“And now we wait in suspense for the decision.”
Jim Lampley, working with Larry Merchant and Emanuel Steward, had just witnessed the “Fight of the Year.” They had barely regained their breath after 10 rounds of furious combat, including a Round 9 that was recognized as the “Round of the Year.”
Ring announcer Mark Beiro stepped forward and briefly paused as the timekeeper rang the bell. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have…. a majority decision!”
A gentle hush fell over the entire arena as the anticipation mounted. Beriro continued.
“Judge Frank Lombardi scores the bout, 94-94, a draw. Judge Richard Flaherty scores it 94-93. Judge Steve Weisfeld sees it 95-93. To the winner, by majority decision….Irish….Micky….Ward….Ward!”
The atmosphere was electric. The crowd, still awestruck after being mesmerized by two men who had no quit in them, stood and applauded for what seemed like an eternity.
If there was ever a fight where both warriors stock went through the roof, it was this one.
There were no titles at stake, no belts to be won or lost. This was simply man on man, will against will, a wide-eyed display of heart, guts and rugged determination.
The bout epitomized the words left to us by Joe Louis who once reflected, “Once that bell rings you’re own your own. It’s just you and the other guy.”
Louis’ profoundly captured the feeling that resonated from all who watched this epic struggle. Although the bout produced both a winner and a loser, both men would walk away symbolic of all that boxing should represent.
On the night of May 18, 2002, Arturo “Thunder” Gatti and “Irish” Micky Ward squared off in an eagerly anticipated Welterweight contest.
The Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut would host the bout and it would air live on HBO’s Boxing After Dark.
Gatti (34-5, 28 KOs) was widely recognized as boxing’s blood and guts warrior. He had captured the souls of boxing fans with his fearless style and improbable comebacks, comebacks that not even Hollywood could produce a script for.
In just his first title defense against Wilson Rodriguez, Gatti pulled a rabbit from a hat after being knocked down and suffering a badly swollen right eye. With the ring doctor threatening to stop the fight, Gatti came back from the abyss to knockout Rodriguez in the sixth round.
The drama king was born.
In October of 1997, Gatti fought the “Fight of the Year” against Gabe Ruelas. With a severely damaged left eye, he was hurt badly by a Ruelas uppercut in the fourth round. Gatti again dug down and flattened Ruelas with his money punch, a thunderous left hook, winning a dramatic five-round seesaw battle.
Unable to rescue himself in 1998 against Ivan Robinson, Gatti suffered a split decision loss, but again earned “Fight of the Year” honors.
Ward (37-11, 27 KOs) was the epitome of a blue collar fighter. He had held a day job paving roads and, despite his 11 losses, fought anyone and everyone that was put in the ring with him.
After winning his first 14 fights, Ward would face a number of well known, world class fighters. He took on the likes of Harold Brazier, Tony Martin, Vince Phillips and Zab Judah.
“Irish” Micky, now 36, was all man. He fought the “Fight of the Year” in 2001 and was a near spitting image of Gatti as he too possessed unfailing courage and dogged determination.
Ward had never been stopped by an opponent’s fists. His chin was battle tested and his most beloved weapon was a sizzling left hook to the body. Lampley described him as, “A body-puncher destroyer.”
For boxing fans it was a dream come true. Their meeting in the ring was akin to an old western showdown between the two toughest men in town.
On fight night, the crown inside the Mohegan Sun was raucous.
Referee Frank Cappucinno provided final instructions. Mutual respect was apparent as there was no trash talk or dislike for one another. There was no need to sell the fight as matching the two together simply sold itself.
Round 1 began with both men touching gloves at center ring. Gatti, 30, wore his now trademark white trunks trimmed in blue. Ward also wore white, but was sporting red trim.
The fireworks began immediately. Gatti developed an early rhythm while circling and boxing. He stepped in to throw scorching combinations from all angles.
Ward, undeterred, marched forward and looked to attack, pot-shotting Gatti when and where he could. After the first round, Ward’s cut man Al Gavin went to work on a nasty cut near his right eye.
Gatti continued to control the action and pace in Round 2. A trickle of blood now appeared from Ward’s nose. After six minutes of action, he had outlanded Ward 57 punches to 18.
Round 3 began with Gatti continuing to box and fire rapid combinations. While he moved backward, Ward was pressing forward like a freight train. With two minutes gone in the third, the two began trading toe to toe. Steward quickly observed, “So much for the boxing!”
