The following article by Jimmy Tobin is a companion piece to his book, Killed In Brazil?: The Mysterious Death Of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti.
Everything changes on Saturday night in Atlantic City. That’s for sure. Everything changes. And that’s what Gatti wanted. One way or the other, that’s what Gatti wanted with the pedigree and perfection of a fighter called ‘Pretty Boy.’ Yes, Mayweather gives Gatti his moment of truth.
—Adrian Wojnarowski, for the Hackensack Record.
What was going to change when Arturo Gatti handed Floyd Mayweather Jr. the first defeat of his career? Gatti hinted at it during a press conference in City Bistro in Hoboken before the fight, telling the assembly, “I’m Arturo Gatti the brawler. I’m Arturo Gatti the big heart. I’m Arturo Gatti who comes back. I’m Arturo Gatti, one of the greatest fighters of my era.” It’s that last distinction, isn’t it? That’s where the moment of truth lay. Gatti? He was a brawler par excellence, a fighter of unquestionable heart, one trusted to rally from the brink of defeat. Boardwalk Hall was sold out that night, some of the 12,675 attendees having lined up at 4:30 in the morning the day tickets went on sale for the chance to witness to the preternatural. But was Gatti great?
Mayweather was going to answer the question, one that had yet to be answered or thus far been answered in the negative. If he could beat Mayweather, a 5-1 favorite, Gatti would prove he was great. “He’s the best fighter we’ve faced,” Gatti’s trainer, Buddy McGirt, told the New York Post, “and he’s the best fighter we’re going to beat.” The brawls, the heart, the rallies—a win over “Pretty Boy” would demand a reevaluation of all of that, a reevaluation in service of greatness. So for Gatti, yes, everything was going to change.
There were other changes to consider too. McGirt convinced Gatti that it was better to recover from a fight on the golf course than in the ER. So long as Micky Ward wasn’t trying to shank him, Gatti had abandoned his immolating ways. But could Gatti defeat Mayweather without courting his own destruction? Only a great fighter could do that. McGirt swore Gatti was just such a fighter. “Arturo rises to the occasion of his opponent,” said McGirt, “He knows he is going to rise for Floyd and he knows that what we worked on he is going to do. If he does that, I’m telling you, it’s not going to be as hard as you think.”
Mayweather dismissed the notion that Gatti was great, that he posed anything close to a threat. At a news conference that March, Mayweather called Gatti a “C+ fighter,” said he was looking past his upcoming opponent, said there was a heavy bag in his gym with Gatti’s name on it “because he’s known for getting hit.” “On paper, this is my biggest fight, Mayweather said, “but this guy is no [Jose Luis] Castillo, no [Diego] Corrales, no Jesus Chavez.” No, in Mayweather’s eyes, Gatti was a “bum” and a “paper champion.” This sort of venom was absent from the later Mayweather, a professional who understood there was no need to sell opponents when he was who people wanted to see. But in 2005, “Money” Mayweather, the fighter who called seemingly every opponent a “helluva fighter” or a “hungry young fighter” because they all meant essentially the same thing to him, was still years away. This version of Mayweather had yet to make it, had yet become an event. He understood, however, what it would take to become one, how what transpired between the ropes could only take him so far. Before he could capitalize on being the fighter people wanted to see lose, Mayweather had to become that fighter. Gatti, limited but beloved, was the perfect foil.
“This is not a gentleman’s sport,” said Mayweather in the build-up, “This is rugged—blood, sweat, and tears … I’m not going to sit here and tell you how good a fighter is and blow a fighter up. I’m going to tell you how good I am and what I’m going to do to that fighter.” What Mayweather planned to do was hurt Gatti early. “In the first round, he’s going to swing a couple of wild shots,” predicted Mayweather, “He’s not going to hit me, but the crowd will scream for him. Soon as I put him his [rear] on the canvas, it will be quiet. I’ll put zippers on their mouths.”
