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Arturo Gatti-Wilson Rodriguez: March Mayhem 25 years later

Gatti and Rodriguez throw down in March 1996. Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
23
Mar

More than 11 years after his passing, the name Arturo Gatti continues to inspire visions of violence, drama and resilience. More than anything else, his passion for combat and his willingness to push himself to the absolute limit — win or lose — defines his legacy, an intangible-rich collective that led to his posthumous election to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013.

It is difficult for one to identify Gatti’s most extraordinary display of valor. Candidates include his one-punch KO of Gabriel Ruelas in October 1997, his two losing wars against Ivan Robinson staged four months apart in 1998, his oft-forgotten struggle against Joe Hutchinson in September 2000 in which he fought through a horrific gash over the left eye to win on points, and, of course, his action-soaked first meeting with Micky Ward in May 2002 that launched one of history’s most celebrated trilogies. If anyone proved himself worthy to take the action hero blowtorch from Matthew Saad Muhammad, it was Gatti.

But Gatti’s road to immortality had to have a starting point, and that starting point may have also been his greatest escape. It was established 25 years ago today when he risked his IBF junior lightweight title against Wilson Rodriguez inside The Theater at Madison Square Garden. It headlined the second episode of the groundbreaking “HBO After Dark” series that was designed to showcase outstanding fighters in the lower-weight classes who were viewed as being just below main event status on HBO’s flagship “World Championship Boxing” platform. While it is true that Gatti’s title-winning performance against Tracy Harris Patterson aired on WCB, it served as the co-feature to Oscar De La Hoya’s second-round corner retirement of Jesse James Leija in Madison Square Garden’s “big room.” Now, in the building’s smaller venue on what was perceived to be a secondary series, Gatti was asked to prove himself as a main-event attraction against an opponent few Americans knew anything about.  Adding to Gatti’s challenge was that the first “Boxing After Dark” main event — Marco Antonio Barrera’s 12th round TKO of Kennedy McKinney — had set such an extraordinarily high bar; even if Gatti and Rodriguez produced a quality fight, it likely would have suffered from its proximity to Barrera-McKinney, a fight HBO analyst Larry Merchant called “a five-run home run.”

Not only did Gatti-Rodriguez measure up to its predecessor, it exceeded it. Head-snapping punches were accompanied by vivid shifts of momentum that pushed both men to the edge of competitive extinction, and the victor’s identity wasn’t assured until the very last punch. It was a fight so good that Merchant, the quintessence of the grizzled, hard-to-please old-school scribe reluctant to assign greatness to anything he had just seen, was moved to do just that in the immediate afterglow of this fight.



“People will never forget this fight,” he asserted. “It’ll be shown over and over and over again. That is a remarkable achievement by this young junior lightweight champion.”

Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Both men came into the match with plenty to prove. The 30-year-old Rodriguez was a globetrotting Dominican who emigrated to Spain, and while he had fought in Jamaica, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Russia , Puerto Rico and Kazakhstan, he was engaging in his first fight on the American mainland. He was said to be a slick, quick-fisted competitor capable of disturbing an opponent’s rhythm, and his biggest physical advantage over Gatti was his abnormally long 76-inch reach, a wingspan that was seven inches longer than Gatti’s. After a faltering start to his career — a draw in his pro debut and a 18-7-3 mark through his first five-and-a-half years — Rodriguez had won 26 of his last 27 fights. The only blemish: A 10th round TKO loss to John John Molina in November 1994 for the same IBF title for which he would be fighting Gatti. Rodriguez was shrouded in mystery, and it was up to him to demonstrate that he belonged on this stage against this champion. With 53 professional fights and 320 rounds of experience under his belt, he potentially had the know-how to unlock the Gatti puzzle.

An interesting note: The song playing over the loudspeaker during Rodriguez’s ring walk was “Young Man Rumble” by Max and Sam. The “Max” was Max Kellerman, who would become a member of the HBO broadcast team in 2006.

As for Gatti, a 23-year-old who was born in Italy, raised in Canada and resided in New Jersey, he was thrust into the role of the pursued after years of being the pursuer. He was the main event attraction who had a world title belt wrapped around his waist, and it was worthy to note that the only defeat in his 24-1 (20 KOs) record was a six-round split decision to another anonymous slickster in Kong Solomon. In that fight, Solomon also scored the only official knockdown of Gatti’s career, though Gatti insisted the fall should have been ruled a slip.