The slugfest continued into Round 4 as Ward landed a thundering overhand right that hurt Gatti. With the blood now flowing from Ward’s mouth, Gatti’s right eye was beginning to swell. Lampley screamed, “This is good stuff! Oh! Big left hook by Ward! Big left hook by Gatti!”
With the round winding down and the two toe to toe at close quarters, Gatti landed a hook to Ward’s midsection that Cappuccino ruled a low blow. Clearly unintentional, Ward rose from the canvas and the two touched gloves and nodded at one another as the bell sounded.
Cappucinno then signaled to the judges that a point be deducted from Gatti for the infraction.
In the fifth round, Gatti was no longer moving like he did early on. Lampley seized the opportunity to describe the shift in the action, “Look at the distance between the two fighters! They’re fightin’ in a phone booth!”
The two again stood toe to toe to close the round with Gatti’s right eye now cut and bleeding. It was now Joe Souza’s turn, Gatti’s trusted cut man, to go to work on the bleeding.
Unofficial scorer Harold Lederman had the combat dead even after five, scoring it 47-47.
Gatti was able to get back to boxing in Rounds 6 and 7. He was effectively using his legs and mixing up his attack. His efforts seemed to confuse Ward and slow down his offensive attack.
It was more of the same from Gatti through most of the eighth. Then, with 15 seconds remaining in the round, lightning struck “Thunder” as Ward landed a vicious uppercut. A shaken Gatti put it in reverse in hopes of finding solitude in a corner.
He didn’t find it. Ward jumped on him and leveled a hailstorm of punches. The assault of lefts and rights to the head and to the body lasted until the bell sounded to end the round.
As Gatti staggered back to his corner, the crowd was collectively on its feet. Ward had found a way to break through and hurt an opponent he had a hard time catching the previous eight and a half minutes.
A brave and still wounded Gatti came out for the ninth. Just 15 seconds into the round, Steward screamed, “Body shot again! That’s a body shot!”
Rising at the count of nine, an emboldened Ward swarmed his foe. Now in full retreat, Gatti was simply trying to survive. With a minute now gone by, and Ward perhaps punched out, Gatti regrouped and launched a retaliatory strike.
With Ward now backed into a corner, Gatti assailed him with everything he had. Lampley screamed over a deafening crowd, “Vicious body shots by Gatti! Ward nods as if to say come on! Come on! Come on let’s fight!”
Everyone in the Mohegan Sun was on their feet, screaming, jumping up and down, and pumping their fists. As Ward weathered the storm, he then reloaded, firing missiles back at Gatti.
With 10 seconds to go in the round, it was Gatti who again regrouped leaving Steward shouting, “And here comes Gatti back! This should be the round of the century!”
Both men gave the subtle nod to each other as the timekeeper pounded the bell. The crowd was still on its feet cheering as loud as it could. The corners, Buddy McGirt in Gatti’s and Dicky Eklund in Ward’s, did their best to steer their thoroughbred’s coming down the stretch.
There were now only three minutes remaining.
The two touched gloves and showed one another class and respect as the bell sounded to begin the 10th and final round.
Gatti appeared to have more in the tank and was getting the better of it with the clock ticking down. Both fighters, in spots, fired and landed bombs. As the two continued to go head to head, Merchant was in awe of what he was seeing, “I am humbled by watching these two guys take the punishment they are taking.”
As the two stood at center ring and threw everything they had, the background was filled with a crowd that was still standing and cheering. Lampley too, was humbled, “We told you it might be a candidate for fight of the year. We didn’t know it would be a candidate for fight of the century.”
The bell sounded to end 30 minutes of boxing greatness.
Both men engaged in an embrace while a standing ovation marked the crowd’s undying approval.
Along with scores of amazing highlights, CompuBox provided an incredible statistic detailing that Ward landed 55 percent of his power punches while Gatti landed 60 percent of his.
After the decision was announced, Merchant interviewed both fighters. While they shook hands, each took turns praising the other.
First, it was Ward, “Arturo is a gentlemen. He’s a great man, he’s a great warrior. This fight was a very close fight. The fight could have gone either way. He’s like rock, like granite.”
Gatti, cut from the same cloth as Ward, responded, “He’s a very tough guy. He kept getting stronger every round. It could have gone either way. He hurt me to the body. He’s a strong guy.”
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the fight, the fighters and their behavior towards one another during and after their battle.
I too, was humbled.