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Thursday, January 22, 2004
Updated: January 23, 9:01 PM ET
Kellerman: Gatti vs. the unknown

By Max Kellerman
Special to ESPN.com

Arturo Gatti is this generation's most exciting fighter - the Mathew Sadd Muhammad, the Bob Satterfield, the Rocky Graziano of his era.

Gatti is fighting this Saturday night in Atlantic City. His opponent is Gianluca Branco, who is as unknown in this generation as any number of unknown fighters were in theirs. I would list some of their little-known names, but I've never heard of them.

Okay, that's not fair - just because I have never seen Branco fight does not mean that he can't fight. I never saw Harry Greb fight either, but a quick glance at Greb's record suggests that "The Pittsburgh Windmill" could fight as well as anyone who's ever lived. What does a quick glance at Branco's record suggest?

Nothing much - at least not to me. I've never heard of most of the guys Branco's fought. At least he beat them all. Well, there was that one draw against Viktor Baranov in '98. Baranov has lost nearly as many fights in his career as he's won.

Oh, there is one name - Allan Vester. I know Vester - he's the guy who Zab Judah blew out in three rounds. Branco also knocked Vester out, though not until the 10th.

Okay, so the record tells me, a normally adjusted boxing freak, nothing at all. But what about a totally obsessed boxing freak? What about someone who likes nothing more than going to his mailbox to find video tapes from Japan showcasing evenly matched junior bantamweights in four round prelims? What would Branco's record suggest to such a person? Better yet, might that person have even seen Branco fight?

I picked up the phone and dialed Dan Rafael's direct line at USA Today.

  • Me: "Okay Dan, give me one reason that Branco has a shot against Gatti."

  • Dan: "Alright, this is a tough one... okay, you understand, I don't think Branco is going to win, but I'll give you a couple of reasons if you are looking for them that it is possible that he might: Gatti often makes fights more difficult than they need to be. Ivan Robinson was supposed to be an easy opponent and Gatti had two hellacious fights with him and in fact lost the rematch worse than he lost the first fight. Also, Gianluca's older brother Silvio has been a world-class fighter for a number of years and in fact won a sanctioning body belt in October."

    (By the way, there is a woman getting ready to marry this guy. I've met her - she can pronounce the names of every belt holder in Thailand.)

    The question must be asked - why is Gatti not fighting an opponent boxing fans are actually familiar with? I asked Arturo that very question this week and his answer was that he is fighting Branco because one of those ridiculous sanctioning body titles is on the line.

    Okay, so Arturo didn't exactly call it a "ridiculous sanctioning body title." I believe his exact words were "world championship."

    There is no legitimate title on the line in the Gatti-Branco fight. Kostya Tszyu is the junior welterweight champion of the world. The Ring Magazine champ. Why is the Ring belt significant and all other belts meaningless? Is it because the Ring has some special moral authority that the sanctioning bodies do not?

    Well, yes. They have moral authority derived from their championship policy. The policy is as follows:

  • A fighter can become world champion by beating the reigning champion.

  • The only three occasions when a fighter will lose his championship status are when he retires, moves to another weight division or is defeated in a championship bout.

  • Championship vacancies can be filled in one of two ways:
    1) by unifying all three "major" sanctioning body belts in a division, or
    2) by winning a box-off between The Ring's No. 1 and 2 contenders or in certain instances a box-off between the Ring's No. 1 and 3 contenders.

    In other words, the Ring champ - the real champ - had to earn that distinction in the ring.

    The Ring's system is not perfect. If their ratings were ever corrupted, for instance, a fighter could emerge with the Ring belt without having fought the best in his division. But as my father the shrink is fond of saying, "the perfect is often the enemy of the good." Or, as Ring Magazine Editor-in-Chief Nigel Collins told me:

    "The sanctioning bodies' system of stripping fighters of their titles has lead to wide spread abuse. Every now and then a Lennox Lewis essentially holds a division hostage by sitting on the title and not defending it for a while, and it would be better if that were not the case, but in such cases patience is preferable to rash action." Not to mention sanctioning body corruption.

    At any rate, it is good to have Arturo back in action. His opponents in the not-too-distant future could include Floyd Mayweather Jr. (the Ring's lightweight champ), and if boxing fans get their way, King Kostya. Really, 140 pounds is the most competitive and exciting place in boxing, and Gatti is its biggest star and most exciting fighter.

    Come Sunday morning he should have a win over Gianluca Branco on his record. And a meaningless sanctioning body belt. And Kostya Tszyu will still be champ. And Tszyu-Gatti will still be the biggest fight in the division.

    Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and the host of the show "Around The Horn."