by Fox Doucette
Arturo “Thunder” Gatti and “Irish” Micky Ward put on what is, for your columnist’s money, the greatest fight of the twenty-first century so far; better than Corrales-Castillo, better than the Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez fights, better than Matthysse-Molina, and for damn sure better than the “Fight of the Century”, Mayweather-Pacquiao. Ward-Gatti I, on May 18, 2002, was quite possibly in pure terms of the action in the ring one of the top two or three fights of all time. It didn’t have the cultural import of Ali-Frazier nor did it have the pure technical mastery of battle that was the hallmark of Sugar Ray Robinson’s two epic wars with Carmen Basilio in 1957 and ’58, each the Fight of the Year in those respective years.
But what if it never happened? After all, Arturo Gatti was on a different level from Micky Ward in terms of his place in the hierarchy of the junior welterweight division—indeed, once his trilogy with Ward was complete, Gatti’s very next fight kicked off a yearlong reign as junior welterweight champ in the WBO that came to an end only when he ran face-first into an in-his-prime Floyd Mayweather and got the crap kicked out of him, never again to threaten the championship ranks.
This is especially worth the ask because Gatti sacrificed a great deal of himself in the ring with Micky Ward—no fighter can go through what those two went through without coming out the other side having closer to 300 rounds on the odometer than thirty in terms of wear and tear rather than pure time spent in the ring. With that in mind, we begin with:
May 18, 2002: Arturo Gatti W12 Kostya Tszyu
In the prime timeline, Tszyu fought Ben Tackie for the IBF junior welterweight strap and took a 12-round unanimous decision in what would have been a much more talked-about fight if it hadn’t been on the same night as…well…the greatest action fight of all time.
Here, however, the IBF took notice of Gatti’s performance against former champion at 140 Terron Millett in January and decided that if Gatti’s people were able to arrange the bout, the belt would be on the line.
When talks with Ward’s camp fell through, mostly over share of the take since Gatti knew he had a title shot in his back pocket and got greedy with the percentages in what would make great television but not much else, HBO stepped in and, looking to fill a fight date, offered a sizeable chunk of change for the TV-friendly Gatti to fight on their air in that May 18 time slot.
What’s more, the IBF was not the only player in this game—Tszyu also held the WBA and WBC belts as well as the Ring Magazine “undisputed” championship belt. This fight was not some paper-champion backyard contest.
In the prime timeline, Jim Lampley, Emanuel Steward, and Larry Merchant made mention of how Gatti had tried to evolve his style to be more of a boxer before Ward dragged him into the war that the fight became.
Kostya Tszyu is not Micky Ward. Tszyu thought he could out-box Gatti, but what he wasn’t prepared for was the Chinese mustard that Gatti brought free of charge with every punch. Trainer Buddy McGirt worked with Gatti in training camp and in sparring on keeping the punches crisp and strong while simultaneously avoiding making himself too easy to hit while pulling his fists back after a combination, and by the third round, Gatti had done to Tszyu what Ward did to Gatti—he’d taken a guy who wanted to win the fight with his technical skill and dragged him into a brawl.
Gatti dropped Tszyu three times—once in the sixth, once in the eighth, and once damn near grabbing the KO as a frustrated Kostya Tszyu walked smack into a counter hook midway through the twelfth round, which forced him to spend the last ninety seconds of the fight trying to survive when he should have been trying to get a knockout of his own.
On the cards, it wasn’t a contest. Gatti won by counts of 118-107 (twice), 117-108, and seized the undisputed championship at 140 pounds.
January 4, 2003: Arturo Gatti KO3 DeMarcus Corley
Nobody knew in 2003 that WBO 140-pound champion DeMarcus “Chop Chop” Corley was only a year away from his long, slow decline into gatekeeper and professional-loser status (Corley, since the win over Randall Bailey in the prime timeline on this date that was his last-ever win as a world champion, is a you-gotta-be-kidding-me 14 wins and 21 losses, with most of the wins coming against nobodies in such illustrious locales as Kazakhstan and a venue in Bellevue, Washington better known for hosting the first few Penny Arcade Expo video game conventions and the Microsoft Developers’ Conference than any significant boxing events.)
Of course, at the time, Corley had the one belt that Gatti didn’t have, and that was motivation enough to make the fight, as there were more belts with fancy metal hardware in the middle of them on offer than at a Texas chili cookoff.
The fight? Well, let’s just say that Arturo Gatti in his prime was a fair step up from Randall Bailey, a guy who somehow managed a four-fight run as a world titlist without ever fighting anyone who could seriously be spoken of as a world champion. His power was an easy antidote to anything Corley wanted to do in there, and Gatti knew it; he was less a boxer on this night as a guy who just wanted to smack someone around like a piñata, and so it came to be that candy came out of Corley (and also blood, lots of blood, from a cut over his right eye opened up by a punch in round one) after only seven minutes of fisticuffs in total.
