by Fox Doucette
The two greatest junior welterweight fights of all time occurred twenty years apart. Aaron Pryor knocked out Alexis Arguello in the fourteenth round of a fifteen-round scheduled war in 1982; 20 years later, Micky Ward scored a majority decision over Arturo Gatti in the first of their three fights—Gatti would win the latter two fairly easily, but the first fight, the closest and best of the three, went to the kid from Lowell, Massachusetts, who would forever be associated with what the Dropkick Murphys called “The Warrior’s Code” in the song by that title about Ward and the album, which also shared the name. This was no Japanese bushido; this was a baser, distinctly American flavor of war, and fans loved it.
Rather than try and settle which fight was the better of the two, we’ve cranked up the time machines, grabbed a few Stimpaks from the Fallout video game series in honor of the announcement of Fallout 4, and healed these guys up to full strength for a couple of 12-rounders. Winner faces winner in the main event, so Micky Ward gets Aaron Pryor in what, on paper, looks like a mismatch—Pryor was a legendary junior welterweight who went 39-1 with 35 knockouts in a career that included a five-year run as a world champion. Ward was a club fighter who went 38-13 and got knocked out by Vince Phillips in his only world title shot.
It is noteworthy, however, that the knockout wasn’t due to a punch; Ward was stopped on cuts. In his entire career, no referee ever stepped in front of Micky Ward to stop the fight on punches, and no referee ever reached the count of ten standing over him. Thirteen losses, Ward suffered, but his heart never wavered.
Perhaps the more intriguing matchup comes first, as Arturo Gatti, who was a classic example of a guy who could win at the B+ level but always fell short against the all-time greats, faces off against Alexis Arguello, who was tremendous between feather and lightweight but seemed to be out of his depth against anyone bigger than that; knocking out Kevin Rooney and Billy Costello does not exactly make someone a legend. Arguello was, however, a very tall guy for his actual size; at 5’10”, he held a three-inch height advantage and a two-inch reach advantage over the man from Jersey City who would stand in front of him.
Without further ado, let’s get to the action.
Arturo Gatti (5/18/2002) vs. Alexis Arguello (11/12/1982)
During Arguello’s fight with Pryor, the commentators (Barry Tompkins, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Larry Merchant) remarked that Arguello’s weakness was a slick boxer—when Pryor got the better of him, it was because he stayed on the outside, landed combinations, and never allowed Arguello to get into a rhythm.
Meanwhile, the commentator team (Jim Lampley, Emanuel Steward, and Merchant again) for the Ward-Gatti fight pointed out that Gatti was in the process of reinventing himself as a boxer before Ward was finally able in the third round to drag him into the brawl that favored the Lowell fighter. As Steward said, “so much for the boxing.”
For Arguello, this meant a fight plan that would make use of his height, work the jab, keep Gatti off him initially, then Arguello could use his strengths, psych Gatti out, and drag him down to the brawler’s level. The fight plan for Gatti was to outbox the guy who had so much trouble whenever his opponent assumed the temperament of a boxer rather than a puncher. In the rock-paper-scissors world of boxing, this whole thing was going to dispense with such subtleties and reduce to Mike Tyson’s Law: “Everyone has a plan to fight me until they get hit.”
Neither fighter wanted to rush into this fight. The first round, rather than the fast-and-furious round of Arguello’s fight or the dominant establishment of control early that marked Gatti’s efforts, was a feeling-out process. The fight turned into Gatti trying to get off combinations to hurt his opponent while Arguello tried to counter with the jab and use his height to keep the smaller man off him.
Gatti landed more than Arguello did; Arguello lost a lot of his pop as a puncher when he moved up past lightweight, and that was on display here. Early on, it looked like Gatti might just have too much power for Arguello to be able to crack his admittedly questionable defense.
Arguello came back looking to engage at closer range; if he was going to take the starch out of Arturo Gatti, it was going to be through the use of body shots. Steve Smoger was the third man in the ring here, and he had been put in the time machine from the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on July 15, 2011 after officiating the Pawel Wolak-Delvin Rodriguez scrap. Nothing short of Fan Man, a nuclear weapon going off outside, or a fighter going down and staying down was going to stop this fight, so it fell to Alexis Arguello to ensure that his opponent would not be able to put the full force of his shots into the punches in the late rounds.
Gatti, for his part, was just plain too easy to hit on this night. Just as Ward had been able to find him in their fight, Arguello was able to find a home for that body shot, and the only thing keeping Arturo Gatti upright was the notion that Arguello simply did not have the strength to knock him off of his feet.
After another round of Arguello engaging at close range, Gatti got desperate. He needed to keep the man off him, and if it meant risking the wrath of Steve Smoger, then so be it. Gatti uncorked a low blow right on the forbidden speedbag of Alexis Arguello, sending the man from Nicaragua to his knees and forcing the hand of the referee to deduct a point. Even though Arturo Gatti won the round easily, some would say in such dominating fashion that perhaps he deserved a 10-8 even though the only knockdown was on an illegal punch, Gatti would instead have to settle for a 9-9 round. Through four, the consensus score was 38-37 for Arguello, but what was most important was that the Nicaraguan had been forced at last to respect that if he couldn’t be hurt clean, Arturo Gatti would hurt him dirty.