For Gatti, the hype machine was already in place; not only had he secured a long-term deal with HBO, he had inked a promotional pact with Integrated Sports International, a sports management company whose clients included Steve Young, Drew Bledsoe, Hakeem Olajuwon and De La Hoya. Part of the effort to widen Gatti’s reach was to have him be part of the radio broadcast of Roy Jones’ Madison Square Garden debut against Merqui Sosa 28 days after becoming a world champion. He was charismatic, telegenic and boasted a flair for the dramatic, for he overcame two nearly closed eyes to dethrone Patterson, who landed a sky-high 52 percent of his total punches, 47 percent of his jabs and 57 percent of his power punches in defeat. Gatti responded by landing 50 percent of his punches in all phases while out-landing him 434-283 in overall punches.

Like Rodriguez, Gatti’s entrance music was well-chosen: AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” the song that would become as much of a trademark as his high cheekbones, his wide smile, the unique French-Canadian/Jersey accent and his unmatched fighting spirit.

Both men began the fight as expected; Rodriguez circling away from Gatti’s lethal left hook and Gatti stalking behind accurate rights to the ribs. In less than two minutes’ time, however, Rodriguez’s pinpoint jabs created a swelling under Gatti’s left eye, and a shotgun jab to the face in the final minute briefly knocked the champion off balance. Undeterred, Gatti continued to march forward and fire power shots from both sides, but Rodriguez closed out a successful opening round by spearing the champion time and again with his quick, direct blows.

Cutman Joe Souza works on Gatti. Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Although the injury was already serious enough to cause Gatti to blink heavily on his way back to the corner, he was assured that “it’s nothing,” and was told to get low, move his head, work the body, throw combinations, not look for one punch and not try too hard. Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s corner told him to repeat what he had done in the first round: Stay relaxed, keep working the jab, and move to his left.

But Gatti already knew his situation was more dire than his corner was portraying, and, in Round 2, he acted accordingly. He accelerated his pursuit, did a better job of cutting the distance between himself and Rodriguez with better upper body movement, and started to land more of his hooks. Rodriguez, however, was unaffected by Gatti’s thunder as he coolly applied his stick-and-move blueprint while landing several rights to the injured eye. Sensing their man was staging a rally, the MSG crowd began chanting Gatti’s name, but the recipient of their support soon had another trouble point — a rapidly swelling right eye.

Shortly before the round’s halfway point, Merchant succinctly summarized Gatti’s plight: “I think Gatti is in real trouble unless he can do something dramatic, guys.” Gatti further communicated his duress by wincing every few seconds, and with alarming rapidity it became evident that cut man Joe Souza would have his hands full tending to Gatti’s injuries.

As if Gatti’s crisis wasn’t severe enough, Rodriguez deepened it by landing a compact left uppercut to the jaw that floored the champion heavily. Unlike the knockdown he suffered against Solomon, there was no disputing the validity of this tumble. Gatti scrambled to his feet before referee Wayne Kelly counted three, but when the action resumed Rodriguez went for the kill and was landing the vast majority of his blows. Had Rodriguez been a crunching power puncher, he may well have ended the match then and there, but because he wasn’t — and because Gatti was made of supernatural stuff — he not only survived the onslaught, he even managed to stun Rodriguez with a hook just before the bell.

The damage inflicted by both men was brutal; according to CompuBox Rodriguez landed 53 of 94 punches for 56 percent accuracy while Gatti was 47 of 92 (51 percent). But while Gatti was hanging tough, his window of opportunity was closing quickly.

The team of Souza, trainer Hector Roca and second assistant Bob Wareing leaped into action the moment Gatti sat on the stool. After receiving instructions from Roca, Souza joined the fray by emphasizing the obvious through clenched teeth: “You ain’t got no time; you got to get out there and do it.”

Gatti took Souza’s words to heart as he charged out of the corner and connected with a hurtful right to Rodriguez’s temple — his most meaningful punch of the fight thus far. Rodriguez initially responded by trying to trade with the champion, but, after deciding that would be unwise, he was content to slip and dip away from Gatti’s follow-ups before clamping on a clinch.

Gatti continued to release big bombs…. Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Gatti then connected with a full-blooded left uppercut to the jaw whose impact was graphically captured by HBO’s microphones, but Rodriguez’s chin held firm, and, even more incredibly, he began going punch-for-punch with the defending titlist. Finally, Gatti got the toe-to-toe war he wanted from the start, and, given his state, it was the war he absolutely had to have if he was to save his championship. The bad news for Gatti was that Rodriguez seemed up to the task, for he absorbed several more of Gatti’s hooks with stunning aplomb, then fired back in kind.

