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Sunday, June 8, 2003
A savage beating felt and dealt

By Johnnie Whitehead

ATLANTIC CITY -- It has been 30 rounds of guilty pleasure, and while 12,643 paid to see the final chapter of the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy it may be the fighters who paid the most in the end.

The junior welterweights stood at ring center, exhausted and bleeding -- but mostly hurting -- as they nodded and sighed during an embrace. And then they resumed beating the hell out of each other in that 10th and final round that was resplendent as the nine before it as Gatti won a unanimous decision at Boardwalk Hall by scores of 96-93 (twice) and 97-92.

It's over for Ward, who said before the fight this would be his last regardless of the outcome, and it's the beginning of one final push for Gatti, who has two fights left on his HBO contract that was signed months before Saturday's bout.

HBO is interested in a possible fall matchup with IBF lightweight titleholder Paul Spadafora, who probably will move up five pounds rather than wait for a rematch with WBA titleholder Leonard Dorin. Those lightweights fought to a hotly contested draw May 17, but Dorin incurred major cuts around his eyes that required upwards of 30 stitches that may keep him sidelined too long, and Spadafora's manager Al McCauley said they want Gatti. Another possibility is James Leija, who like Spadafora was in attendance, and who said that he was contacted a few weeks ago concerning a bout with Gatti.

But the immediate question is much greater than boxing. It's Arturo Gatti. He's had a plethora of wars before -- such as his signature comeback knockout win against Wilson Rodriguez that launched him into stardom in 1996 -- but this was the kind of fight that shortens careers. Both fighters broke their right hands. Both needed emergency medical treatment. Both will be linked together forever in history.

"We definitely made a mark in boxing," Gatti, who has won two of the three fights with Ward, told MaxBoxing. "We definitely will be remembered for the rest of our lives."

Gatti accelerated his road work leading up to the bout, figuring that if his legs were in top form he could avert Ward's aggression and keep it a pure boxing match. Everything was going according to schedule until he broke his hand in the third, and the fight broke out in the fourth.

That's when Ward's right hand, which had been missing over the top of the smooth-boxing Gatti, found its home. Then came the customary left hooks to the body and uppercuts on the inside. True to his nature, Gatti came out of his envelope to assume his warrior's posture.

"I think I hit him around the hip and it just threw me off the fight," said Gatti, who went into the second fight with a busted hand from training camp and had it surgically repaired soon after. "This time I couldn't show that I was hurt. Buddy (McGirt) said just forget about the head and try to set up the uppercut to the body because I couldn't go to the head no more."

Ward was cut over the left eye in the fifth but still closed strong as Gatti (36-6, 28 knockouts) whipped him with wide-arcing shots to the flanks. Just when it looked like Gatti had regained control, a left hook-right hand dropped him at the end of the sixth as a fever pitch came over the arena. It was Gatti-Ward I all over again.

"In the middle of the round I got brave again and started throwing the right hand again," said Gatti of that exchange. "It was more of a flash knockdown. I looked over my corner with a little grin to let them know I was all right."

Then came the seventh in a moment that has defined Gatti his whole career. A right hand turned him limp as he barely remained upright. Just when it appeared Ward (38-13, 27 KOs) was on his way to certain victory, "Thunder" bounced a fusillade of left hooks off his chin to stem the tide to steal the round.

Gatti went on to win most of the late rounds, and everyone was standing before the start of the 10th. The two didn't disappoint as they traded to the end.

"We all know what boxing should be about. It should be about entertainment and professionalism that Arturo Gatti provides to the fans," said HBO boxing chief Kery Davis, explaining why the network signed him to a deal. "We're an entertainment company. Arturo Gatti's ratings and following with the public is the reason why. The contract was really a formality. Ever since I've been at HBO, Arturo Gatti has been an HBO fighter. He will always be an HBO fighter."

But will he ever be the same fighter? Gatti walked gingerly back to his dressing room wincing in pain in a scene that resembled the chaos of a hospital's ER that was a revolving door for concerned family, officials and medical technicians. One of the doctors who analyzed Gatti nodded her head and put it this way: "Unbelievable he was able to endure that."

Despite his hand injuries, Gatti landed 54% of his 845 punches according to CompuBox estimates. He connected on 41% of his jabs. He landed more than twice as many powerpunches as Ward (254-107), who wasn't able to attend the postfight conference because he needed immediate medical attention.

McGirt is optimistic about Gatti's chances at gaining the 140-pound championship, currently held by Kostya Tszyu, but Gatti will be on the shelf for a while to heal before looking too far ahead. His HBO deal won't give him the luxury of any gimmes. "There's no one tougher than Micky Ward out there," said McGirt.

And there's no one tougher than Arturo Gatti.