On October 4, 1997, fans packed Caesar’s Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, NJ for a Heavyweight showdown between Lennox Lewis and Andrew Golota.
Before the main event, fans were treated to a co-main event that stole the proverbial show. In the third defense of his 130-pound crown, Arturo Gatti would face challenger Gabriel Ruelas. Little did we know that this fight would turn out to be not only the best fight on the card, it would be named by Ring Magazine as both the “Knockout of the Year” and “Fight of the Year” in 1997.
Gatti, born in Italy and living in Jersey City, NJ, was widely known and respected as the blood-and-guts champion of the sport. His aura would continue to grow in years to come and this night would catapult him into yet another stratosphere.
Winning the title from Tracy Harris Patterson in December of 1995, Gatti (28-1, 23 KOs) was on a 22 fight winning streak. His only loss, early in his career, was via a split decision to a slick boxer named King Solomon.
The winning streak included victories over Calvin Grove and a unanimous decision in a rematch with Patterson. If winning the title didn’t cement his name into the minds of boxing fans, his dramatic comeback win over Wilson Rodriguez did.
In a fiercely contested brawl that was Gatti’s first title defense, he survived both an early knockdown and badly swollen eye. Behind on all scorecards, Gatti dropped Rodriguez in the fifth and knocked him out in the sixth. The love-affair then began in what was big drama on the big stage at Madison Square Garden.
On this night, the 25-year-old Gatti would face another fierce opponent in Ruelas.
Born in Mexico and living in Sylmar, California, the 27-year-old Ruelas (44-3, 23 KOs) was widely recognized and respected as a tough, talented, highly skilled world class fighter.
Like Gatti, Ruelas also suffered a loss early in his career. After that defeat, the only man to beat Ruelas in his next 25 contests was the great Azumah Nelson. After winning the WBC Super Featherweight title from Jesse James Leija in September 1994, Ruelas had two successful defenses. He then lost his crown in a rematch with Nelson.
The real heartbreak and life changing event for Ruelas occurred in May of 1995. Tragedy struck after his 11th round TKO destruction of Jimmy Garcia. After the bout was stopped, Garcia collapsed in his corner and was then rushed to the hospital. While in critical condition, Ruelas visited Garcia several times in intensive care and became close with Garcia’s mother and family.
After 13 torturous days, Garcia passed at the young age of 23. Ruelas would later reflect that he was never the same fighter after Garcia’s passing.
Shortly after Garcia had been hospitalized, a distraught Ruelas had confided in friends and supporters that he would never fight again. After a change of heart, Ruelas decided to climb back into the ring and continue to do what he loved, box. On a three-fight win streak, he would now face the old-school throwback in Gatti.
Scheduled for 12 rounds, each fighter weighed in at the 130-pound limit. By fight night, each added 16 pounds and tipped the scale at 146 before entering the ring.
Ruelas entered the arena first. Wearing white trimmed with red and blue, he was accompanied by trainer and confidant Joe Goosen. Jim Lampley expounded, “If you were going to pick two fighters to go on a fishing trip with, you could do far worse than these two guys.”
Gatti, the champion, then exited his dressing room. Led by longtime trainer Hector Roca, Gatti wore his now trademarked colors of white trimmed in blue. It was Larry Merchant’s turn to opine, “Arturo Gatti is a throwback fighter from the 40’s and 50’s when many great Italian fighters excited the sport.”
While Golota and Lewis were warming up in their dressing rooms, ring announcer Michael Buffer rallied the packed house to attention, announcing that this co-feature main event was for the IBF Junior Lightweight championship of the world. After introducing the fighters, both came forward to meet referee Benji Esteves for instructions.
The evening’s action was aired live on HBO’s Pay-Per-View arm TVKO. Lampley, Merchant and Roy Jones Jr. called the action.
As the bell sounded to begin the first, Lampley summarized what spectators were about to see, “This is exciting because they are both terrific young men and they are high contact fighters who hit and get hit.”