Meanwhile, the excited MSG crowd became electrified, for they were totally caught up in the operatic story unfolding before them. For Gatti, he had two other opponents beside Rodriguez: The clock and his eroding facial tissues. For Rodriguez, the task was to weather Gatti’s desperate rally while inflicting enough damage to draw a title-shifting stoppage.

“It’s going to take a near-miracle against a tough guy to knock out,” stated Lampley. Rodriguez’s current durability aside, the record showed that five of Rodriguez’s eight losses were by KO, so, at least in theory, Gatti still had a chance to produce that miracle — as long as he was permitted the opportunity to keep fighting. On this night, at least so far, Rodriguez looked unmovable as he absorbed flush hook after flush hook with scary imperviousness.

The vigorous two-way action as Round 3 ended moved Merchant to proclaim the following: “This show has just become another five-run home run.”

As Gatti walked toward his corner, his face was a mass of lumps, the worst of which was the swelling under his right eye that left it nearly slammed shut. As Souza pressed the Enswell against the orb, he was joined by the ringside physician, who aggressively wedged his way in with the intent of assessing the champion’s medical situation.

“Back off. I said, back off!” the doctor told Souza as he elbowed his way in.

“Don’t push on me, God damn it!” Souza responded.

“I’m not pushing you,” he responded. Turning his attention to Gatti, he ordered “cover your left eye.” Gatti responded by saying “I’m all right,” but the physician proved he would not be stopped from executing his duties, for he pointed his index finger at Gatti and firmly told him to “cover your left eye or it’s over!” As the doctor held up two fingers and began to quiz Gatti, Gatti tried to circumvent the process by lowering his glove. The sharp-eyed professional saw through the ploy and asked again.

“How many fingers?” he asked.

“Two fingers,” he correctly said.

“Now?”

“One,” he replied, again correctly.

“All right,” the satisfied doctor said before quickly ducking out of the corner and allowing Souza to resume his work.

Moments before the start of Round 4, Merchant opined, “this is world-class stuff folks.” Jones did Merchant one better by replying, with perfect comedic timing, “this is World War III folks.”

But Merchant regained the rhetorical edge a few seconds later by stating, “there are a lot of fights after midnight out there on the mean streets of New York, and I can promise you, nothing is like this one.”

A meaty right to the hip nearly 30 seconds into the round caused Rodriguez’s eyes to widen slightly and his legs to shift into reverse. Gatti then connected with a long right to the jaw that hastened his retreat, and, for the first time in the fight, it appeared Gatti has seized the momentum. Gatti now was beginning and ending most of the exchanges, and his robust body shots started to take the spring from the challenger’s legs. Little by little, Rodriguez was becoming a more stationary and reachable target, and anything that was in range of Gatti’s fists was in danger of being destroyed.

…. and many of those bombs connected. Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Rodriguez, however, would not go down without emptying his chamber. In the round’s final minute he let loose with several combinations that connected with excellent accuracy, and as the round neared the 2:30 mark , a pinpoint right to the temple dangerously scrambled Gatti’s wires. Seeing this, Rodriguez unleashed another machine-gun volley, but even as Gatti retreated his instinct was to fire back with utter abandon. Two hooks nailed Rodriguez as he charged in, and those punches, combined with an egregiously low blow, gave Gatti just enough of an opening to end the session with a breathtaking explosion of power shots. This was trademark Gatti stuff; one could almost see him digging into his reservoir of competitiveness, then using the crowd’s sonic support to summon an improbable finishing kick.

For the second consecutive round, the ringside physician tested Gatti’s sight, and for the second consecutive round he produced perfect responses. This encounter was far less contentious — the doctor made sure to cover Gatti’s left eye with his own hand — but the state of the eye was now appalling. Momentum or not, time was of the essence for Gatti, something of which Rodriguez’s corner was also well aware.

“Stay away from him,” said trainer Jose Luis de la Sagra, who went 1-0-1 in back-to-back fights with Rodriguez in July and September 1990. “Push him off.”

Like Gatti, Rodriguez tried to heed his corner’s instructions. He began Round 5 by shooting a quadruple jab while Gatti stalked and worked the challenger’s body with both hands. Several body blows strayed below the belt and referee Kelly deducted a point from Gatti following one particularly ill-aimed right. Kelly’s action only crystallized what everyone already knew: If Gatti wanted to leave the ring with his title intact there was only one way to do it – by knockout.