So it came to pass. Arturo Gatti resumed his assault in a boxer’s fashion, finding a second wind after the reprieve of five minutes that was as much for Gatti’s benefit as for Arguello’s. The snap returned to his jab, the torque to his hook, the over-the-top power to the right hand he put over Arguello’s jab whenever Alexis got lazy with it and used it as a rangefinder rather than throwing it with bad intentions to keep Gatti off him. This was turning into a tactical fight, and as Pryor was able to outbox Arguello when he stayed tactical, so too did Arturo Gatti.
Gatti won the next three rounds, pulling the unofficial scorecard of Harold Lederman scoring ringside to 67-65, five rounds to two including the point deduction, with seven rounds in the book.
The intensity continued from Arturo Gatti. Efforts to slow him down had failed. Alexis Arguello found out that he simply could not out-fight a guy who was an all-natural at junior welterweight with full control of all of his punching power. For Gatti, the limit was not at 140; it was at 147 where Oscar De La Hoya and Carlos Baldomir and Alfonso Gomez made Arturo Gatti look like he did not belong in the same ring with any of them.
Finally, Arguello, trying to get inside to work close, the only range at which he had found any effect and the range at which he had been making futile efforts to close to once again for the past four rounds, walked right into an incoming straight right hand. He staggered back and Gatti’s pursuit came with, to steal a line from Bugs Bunny, “a left hook, a right hook, a north hook, a south hook! The champ is groggy! The champ…is down.”
The only difference here was that Arguello wasn’t just out on his feet. It took the stoppage before Arguello slumped to the canvas against Pryor; against Gatti, he went down on his own helpless lost battle with gravity, and the fight was over without a count. Bring out some more of those Fallout stimpaks, Alexis Arguello’s gonna need ’em.
RESULT: ARTURO GATTI KO8 ALEXIS ARGUELLO
Aaron Pryor (11/12/1982) vs. Micky Ward (5/18/2002)
Before this fight, the viewpoint of everyone watching, and of the HBO commentary team that got the chance to call this scrap, was that this was a mismatch, a complete embarrassment to the sport that “was not interesting history, not interesting boxing, just a simple case of a man with a cross on his left arm being thrown to the lions like a Roman spectacle” in the words of Jim Lampley. Aaron Pryor was one of, if not the greatest 140-pound fighter of all time. It’s either him or Julio Cesar Chavez. Micky Ward was a club fighter with a great chin and a limited skill set who had stolen a victory where by rights he should have had a draw; only an acknowledged error on the part of judge Dick Flaherty, who scored the ninth round 10-7 and thus the fight 94-93 for Ward, kept the fight from ending even on two of the three cards, and nobody on HBO’s press row believed that Ward won the fight.
His prize would be this? The only hope expressed was that they didn’t have to send him back via time machine in a box, because that would really screw up the timeline in a faded-photograph Back to the Future kind of way, and a Dropkick Murphys concert wouldn’t be the same with a dirge where an upbeat celebration of a man’s courage ought to be.
As such, all in attendance approached the fight expecting a slaughter…
…and damn if it didn’t look like a slaughter was what they were going to get. Aaron Pryor came running from his corner toward the center of the ring, faster and more enthusiastic even than the opening salvo he had thrown against Arguello in their fight. His fight plan was to put relentless pressure on a guy who really needed to wait for his opponent to finish before commencing a reply; if Pryor kept his hands moving, Ward would never get that chance to shoot back and in a battle of all-action fighters, his superior conditioning would win the day…
…with the caveat here being “unless you believe that Panama Lewis put something in that water bottle that made it into a magic performance-enhancing potion for Aaron Pryor ahead of that 14th round.”
It is here that it should be mentioned that Panama Lewis isn’t here to help Pryor out; because of a certain other event in the prime timeline, Lewis is persona non grata in a boxing ring, and no amount of screwing with the space-time continuum is going to change that. The gods keep track.
So without Lewis, Pryor would have brought in Emanuel Steward but for the fact that Steward, the version of him from 2002 anyway, was in the commentary booth, and…well, the gods keep track. It’d be like having Superman and Clark Kent in the same room.
Pryor was forced to look for a third choice, and in another bizarre twist of time, Pryor chose Arturo Gatti’s trainer Buddy McGirt, who was, at the same time, nine years younger than Pryor (Pryor was born in 1955, McGirt in 1964) and eleven years older (McGirt was 38 in 2002; Pryor was 27 in 1982.) In the words of Mills Lane as himself in Celebrity Death Match, “I’ll allow it!”
