Round 9. If you are going to produce a series of articles based on Ring Magazine’s coveted Round of the Year award, there is really only one place to begin. Round 9. The fact that, even with the above headline and photograph removed, boxing aficionados would already know we are talking about the first Arturo Gatti v Micky Ward fight is all the justification needed for such an opening gambit.
The decision has me fencing with a double edged sword however. On the one hand, what more can be written about these three minutes? From Eric Raskin’s excellent primary source anniversary review, to Sergio De La Pava’s colourful metaphor for life piece, this one round of boxing has received more column inches in the pugilism press than anything since Ali ceased producing movie scripts every time he climbed between the ropes. There is a risk that, 12 years on, everything that needs to be said about the men, the fight and the round is already out there.
On the other hand, nonsense. Dead horses get flogged daily on sports pages all over the world, but Gatti Ward I Round 9 will never suffer that fate. It lives on as a raging equine beast that the rest of us can only watch second-hand and cling on for dear life as it gallops across wild plains of the rawest human experience and leaves us helpless in a flash flood of contrasting emotions.
These great moments of almost supernatural endeavour become personalised by each individual who views it through their own unique lens. If we were to start a rota and, from now till kingdom come, every day a different one of us delivered our thoughts on the 180 seconds Gatti and Ward shared in Connecticut on the 18th May 2002, the exercise would never get tired. What follows is my own tuppence worth.
The beauty of Round 9 is that even standing alone, removed from the context of before and after, it is clearly something very special. An entire movie has been made of Ward’s life up to that point and yet it is not necessary to watch it to appreciate these three minutes. Gatti had been in with Oscar, would later fight Floyd and he’s a Hall of Famer who died in circumstances as tragic as they were suspicious in Brazil at the stupidly early age of 37; but you don’t really need to know any of that. That the round equates to little more than three percent of a legendary 90 minute trilogy between the pair does not matter either. HBO’s moving documentary, The Tale of Gatti Ward, paints a fuller picture and is definitely worth a watch, but Round 9 stripped bare speaks for itself.
We are often defined by our nationalities and boxers are no different. And at times the labelling is entirely appropriate. Julio Cesar Chavez is Mexico. Henry Cooper is England. Sugar Ray Leonard is the United States of America. Although there are of course many more layers to those three fighters than a mere country name on a passport, describing them as Mexican, English and American respectively goes some way to encapsulating who they are and what they represent. A little more background is required on the Canadian Gatti and American Ward, however.
Arturo Gatti, as his name suggests, is more olive oil than maple syrup. He was born in the town of Cassino, midway between Naples and Rome. The area is famous for the World War II Battle of Monte Cassino which saw Allied forces bombard German positions in the area in a series of four bloody assaults that lasted 123 days. A recent academic book on the carnage bears the title, The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II. Gattis a generation before Arturo would have been familiar with physical and psychological suffering and, clearly, an above average ability to withstand such traumas quickly becomes genetic.
You need to go back another 100 years to understand the true soul of Micky Ward. His ancestors fled famine and British oppression in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century and settled in the Catholic Irish ghettos of Massachusetts. If Lowell was an option for nationality, that’s the box Micky would tick. As it was, he fought under the moniker Irish and wears a large Celtic cross inked into his left arm. Ward is proud of his country of birth but his boxing persona is a simple acknowledgement that a different brand of blood courses through his veins. Fighting Irish rebel blood.
The two men were made for each other. Ward was never a boxer but rather a rough, honest, brawling fighter with a heart the size of Fenway Park. Gatti, though no Sugar Ray Robinson, was a better technician and had skills, hand speed, and head and foot movement decent enough to box his way to victories against a certain level of opponent. Until he got tagged that is. Once you caught Arturo with a clean shot his pride took over and he went to war with you. Micky, of course, never strayed from the front of the front line of any battle regardless of who was marching towards him. They were warriors and we loved them for it.
When the bell is struck to open Round 9, Ward is already a foot from his corner and moving forward, head bowed, towards his opponent. The bell’s timbre, partially swallowed by the noise of a crowd scarcely able to believe the continued intensity of the fight, had barely dissipated when he lunged forward with a reaching left hand lead and allowed his momentum to carry him into another prolonged assault that sent Gatti careering into the ropes and rebounding into the centre of the ring. There, in the middle of the mayhem, Ward remembered and, more importantly, adhered to the game plan. Body, head, body.
The culmination of this combination, a chopping left hook into the kidney and liver and whatever other unfortunate insides reside in the lower right torso, froze Gatti were he stood. A second later his face crumples into an expression that is a mixture of pain and confusion. It is almost like he is asking Ward: Why? Why did you do that? A further second on and he is down on one knee, now devoid of any feeling other than lacerating pain as his battered diaphragm spasms and prevents his lungs doing their job. Doctors recommend a minimum of 15 minutes rest following even the lightest of solar plexus traumas. Gatti had less than 10 seconds to recover from a perfectly executed Micky Ward signature chopped liver punch.
