Bonded by Blood
This story appears in the special Ward-Gatti issue that is now on newsstands and available to purchase below.
ARTURO GATTI AND MICKY WARD HAD NEVER MET PRIOR TO THEIR TRILOGY, BUT LIKE-MINDED WARRIORS BECAME FAST FRIENDS FOLLOWING THEIR CLASSIC FIRST BOUT
There was a commotion outside of the Backus Hospital emergency ward late Saturday night on May 18, 2002. Someone was arriving. The screaming siren and beep, beep, beep of the ambulance backing up created enough noise for Arturo Gatti to lift his aching face to get a glimpse. Lying on a gurney pinned against a wall, Gatti could barely see. His left eye was swollen shut, his right eye but a slit.
It pained him to breathe. It pained him to move. It pained him to smile.
Still, “Thunder” managed to squeeze words through his thick tongue to the new arrival being wheeled in a few feet away. It happened to be the very soul he’d opposed a couple hours earlier in the ring, the one who shaped the mask of misery he wore – “Irish” Micky Ward.
“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Are you OK?’ and they were real,” Ward recalled. “That hit me harder than his punches. It opened the door to who Arturo was. That told me Arturo was a really good guy.
“Before our three fights, I had no relationship at all with Arturo. What I found was that we’re both warriors who you’d have to kill to stop. I just knew we were so much alike.”
Remove the ambulances, the milling nurses and doctors, gradually peel back the sterile walls and you could easily see the combatants somewhere else: Their gurneys were their stools, their surroundings the din of a corner tavern. And it’s not just an analogy. Within a few hours of trying to destroy each other, the blotched pair was chugging down smuggled-in cans of Bud Light in the Norwich, Connecticut, hospital corridor, laughing like old neighborhood friends.
The wrought-iron bond forged in the three fights between Gatti and Ward came from blood, sweat, tears, cuts and bruises over 30 of the most grueling rounds in boxing history. To this day, it hurts Ward each time he thinks about his pal Gatti, the Hall of Famer who died on July 11, 2009, under murky circumstances. And Ward reflects on his friend every day.
“How can anyone forget someone like Arturo?” Ward asked. “We were like brothers. He made me laugh, and when I look back at our fights and our relationship, it was real and it was true.
“The funny thing is this was someone who tried to take my head off for 30 rounds who actually cared about how I felt. You have things that you go through in everyday life. Something may go wrong, then I think of the funny things we did and that always makes me smile.
“When he died, it was like a death in the family. It’s something that you never get over.”
Like losing a blood brother.
“That’s the interesting thing about them,” recalled Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti, who in 2002 was the VP and chief matchmaker at New Jersey-based Main Events, Gatti’s promoter. “I remember when we did the initial press conference up at the Mohegan Sun Casino to announce the fight. Nobody was there.
“The funny thing is this was someone who tried to take my head off for 30 rounds who actually cared about how I felt.”
– Micky Ward
“They really didn’t know each other, not before that night … We were downstairs in two separate rooms involved in small talk, and we went up and there was no media. It didn’t have the setting of a normal press conference.
“They really spoke (openly) for the first time in the emergency room after the first fight. But their friendship, in my opinion, happened before that.”
Starting with their embrace after the final bell. It was The Ring’s 2002 Fight of the Year and the first to be given that distinction by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Pat Lynch, Gatti’s lifelong manager, remembers being alone with his client in the back of Gatti’s dressing room.
Gatti was looking at his battered face in the mirror, when he turned and asked Lynch, “Remember when I told you the toughest fight of my life is when I fight somebody just like me?”
“Yeah,” Lynch replied.
“Tonight I fought somebody just like me,” Gatti said.
THE WARD-GATTI FRIENDSHIP defied the oft-quoted idea that opposites attract. They could not have been more alike.
After their post-fight commiseration, the rapport between Ward and Gatti continued going into the rematch. They met at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn to pose for the December 2002 Ring cover, which showed them side-by-side carrying baseball bats.
“After that shoot, they really started to interact with each other,” said Lynch. “Before that, they didn’t really speak to one another. There was still a little distance between them. They really weren’t talking, I would say, as close friends. Micky had his team and we had ours.”
Then they went their separate ways.
It was Gatti who made the next chapter possible.
“Arturo called me up asking about what was going on for the third fight,” said Lynch. “He told me to get Kathy (Duva, Main Events’ president) on the phone and make it happen. He wasn’t going to fight anyone else but Micky.
“I remember Arturo telling me, ‘Micky gave me an opportunity after the first fight. He deserves to get paid, and that’s who I’m fighting, or I’m not fighting at all.’”
Once the date was set, Ward made it clear that this fight would be his last.
Prominent sportswriter Ron Borges went to see Ward at his gym ahead of the event and broached the idea of winning and the tease of a million-dollar payday to do it a fourth time. Micky replied, “What good will it be to have more money if I won’t be smart enough to count it?”
The damage inflicted during the ensuing 10 rounds would justify his concern. But it was also the point when his relationship with Gatti truly blossomed.
Borges saw it firsthand, though in an unusual role.
Security wouldn’t allow the Boston Globe writer into the local Atlantic City, New Jersey, hospital emergency area where the fighters had been taken. So Borges called the late Dennis Dueltgen, who was then Main Events’ site coordinator, to help him.