With 36 seconds remaining Gatti took a big step toward doing just that. A scything hook to the ribs first froze Rodriguez, then forced him to take a knee near Gatti’s corner. It took everything he had to rise by Kelly’s count of eight and the pumped-up champion did everything he could to put over the finisher.

“Can you believe this kid?” an incredulous Merchant asked.

As Gatti barreled in, Rodriguez nailed him with a rocket-like hook to the jaw but the single-minded Gatti shook it off and continued to fire. A second hook stopped Gatti in his tracks and suddenly the tide had turned a second time in less than 30 seconds.

The plot twists were almost too much to assimilate and yet one didn’t want the thrills and chills to stop. At the end of a rare 9-8 round, the two fighters touched gloves as they passed each other. As is the case with many fights like these, intense professional conflict had spawned admiration.

“You’re winning this fight,” De La Sagra told Rodriguez through HBO interpreter Hector Garcia. “Keep your distance. You have to fight and keep the distance. Keep away from this man.”

The contrast in visages couldn’t have been more stark as the sixth round began. While Gatti’s face was an ugly collection of knots and bruises, Rodriguez’s was startlingly clean. The scorecards weren’t nearly as lopsided, for Rodriguez led 48-45 on two cards while Gatti held a 47-46 edge on the third.

Rodriguez tried to apply the tactics that had worked so well early on – staying on the move while shooting hard punches down the middle – but now they lacked the force to keep the beast named Gatti away for long. While Gatti’s blows to the head had no discernible effect, the ones that slammed Rodriguez’s body brought tell-tale flinches. A shotgun jab knocked Rodriguez back and a whipping hook to the belly caused him to grimace ever so slightly.

That grimace told Gatti that the time had come to close the show, and he did so in theatrical fashion. Just before Rodriguez set his feet to throw a hook, Gatti snapped himself into position and fired his own.

Bull’s eye.

The punch caught Rodriguez on the side of the jaw and the after-effects finally caused his previously rock-solid legs to crumble. Lying flat on his back, Rodriguez no longer had the energy to resist. He could only roll over onto his right side by the time Kelly reached the count of 10. At the 2:16 mark of Round 6, Gatti not only retained his IBF title, he had created the first cut of what would become a legendary highlight reel.

The wounded warrior. Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

The CompuBox numbers reflected the contest’s savagery. Both men threw and landed nearly the same number of punches – 236 of 445 for Gatti, 237 of 449 for Rodriguez – and they connected at an incredibly high rate. They each landed 53 percent of their total punches and while Rodriguez led 94-54 in landed jabs and was more precise with them (50 percent to 36 percent), Gatti led 182-143 in landed power shots and connected on 62 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts to Rodriguez’s 55 percent. If ever a fight could be described as high-impact, this was one.

When Merchant asked Gatti when he knew his situation was desperate, he replied “it’s when I got dropped (in Round 2) – I would never have believed I would ever get dropped, you know – I could get dropped and I got scared when I went down.  I didn’t even know I was down until I looked around and I said, ‘oh my God, I’m going to lose the fight.’ When I started going to the body…I loaded up a little too much, then when I started working normal to the body I started hurting him.

“I have the heart and I have what it takes to be a champion – and I did it.” he concluded.

“He’s a true champ and he will go far,” Rodriguez told Merchant through Garcia. “I can’t believe the way he came back against me, and he will go very, very far.”

Seventeen years after this match, his final destination was identified: Canastota, N.Y., the hometown of another blood-and-guts battler in Carmen Basilio who was involved in a record five consecutive Fights of the Year as determined by The Ring. Gatti is tied with Joe Louis, Tony Zale, Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano in having taken part in three straight RING Fights of the Year, and the plaque bearing his name inside the International Boxing Hall of Fame is emblematic of his achievements.

Unfortunately, Gatti was unable to experience his elevation in person. Almost two years to the day after his final fight in July 2009, the 37-year-old Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil, where he was vacationing with his Brazilian wife Amanda Rodrigues. Rodrigues initially was charged with first-degree murder but 18 days later Gatti’s death was ruled a suicide and Rodrigues was released. In August 2011, private investigators ruled that the fighter was a victim of homicide, ensuring that final answers surrounding Gatti’s last moments on earth will remain a mystery for years to come – if not forever.

But while the circumstances concerning his end remain unresolved, the reality of what he did 25 years ago today is emblazoned in the memories of all who saw it. Declared an “instant classic” upon its conclusion, Gatti-Rodriguez is now remembered as the night boxing’s newest warrior king was born.

 

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 19 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of  “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.

 

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