slick, polished Pernell Whitaker showed the world why he is one of the greatest pure defensive fighters of all time. Guys like Floyd Mayweather and Juan Manuel Marquez make their money off the counter-punch, and Mayweather has a case among the all-time greats in that style, but “among the all-time greats” and “the greatest of all-time” is not just a Yoda-like exercise in choice of word order.
You want Yoda? Try this. Try to punch Whitaker, you will. Hit him, you will not.
Very simply, Don King strong-armed this fight and rigged it in his man’s favor, and even the crooked judges could only manage a majority draw for Chavez at the 12-round distance, as the scores read 113-115, 115-115 (twice) after that final round.
From the tenth round onward, Whitaker was in complete control. Chavez was frustrated and confused, unable to find his opponent and wilting from the constant peppering of jabs and attacks to the body combined with referee Joe Cortez being, as usual, completely lost as far as maintaining order after Whitaker caught Chavez cleanly with a peanut butter and knuckle sandwich to the groin back in the sixth.
Even a bribed judge couldn’t see the last three rounds any other way than the obvious. While Whitaker was never a power puncher and therefore couldn’t deliver a proper coup de grace worthy of the still-strong chin of then-unbeaten Chavez (Chavez would not suffer at the hands of a power-punching opponent until he ran face-first into the fists of Oscar De La Hoya in 1996), the total domination on the CompuBox scoring was precisely reflective of the total domination in the ring.
When the final decision in the 15-rounder was announced, the only complaint was that the scores were closer than the fight. 145-140, 145-142 (twice) meant that Pernell Whitaker not only kept his welterweight belt, but avoided being an unintentional lightning rod for boxing’s continued loss of credibility as a sport. The only true downside to the 15-round fight was that the world was deprived of yet another opportunity to add a count of Grand Theft Boxing Match to Don King’s rap sheet.
As for Chavez, he turned out just fine; just as he knew he got away with one with a draw in the prime timeline, in the alternate timeline he knew he lost fair and square—even a man as prideful as the great fighter was not blinded by the obvious. He came back at his career, knocking out Andy Holligan at 140 pounds for a belt three months later and continuing right on his merry prime-timeline way.
May 18, 2002: Micky Ward KO14 Arturo Gatti
Pardon the mental gymnastics required to get this to 15 rounds and just work with me here.
After Micky Ward beat Shea Neary to capture the WBU junior welterweight crown in what would have been 2000’s Fight of the Year if not for Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera putting on a monster of a show in quite possibly the greatest junior featherweight contest of all-time, the title itself bounced around a bit before first Jason Rowland and then Ricky Hatton held onto the title. If one is being generous, it made Micky Ward a world champion, but if one is that generous, please let the Pope know so that the Catholic Church can beatify that person upon his demise.
Meanwhile, Arturo Gatti, fresh off of getting smashed by Oscar De La Hoya in 2001, followed that fight up with a demolition of Terron Millett, who had himself been the IBF junior welterweight champion of the world before running into Zab Judah, who would then comically lose the title by knockout against Kostya Tszyu in the infamous flop-around-like-a-fish knockdown that led Jay Nady to call that fight in two rounds.
People often forget that the “biggest” fight on May 18, 2002 wasn’t Ward-Gatti I. The fight that impacted the championship stage was Tszyu’s defense of the IBF 140-pound belt against Ben Tackie on that same night.
So, with Tszyu-Tackie in one corner and the IBF’s need to find a suitable challenger for their champion in the other corner, Ward-Gatti I was elevated to a title eliminator, the winner to be given a title shot later in the year. After all, Micky Ward had once challenged for that title (a loss to Vince Phillips in 1997), and Gatti had beaten a man who was once the champion (Millett, who was the champion through 1999.) In keeping with the IBF’s long-standing policy of setting title eliminator distances as if they themselves were title fights, Ward-Gatti was scheduled for 15 rounds, with Earl Morton (who officiated the second and third prime-timeline bouts between Ward and Gatti) rather than Frank Cappuccino tabbed to officiate the contest, the IBF believing that Cappuccino was not properly equipped to handle the mayhem that would surely ensue in the ring with two action-oriented fighters set to square off.
The first nine rounds of the fight went chalk, exactly as they had in the prime timeline. Gatti was penalized in Round 4 for a low blow; Round 9 was quite possibly the greatest three minutes of boxing in the history of the sport.
Where the fight diverged was at the start of Round 10. Rather than the confusion that ensued when Cappuccino mistakenly believed that the fight was over before reversing course and allowing the tenth round to play out, Earl Morton knew the score and set the tenth round to its full distance. Ward came out on the attack, looking to land his signature hook to the body and close the show while reducing his punch rate from the previous round in an effort to conserve some strength if his opponent stood up to the onslaught. Gatti, having nearly punched himself out in the ninth and yet aware that allowing Ward to regain his strength would surely end badly for him, pressed relentlessly, attacking Ward to the head and body, coming dangerously close to straying low enough to cost himself another point on the scorecards. For three minutes the fevered pace of the fight continued, both men even landing punches after the bell as Morton had about as much success separating the fighters as he would trying to break up a fight between feral dogs.