Dueltgen came out to meet Borges at the hospital’s security desk.
“Dennis told them, ‘This is Dr. Borges, he’s Micky Ward’s private physician from Massachusetts. He has to get in and see him right now!’” Borges recalled, laughing hysterically. “I walked in and there was Micky on one gurney, and on the other side was Gatti, within a few feet of each other.”
Borges was greeted by Ward, who was on an IV drip, and Gatti right next to him with his hand in a cast. Sitting between the fighters were their fiancées, crying. A few hours later, Ward was discharged. Gatti would have to stay for more evaluations.
But first, Ward had to find his sneakers. He gingerly got up and jokingly accused Gatti of stealing them. They laughed. Ultimately, Ward found his shoes under the bed.
That occurred on an early Sunday June morning in 2003. What happened next still resonates with Borges almost two decades later.
“Just before Micky left, he walked over to Arturo and they hugged each other,” Borges recalled. “They kissed each other on the cheek. Then Micky slipped a little white envelope into Arturo’s hand. Micky told Arturo, ‘Tonight, I think you’re going to need these more than me.’”
The envelope contained Ward’s pain pills.
“That was the most touching moment that I saw between them,” Borges said. “That said how much they cared about one another.”
What they learned was that Ward was Gatti, and Gatti was Ward in their approach to boxing.
“They found another guy who was going out to win, no matter what the price,” Borges said.
EVERY TIME WARD AND GATTI were together, they shut out the world. It was just the two of them, whether it was at a bar – many they closed – or in more formal settings.
“They always made it a point to get together,” said Lou DiBella, the Hall of Fame promoter who resurrected Ward’s career. “There was one time with just the three of us at a clam bar in the Mohegan Sun. They were drinking beer, telling stories, and I was eating clams.
“They were holding court, and everyone walking by couldn’t believe they were that close.”
To those frequently in their company, the running narrative was that they spoke a language only they understood – Ward’s Boston-ese and Gatti’s Canadian background mixed with his Italian heritage and New Jersey accent producing unintelligible diphthongs.
“They were like instant brothers,” said Jolene Mizzone, Main Events’ vice president of operations and matchmaker, who was often out with them. “Arturo only brought in his corner when he fought. That was it. There was no other baggage.
“After the fights with Micky, he started bringing Micky in for his ring walks. Arturo made sure Micky was brought in every single time. When they were out, as much as they would drink, they always worried about everyone else around them. That’s just the way they were.
“After Arturo beat Leonard Dorin in two (in July 2004), he was ready to go. They were at Bally’s until four in the morning. You couldn’t hang with those two. They were nonstop. Putting the drinking aside, they were both the same person. They could be obliterated, but if you were close to them, they watched out for you.”
Teddy Cruz, Gatti’s strength and conditioning coach, said the impetus to the Gatti-Ward bond happened in that Connecticut hospital.
“I remember that night, because Micky kept commenting how Arturo’s head was like granite,” Cruz recalled. “Arturo was lying there on the other side saying, ‘I never thought the day would come when I would actually meet a guy like me in the ring.’ I remember the first thing Arturo asked him, too: ‘Are you OK?’
“Looking at it from the outside in, you didn’t see how genuine and real they both are and how they were so real with each other. That was the thing about both of them. If Arturo didn’t like you, you knew it. He was done with you. Micky fought and behaved the same way.
“Arturo admired Micky.”
The admiration was mutual.
Ward was supposed to walk Gatti out for the Dorin fight in Atlantic City, but there was one glaring problem – Ward had been enjoying himself a bit too much that day. Gatti loved to party, but when it came to fight preparation, he was deathly serious. Everyone was quiet in Gatti’s dressing room prior to the ring walk.
“I was drunk before that fight, and everyone knew I was supposed to walk Arturo out,” Ward admitted. “Everyone was telling me not to let Arturo see me like that. It was a tough day. I think I forgot to pick up my wife from the airport that day; I was having a good time.
“I walked into Arturo’s dressing room and he sees me. Everyone thought he was going to tear my head off. Arturo called me back into the bathroom. Then he gives me a big hug and says, ‘I love it! If you were fighting, I would have been (drunker). Don’t worry about it.’”
Ward, in a stupor, walked Gatti out.
Everything was a competition between them. They never let up on each other, whether it was morning runs, racing go-karts or playing golf.
Ward tells the story about the time he visited Gatti during training camp in Florida. One day, Ward outdrove him on the golf course. The round lasted about three holes before Gatti told Ward they had to wrap it up – he’d suddenly remembered that he had to take a nap before training.
“Arturo hated to lose – at anything,” said Ward, laughing. “I’m the same way.”
After Gatti died, Ward was at every memorial service. Anytime he talks to Lynch, DiBella, Mizzone, Moretti or Duva, he asks how Gatti’s family is doing.
“Arturo is a part of me,” Ward said. “It’s why it was so hard when he died. It was like part of me died, and in a way, it did. He brought the best out of me, in and out of the ring, and I would like to think I brought out the best in him.”
Ward carries Gatti’s spirit.
He was a pallbearer for Gatti’s funeral. Before lowering Gatti into his grave, Ward threw a touching left hook at the casket.
“I had to get the last shot in,” Ward said, wiping away a tear.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.