The phrase “undisputed champion”, however, has a tendency to attract unsavory characters who want a piece of that action, and we get an acceleration in time, as the guy who was at the time the Superman of the lightweight division decided to put on five pounds and try his hand and his 29-0 record against a guy who was in many ways a bigger version of the guy, Jose Luis Castillo, he’d just beaten in consecutive title fights. Indeed, it would come to pass, as…
April 19, 2003: Floyd Mayweather Jr. KO6 Arturo Gatti
This was a clinic. Just as in the prime timeline, Mayweather’s masterful boxing ability and deceptive power (at this point in his career, Mayweather had 20 knockouts in 29 pro fights) proved too much for Gatti, who not only had no solution for Mayweather’s defense but who, when he tried to become more aggressive, simply hastened his own demise.
The fight was a slaughter, and Floyd Mayweather showed up ahead of schedule for his title reign at 140 pounds, en route to a Hall of Fame career and nearly 50 wins by the time he got deep into his thirties.
For Gatti, it was a moment to question just what his place in the boxing world was. Gatti took a year off before coming back in the best shape of his life, back at lightweight, beating up a few fringe guys to get his feet under him before making one of the most fascinating fights boxing would see:
May 7, 2005: Diego Corrales W-SD12 Arturo Gatti
Talks with Jose Luis Castillo’s people had fallen through, and the WBO was pressing Corrales to fight someone—anyone—in defense of his 135-pound title, since Corrales had not fought since the previous August, when he defeated Acelino Freitas in the fight that solidified Diego as a legitimate world champion.
Arturo Gatti, trading on reputation and on a string of wins over fringe guys, got the title shot.
What ensued was…well…the greatest action fight of all time. All pretense of defense was abandoned by both guys almost from the opening bell, as Gatti came out throwing bombs and hitting Corrales more or less at will, all while as soon as it became Diego’s turn to punch, it was a Newtonian equal and opposite reaction. The CompuBox numbers were damn near off the charts. Gatti threw 105 punches a round, landing a “seriously?” 37, while Corrales averaged 35 out of 93 but threw more power shots compared to Gatti, still the better boxer, working more off of his jab. Put it together and nearly 2400 punches were thrown by the two fighters, over eight hundred of them landing.
Gatti went down from a shot to the head in the fourth and a shot to the body in the ninth, the latter of which nearly ended the fight before Thunder rose out of nowhere at the count of nine to beat what would have been the last word uttered by Tony Weeks, “ten”, in the fight.
Corrales went down twice in the tenth before not only surviving but mounting a counter-attack that may not have swayed the 10-7 round on the judges’ scorecards but did ensure he would live to fight another two rounds. He hurt Gatti in the eleventh, nearly dropped him again, and kept up relentless pressure through rounds eleven and twelve to, in his own mind, leave no doubt as to how the result should have gone.
The final scores were 113-111 Gatti, 113-111 (twice) for Corrales, and everyone demanded a rematch. They would get their wish, but not necessarily in a manner they wanted, as…
October 8, 2005: Diego Corrales KO1 Arturo Gatti
It was a scary punch. There’s no nice way to say it; Arturo Gatti got his ass rocked, as he walked in, put a lazy jab out that should have had more snap on it, and got countered by a right hand over the top of the jab that left Gatti on the ground, his eyes closed, motionless for over a minute. Corrales had looked the stronger in their first fight except for that tenth round; here, there was speculation that Gatti had tried to cut weight a little too quickly right ahead of the weigh-in and left himself dangerously dehydrated.
Whatever the reason for Gatti’s vulnerability, or maybe just because Diego Corrales threw one of those punches that has so much on it that a lightweight might damn well drop a heavyweight with it, fans were deprived of an epic war and possible trilogy that the world had been denied three years earlier when Gatti made his title run.
Arturo Gatti retired after the fight; meanwhile, in Lowell, Massachusetts, Micky Ward and his brother Dicky Eklund became local celebrities after Ward’s last fight in 2002, a sendoff at the Lowell Spinners baseball stadium against some club fighter whose name is unimportant to history and who brought one of those “25-1, 24 knockouts” records assembled entirely by fighting homeless guys and strip club bouncers into a fight where Micky Ward landed a left hook to the body, the guy with the fancy record folded in half like a catering table, and everyone went home happy. Ward may not have fought Arturo Gatti, but his life was still plenty interesting; The Fighter still got made and still did box office numbers focusing on Ward’s career but with the added and interesting twist that it included the fight with Emanuel Augustus as the last dance in the film.
Still, a lot of people wondered what might have been if only that fight with Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti had been made…and somewhere, in an alternate timeline, a boxing writer with a fertile imagination is throwing everything he has at it without even coming close to doing the fight justice.
Fox Doucette covers Friday Night Fights for Boxing Tribune News and writes the What If alt-history series for The Boxing Tribune. Seriously—there’s not a fiction writer alive who could write a fight as good as Ward-Gatti I, and this is coming from a guy who threw everything he had at trying with Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano. Fan mail, hate mail, and What If episodes you’d like to see can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.