The respite looked cruelly inadequate as referee Frank Cappuccino waved a charging Ward in for the kill. For the next 30 seconds Gatti was pummelled from pillar to post by a relentless Irish attack. At times Ward literally ran at his backpedalling adversary in an onslaught that was as frenetic as it was uncouth. There were occasional attempted body shots in there but too many swings were head hunters hoping to turn out Gatti’s lights. On review, Micky should have continued with the trusted body head body formula, but who cares, Arturo was gone either way. Wasn’t he?
Gatti was still dragging his exhausted body from his seat as Ward started forward in anticipation of the bell for Round 9. In fact, when the first blow landed, his stool had not yet made it through the ropes to the sanctuary of its mid-round ringside position. Round 8 had been hard on Arturo and commentators were already voicing doubts on whether he could continue. Within 15 seconds he was down and the rest of the opening minute was spent in the autopilot survival mode that is hardwired into fighters with real heart. And then we entered the second minute.
Gatti shares his birthplace with the Italian philosopher Antonio Labriola, a thinker famous for his description of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis. Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson or skill is enacted, embodied or realised. It is a Greek term used by Aristotle to describe one of the three activities of man. Whereas the end goals of the other two activities, theoria and poiesis, are knowledge and production, praxis, much like Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, is all about action. Now was the time for him to put his Blood and Guts Warrior spirit into practice.
It was as if the wind that left a temporarily punched-out Ward blew straight into the grateful sails of Gatti and carried him forward throughout an astonishing 60 seconds in which he backed up and dominated Micky. Ward drifted almost listlessly into the ropes towards Gatti’s corner and paused, desperately trying to balance an urge to look ok with a need to suck in oxygen every time he peered through his high guard. He beckoned Gatti on with waves of his gloved fists but the fleeting glimpses of his eyes betray a creeping, incredulous panic. What the hell is this guy still doing on his feet never mind pressuring me into a corner, they say.
Round 9 is perhaps the only in boxing that can genuinely be described as three complete fights in one round. And if rounds 10, 11 and 12 are known as the championship rounds in a title fight, then the final minute of this Round 9 must be the championship seconds. It is at this point that bouts are won or lost and that reputations are made or broken.
With exactly one minute to go, they both clinch for the first time in the round. It is Gatti now that is the more eager for a moment of respite, however brief it may be, and Ward senses it. At the break they land big punches simultaneously, Gatti a left hook to the body and Ward a sharp right to the jaw, and the moment is the pivot on which the round turns again as Micky, blood streaming from a cut around his right eye, goes to work.
Watched in isolation, the final 30 seconds can be difficult viewing. It is at times exhibit A type stuff for abolitionists presenting their case before the moral courts. Gatti is to all intents and purposes gone, but he just won’t go down. He doesn’t even have the strength to raise his gloves above waist level, let alone high enough to protect his head, and vision out of grossly swollen eyes cannot be more than around 25%. As a consequence, he takes a couple of sickening shots that would have been the final nails in the coffins of many a fighter.
But like his soul mate Ward, there is no quit to be found anywhere in Arturo’s being and the result of putting two such men together in a ring is axiomatic: someone else would have to say no más. The referee and Gatti’s trainer, Buddy McGirt, were surely close and if the ringside commentator, Jim Lampley, had had a white towel close to hand, I believe he would have tossed it over the ropes on compassionate grounds. As it was, nobody acted and to this day, despite all I know now, I am still not entirely sure I am happy about that.
Statistics are never a substitute for judgement and I’m not a fan of using them to analyse a boxing match. Nevertheless, one piece of data is particularly striking and helps articulate the brutality of the round. In that short space of time, Ward landed with 60 of the 82 power punches he threw while Gatti replied with 42 out of 61. Both the quantity and success rates (73% and 69%) are frightening. To put those numbers in perspective, Erislandy Lara recently landed just 52 power punches (37%) on Canelo Álvarez throughout the course of their entire 12 round fight and still felt he was robbed to lose a decision.
When the bell mercifully tolled, it was hard to believe that it had all only lasted three minutes. They say that time speeds up in great sporting contests so that full-time appears to arrive quicker than expected. War is different though: it always feels longer.
Micky’s tap on Arturo’s shoulder as they part for their corners still gets me every time I watch it. There would later be more overt displays of the bond became forged between the two men, in their second and third fights they hugged before the final round for example, but it is that shoulder tap that is most special for me. For such a non-descript gesture, it contains so much. I can only guess what Micky Ward was feeling but I would wager that respect, awe, understanding, concern and love were all amongst his emotions.
Despite the 98 years still to go, the great Emanuel Steward christened it Round of the Century live on television before the two fighters had even made it onto their stools. Even in the hyperbolic world of boxing it did not smack of premature bombast at the time and does not do so today. Steward is with Gatti now and, looking down each weekend, I doubt he has seen anything since to change his opinion. Personally, I do not believe I will ever witness another three minutes to rival it.