The downside to this was that Micky Ward had a fight plan of his own; during the eight-week 2015 training camp that accompanies all Historical Fight Night events, Ward watched plenty of film of Pryor, most notably the fight against Arguello that would determine the version of the man who would be playing opposite him in the Shakespearean all-the-world stage of the boxing ring. Ward knew that Pryor would try to rush him, Ward knew that the commentators of that fight remarked repeatedly about Pryor’s lack of stamina, and Dicky Eklund, Ward’s trainer, knew that Buddy McGirt was not the dirty confirmed cheat that Panama Lewis was.
If that meant that Micky Ward was going to have to wait for his opportunity, then so be it.
Meanwhile, for Rounds 1 through 3 inclusive, only one man was throwing punches, and it sure as hell wasn’t Micky Ward.
Pryor kept attacking, and his shots began to get through as he figured out that he could get Ward out of position by feinting at the right time to get Micky to open up his guard to punch. If that failed, he could throw wide hooks to the body in an effort to open up Ward’s defense, then stick an uppercut right down Broadway and catch Micky Ward on the chin.
It was a public beating of the worst order, but your hand-selected referee here is Arthur Mercante Jr., the man who presided over the death of Bee Scottland and the maiming of Yuri Foreman, a referee who if he is known for anything it is for insistently ensuring that action is settled by fisticuffs and not by referee intervention on behalf of a man in trouble.
Ward, for his part, just plain stood up to all of it. After all, Arturo Gatti was a hard hitter too, and not once during the brawl in 2002 was Gatti even able to so much as put a ding on the chin of Ward, much less dent or crack it. If all else failed Micky Ward, and his skill set sure as hell failed him, he would always have that granite beard to keep him coming back for more.
Still, the calls grew louder and louder to stop the fight, Steward at one point yelling at Mercante with the same urgency with which Max Kellerman completely broke all semblance of professional detachment during the aforementioned Scottland fight to implore a stoppage before it was too late. This was not Lampley saying to Frank Cappuccino “you can stop it any time” when Arturo Gatti still had something left in the tank despite all appearances to the contrary. This was legitimate fear for the safety, well-being, and by the gods for the space-time continuum involved in taking a man out of his timeline to be murdered in the name of sport.
The scorecard was…oh, who gives a damn. Count by eights, count by nines, Aaron Pryor was winning the fight by a comfortable margin.
OK, so Harold Lederman settled matters after six rounds, returning an official card of 60-52 in favor of Pryor—not one but two 10-8 rounds despite Ward not touching the canvas with anything but the soles of his shoes despite the beating he was taking.
But somewhere in the sands of time, somewhere over the rainbow, somewhere where the phrase “999,999 times out of a million” combines with the flapping of a butterfly wing on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and a hurricane’s formation in the Gulf of Mexico to ruin New Orleans’ day, somewhere in a world where Iman Shumpert heaves an offensive rebound into the basket at the end of regulation off a LeBron James miss and the Cleveland Cavaliers go on to win the NBA title, somewhere in a world where Bob Clampett’s “Welcome to Wackyland” cartoon is considered the gold standard for plausible sanity in the world, and somewhere where your columnist knows that Julio Cesar Chavez would never be a fast starter and hot damn was that ever a screw-up for the ages…
…that somewhere is where Micky Ward, in desperation, landed a perfect left hook right on the liver of Aaron Pryor, and the entire world seemed to go into bullet time as Pryor pitched forward, landed on all fours, and for ten seconds of a downright incredulous Arthur Mercante Jr. trying to remember the lesson he learned from Sesame Street about how to reach the number required to end the fight, and by all that the world holds in its mystery, lightning struck outdoors as Mercante yelled “Ten!”…
…Micky Ward managed to knock out Aaron Pryor. Even Ward couldn’t believe it.
RESULT: MICKY WARD KO7 AARON PRYOR.
We put the Alien Space Bats back in their cave and return you to your regularly scheduled exercise in realistic fight probabilities as you get a battle—at cruiserweight!—between Rocky Marciano and Evander Holyfield in the main event. In the co-feature, it’s a they-just-missed-each-other 130-pound scrap between Diego Corrales and Marco Antonio Barrera.
And before you comment saying that (a) I’m an idiot, (b) I don’t know shit about boxing, or (c) I’m biased, know that I’ll only confess to the last one. Micky Ward is my all-time favorite fighter, and it’s my show, just in case the way I framed the result didn’t make it goddamn obvious. See you next week, right here on The Boxing Tribune, at 6 PM Eastern, 3 PM Pacific, for another edition of Historical Fight Night.
Fox Doucette covers boxing news and trends for Boxing Tribune News and writes the What If and Historical Fight Night alt-history series for The Boxing Tribune. He watched the Pryor-Arguello and Ward-Gatti fights three times each looking for an angle…and could watch those fights a dozen times more. Fan mail, hate mail, and suggestions for future Historical Fight Night matchups can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.