He was almost right. Gatti never swung wildly, perhaps because McGirt coached greater control, perhaps because he couldn’t find a target to swing wildly at. Instead, Gatti opened the fight behind his jab, his restraint reflected by the capacity crowd where chants of “Gat-ti! Gati-ti!” percolated hesitantly through anxious mouths. With twenty seconds remaining in the round Mayweather leaned on a bent Gatti’s neck and, as the referee, Earl Morton, told the fighters to stop punching, ripped Gatti with an uppercut. Gatti, his hands down, backed up looking to Morton to address what he believed was a foul. Mayweather pounced, flooring Gatti with a left hook. The crowd was livid but Mayweather was right: when the round ended the protests from beyond the ropes died down. Mayweather was better; everyone in the building knew it. It wasn’t just his speed, the attribute Gatti later confessed to being confounded by—it was the focus, the control, the years of programming designed to bring him to greatness. In that brief moment when Mayweather-Gatti devolved into a fight, an exercise in hostility beyond the margins of sportsmanship, it was Mayweather who acted.
Before the seventh round, McGirt leaned into Gatti, “I’m stopping it, I’m stopping it. No more. No More. Your eyes are closing.” Gatti, the never-say-die warrior offered but a perfunctory protest. This was a new level of defeat; both men knew it. The sixth round had served as an exhibition of what a young Mayweather was capable of when the moment called for something more dramatic than a simple victory. Billed “Thunder and Lighting” the title reversed the natural order: lightning comes before thunder, and the electric Mayweather had flashed violently and disappeared long before Gatti could boom. Gatti had nothing for Mayweather, he never did, and Gatti–Mayweather was more event than fight. Mayweather, who knew as much all along, did as he should have, and butchered his iconic opponent.
Mayweather broke into tears in the aftermath. Not tears of relief, not of catharsis—Jordan weeping after winning the NBA championship on Father’s Day this was not. These were tears of pride; for “Pretty Boy” Gatti-Mayweather had only ever been about him, what it meant for him. His graciousness in victory seemed to come not so much from newfound respect for his opponent, but from Mayweather getting what he wanted. “Gatti was tough, strong, and came to fight.,” said Mayweather, “I respect Arturo for giving me the chance to win the title. He’s a great champion and I’m a great champion. Everything I said about him before the fight was just to hype the fight.”
Just to hype the fight. None of that prefight hostility was genuine. Sure, Mayweather could—and did—gripe about making less than Gatti, whose $3.5 million purse was $300,000 richer than Mayweather’s. He could—and did—gripe about fighting on Gatti’s turf. But, then, Gatti was the opponent Mayweather asked for. These were precisely the conditions he sought: an overmatched but beloved high-profile opponent who would lay his head on the block to make Mayweather a pay-per-view fighter. The fighter who would become the progenitor of the A-side gospel, the most adroitly maneuvered fighter of his generation, already understood the price for springboarding off Gatti’s popularity.
That price was worth it. In his column for the Asbury Park Press, Bill Handleman spoke to the spectacle of this mismatch: “There hasn’t been such a scene here in some time. There hasn’t been such a fight here in some time … What had it been, 17 years since Tyson–Spinks? Was Holyfield–Foreman this big? And what was that, 14 years ago?”
Mayweather needed Gatti. But what did Gatti need? Boxing had subsumed him, he’d nourished the future, only the ugly end remained. Forced to welterweight by his failing body and then from the sport by Carlos Baldimir and Alfonso Gomez, Gatti had no comebacks left. Retirement was waiting for him, lurking, ready to ruin a man freed from the discipline of the ring. There would soon be a new wife. And a new baby. But the wife was a problem and the baby, what could he do? He was a symbol, a reason—but however powerful, sometimes a symbol or reason isn’t enough in a crisis. Gatti was found dead under mysterious circumstances in Recife, Brazil, four years after fighting Mayweather. Mayweather went on to become the highest-earning athlete of the decade. Would he have become a pay-per-view fighter when he did if not for Gatti? Could he have coaxed kingmaker Oscar Dela Hoya into what was then the highest-grossing fight of all time had he not announced himself to the world at the expense of one of its adored? Maybe everything did change that Saturday night in Atlantic City.