The early action was measured, yet aggressive. The three minutes of action could have taken place in a phone booth as there was no feeling out process. Both men launched heavy artillery from the outset and fought a very close, near even opening round.
As Round 2 began, Gatti began to work more behind his left jab. Ruelas continued to score as the two then began to trade uppercuts inside and up close. Jones recognized Ruelas’ willingness to challenge Gatti, “Gabe is landing a number of punches here on Gatti.”
Ruelas continued to throw whistling bombs while primarily moving backwards. Gatti, the aggressor, landed two solid left hooks, momentarily shaking Ruelas to bring the second round to a close.
In the third, there was a slight swelling under the left eye of Gatti. The majority of the action was in the center of the ring as each man continued to test the other. Midway through the round Ruelas was warned for a low blow. The in fighting continued for the remainder if the round. After the third ended, cut man Joe Souza immediately went to work on the champions swelling left eye.
As the fourth began, Gatti unloaded a solid four-punch combination that included a sharp overhand right. Ruelas, whose legs buckled slightly, immediately stepped back into the war zone to return fire. Again, Jones liked the challenger’s willingness to give as good as he was getting, “Gabe Ruelas is not backing down here. He is here to win this fight.”
At the midpoint of the round, Ruelas kicked it up a notch and began backing Gatti up, swinging wildly with rights and lefts. The crowd began to rise as Gatti was uncharacteristically in reverse while trying to answer. With less than a minute to go in the round, Ruelas hit pay dirt with a brutal series of uppercuts that crumpled Gatti over in agony. His face was a mask of excruciating pain. Lampley cried out in the heat of the action, “Hard shot by Ruelas! Gatti stumbles! Ruelas with a chance! Arturo Gatti momentarily wobbled on his feet.”
With the 15,500 in attendance on their feet, Gatti landed some thunder of his own as the action escalated into a see-saw battle. With seconds remaining in the round, Gatti unloaded his left hook to back Ruelas off and fought his way off the ropes and out of trouble.
As the bell sounded, both men smiled at each other as they returned to their corners.
The fifth began with Merchant explaining, “And Ruelas has come out like he’s looking to find out how much Gatti has left and if he can get rid of him right now.” The furious back and forth action continued as both men landed vicious uppercuts, each hurting the other. Lampley shouted, “Both landing big uppercut shots! This is a war! And now here comes Gatti again!”
Ruelas now had swelling and a mouse under his left eye. Gatti’s skin had split under his left eye and the blood had begun to flow down his cheek. As both stood toe-to-toe, Ruelas again pressed Gatti backward. Like a bolt of lightning, Gatti countered with his trademark left hook and Ruelas dropped to a heap on the canvas. As Esteves counted, Ruelas climbed to his feet at eight. He then turned his back as he staggered towards the ropes.
Esteves waived off the action and hugged Ruelas. Merchant screamed, “Can you believe Arturo Gatti!?”
The action ended via TKO at 2:22 of the fifth round. This was, without a doubt, the fight of the night and the most exciting fight of the entire year.
Gatti and Ruelas soon embraced after the action as their corners met a mid-ring to shake hands and offer hugs of their own. Both camps had respect for each other and, after the pitched battle between their warriors, it spilled over in a moment of sportsmanship and admiration.
After the incredible drama between Gatti and Ruelas, the Heavyweights entered the ring. Moments later, Lewis would anti-climatically pound Golota in a bout lasting approximately 95 seconds.
The win by Gatti set the table for another fan-friendly match at 135 pounds against Angel Manfredy. Gatti would lose his title when the bout would be stopped due to a severe cut over his right eye. He would bounce back and win two more titles and engage in an epic three-part series against Micky Ward.
Ruelas would return nine months later and score a TKO win over veteran Troy Dorsey. He would fight just eight more times, ending his career with a 5-3 finish.
On this night, Ruelas proved that he could overcome tragedy. He was back. He displayed that he still had it in him to do what he loved and compete at the highest level. Gatti proved, yet again, that he was unquestionably a real life action hero who left fans with indelible memories.
Header photo by Deviant Art