When you think of boxing cinematically, nothing compares to the epic brawls endured by the fictional Rocky Balboa. The classic blue-collar journeyman turned fan favorite action fighter was birthed through real life examples like heavyweight Chuck Wepner vs. Muhammad Ali.
However, no one expected the glorious day in boxing history that occurred on May 18th, 2002. Lowell, Massachusetts’s journeyman “Irish” Micky Ward was fresh off a 2001 Fight of the Year by The Ring Magazine for a unanimous decision win over Emanuel Augustus. After losing his next fight via 5th round technical decision to Jesse James Leija, the time was ripe for a fan-friendly fight.
Ward was known as a brawler who could box, and nothing is better in boxing then putting two brawlers in the ring together. Enter action fighter Arturo Gatti, who was one of boxing’s biggest stars at the time. He lost via 5th round TKO to Oscar de la Hoya in 2001 and then rebounded by knocking out Terron Millet in the 4th round to start 2002.
When he agreed to fight Micky Ward, the expectations were high due to Gatti’s penchant to throw caution to the wind when engaging with a fellow slugger. Gatti started his career as a solid boxer but enjoyed the crowd’s reaction to his brawler tendencies. Coupled with his great chin, the fight was destined to become legendary and it did not disappoint.
The two met at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut live on HBO to an enthusiastic crowd full of New England Ward supporters. The fight started and Gatti controlled the pace early on as he out-boxed Ward, who seemed to be looking for the one shot that would break Gatti down. For the first three rounds, Gatti dished out the better combinations, outpointing his opponent.
Then in rounds four and five, Ward rallied by putting together combinations and landing his signature body shots. In round four, Gatti hit Ward hard below the belt forcing him onto the canvas. Referee Frank Cappuccino took a point away from Gatti as a result, dramatically shifting the dynamic of the fight and making it dead even after the 5th round.
In the sixth and seventh rounds it was all Gatti, who entered into brawler mode, opening up a cut over Ward’s right eye. Gatti took as much as he gave but landed the more significant punches within the two rounds. The two warriors were displaying the precursor to the round that would become the highlight of their respective careers, forever fusing their legacies together. At the end of the round in the corner, Ward’s brother and former boxer Dicky Eklund warned Ward that he would not let the pummeling continue.
The message sunk in.
In the eighth round, Ward unleashed a flurry of combinations and body shots that stunned the game Gatti. With Ward stalked Gatti, throwing everything he had straight down the middle to Gatti’s willing head and body, it was clear that these two were meant to dance with each other. At the end of the round, Ward hit Gatti with a body shot that commentator Emanuel Steward predicted would linger and Gatti might not recover from going into round nine. Gatti’s trainer, the great Buddy McGirt, warned the fighter that he too would not allow him to take that kind of punishment much longer.
And then it happened. In the opening seconds of round number nine, Ward charged Gatti, hitting him with a couple of shots upstairs that culminated in a vicious left hand body blow. The shot crumpled Gatti to the floor, forcing the crowd to their feet in awe. Gatti survived the count and the two engaged in the most exciting action fight ever seen in boxing.
They took as much as they gave, with each taking turns controlling the pace but never diminishing on output on either end. They were both exhausted, but the thrill of staying in the thick of battle kept each man on his feet and hurling leather at an incorrigible rate. At one point, McGirt made his way onto the ring apron and was about to throw in the towel when miraculously, he saw something in Gatti’s willingness to persevere that made him step back down.
Referee Frank Cappuccino was lauded and lambasted for allowing the carnage to go on. With his close proximity to the controlled melee, one can only think the fan in him wouldn’t dare to interfere. As the round came to a close the two never stopped their barrage of punches and it was clear at the sound of the closing round bell that Ward was the winner of that historic ninth round exchange.
How Gatti got up from his stool to enter the tenth and final round only adds to his legend. He rallied back, willfully engaging in a brawl and effectively taking round 10. When it was all over, the two hugged and waited for the judges outcome. Gatti stood in the corner with his face to the adoring crowd, uncertain if he had done enough in the last round to edge himself ahead of Ward.
As Ward's pestering cut was tended to and his gloves stripped from his hands, the scores came out issuing him the majority decision win. The two hugged and gave respect to the other for the brazen action doled out in the ring.
Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward would fight two more times, with Gatti winning the next two. Their third pairing was also named the 2003 Fight of the Year by The Ring Magazine. For his fight against Emanuel Augustus and his two against Gatti, Ward was the first fighter since Rocky Marciano and Carmen Basilio in the 1950’s to win three consecutive Fight of the Year awards by The Ring magazine. Fittingly, Ward retired after their rubber match.
Arturo Gatti went on to become a three-weight division champion, ultimately losing his life in weird circumstances at the age of 37 in Brazil. Before the end, both he and Ward became close friends with Ward acting as his trainer for his final fight against Alfonso Gomez.