The madness continued into Round 11. Any game plan Arturo Gatti had to even think about trying to strategize and box went out the window after a left hook to the body that for the rest of time nobody who ever sees it will be able to figure out how he stood up to it. The look on his face veered wildly between disbelief, anguish, and fury, the punch having at least for the short term seemed to ignite precisely the opposite effect as intended. A vicious flurry had Ward backed up against the ropes, but just as the previous two rounds had gone, each man took it in turn to fire salvo after salvo of violence upon an opponent who would eat the shots then storm back when the other man began to tire. Back and forth the fight went, virtually impossible for any sane man to score, all skill having gone out the window as the fight descended into an animalistic brawl and orgy of violence the likes of which the world may not have ever seen in a boxing ring.
Round 12 saw Arturo Gatti try to out-Ward Micky Ward, aiming to once and for all take the body out from under his opponent. This in turn led to a crushing punch that landed right to the groin of Micky Ward. Arturo Gatti lost another point, and the tone in Earl Morton’s voice made clear that another such attack would disqualify the New Jersey-based fighter in his effort to defeat the man from Lowell, Massachusetts in front of him.
Micky Ward took the entire five minutes to recover. Fans sat on the edge of their seats, and the HBO crew seemed to turn on Arturo Gatti, expressing a distaste for the idea that such an all-time great fight could end on something as unseemly as a foul that Jim Lampley himself seemed to believe was intentional. It wasn’t—Ward himself, in the post-fight interview, would be conciliatory and say that “things happen when you try to hit the body” when asked if he thought the shot was dirty—but the coordinated attack to the body came off to some in attendance as a man beginning to feel desperate and resorting to extreme measures.
As the 13th round began, Harold Lederman, who had the fight 85-84 for Ward after nine rounds, revealed his scores; he gave the tenth to Ward, the eleventh to Gatti, and the twelfth 10-8 including the point deduction, leaving the score 104-101 for Micky Ward. If the judges in attendance had the scores similarly distributed, it was time for Arturo Gatti to at least knock his opponent down if not out if there was to be any hope of victory.
Ward was still smarting from the low shot in the 12th, but Gatti could not press his advantage for fear of being disqualified. The fight devolved once again into headhunting, and a combination that combined a Leonard-like penchant for shoe-shining with Gatti’s own tendency to not know subtlety if you rabbit-punched him with it sent Micky Ward to the canvas as he either took a knee or wilted and fell out of sheer self-preservation.
In any event, Micky Ward rose at the count of four with 84 seconds left in the round, took the remainder of the eight count from Earl Morton, and survived an additional set of shots from Gatti before once again Ward was rescued purely by the fatigue of his opponent. The last thirty seconds had Emanuel Steward wondering aloud in the presence of the HBO audience whether either man would even have the strength to come out for the last two rounds, leading Lampley to ask if perhaps the distance might be more than anyone could ask out of an action fight due to the pure limits of human endurance.
Whatever the commentary on stamina may have revealed, it was nothing compared to the most revelatory act of all, namely what happens when an exhausted man is hit with the most purified expression of one-punch knockout power (just ask Alfonso Sanchez) in the sport. One final rising hook placed right on the liver of Arturo Gatti finished what by all rights of gods and men should have occurred way back in the ninth round. Gatti came as close as any non-cartoon character can to actually having his upper torso separated from the lower half of his body by the force of a punch so vicious that one wonders from where it was summoned.
Finally, Mark Beiro announced the particulars to the audience. At 54 seconds of the fourteenth round, your winner by way of knockout: “Irish” Micky Ward. A fight that in the prime timeline was easily the Fight of the Year became one of those fights that people instantly bring up when you ask them about the greatest fight of all-time. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we witnessed something special that night, and it was made possible at least in part by being scheduled for 15 rounds, something that would never have been a glint in a promoter’s eye had not a chaos butterfly spared the life of Duk Koo Kim twenty years before.
Arturo Gatti would retire after the fight; Micky Ward, after getting handily knocked out in three rounds by Kostya Tszyu and looking every bit like he had left his last ounce of strength in the ring on that fateful night in May, would follow suit. Meanwhile, the boxing world would forever remember the clash.
NEXT WEEK: You like boxing? You like alt-history? You want a little more alt-history in with your boxing? Well, have we got a deal for you. Next week begins a three-part series that starts with the question of “what if Max Schmeling won the second fight with Joe Louis?” and completely changes the course not only of boxing history, but of World War II itself, all without killing Adolf Hitler because let’s face it, that would be amateur-night stuff. Forget chaos butterflies; this one is going to be a Biblical swarm of chaos locusts. You don’t want to miss it.
LATER: Coming October 14: “What if Marvin Hagler Beat Sugar Ray Leonard?”
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series for The Boxing Tribune and contributes occasional features in the “prime” timeline as well. He covered ESPN Friday Night Fights for this publication from 2011-13. Fan mail, hate mail, and discussions of the comparative merits of Hearts of Iron II and Panzer General can be sent to email@example.com. And yes, this was mainly an extended excuse to write about Ward-Gatti I, thanks for asking.