Joe Louis was at training camp in the Catskills many years ago when a gaggle of reporters from New York came up to
visit. During their conversation about his upcoming fight, one of the reporters told the heavyweight champion that his
opponent "doesn't like it to the body."
This bit of insight led to an explanation on the ravages of body punching that was as clear as an October morning in the
High Sierra, and as concise as a perfectly thrown left hook to the liver.
"Who do?" Louis asked.
Micky Ward took that brief boxing lesson to heart.
A career journeyman in a laborer's business until the twilight of his career, Ward became a dime-story hero after three
brutal appointments shared with Arturo Gatti made him a celebrity. Those fights, and the millions they earned him, came
because of two things: his grittiness and his ability to find the "floating rib," as old boxing trainers used to call
the spot where the rib cage stops and collapse begins.
Ward may not have been the greatest body puncher in prizefighting history, but no one ever survived to fight another
day more often because of body blows. Not only did Ward's soul-crushing body punches break down Gatti in their first
fight and eventually drive the little warrior to the floor, on two occasions they also saved the Lowell junior
welterweight's career from a 9-5 day job.
The first of those times came on April 12, 1997, in Las Vegas. Ward had been invited by promoter Bob Arum to wrap up his
career. A $200,000 payday had slipped through Ward's fingers when Julio Cesar Chavez pulled out of a scheduled fight,
claiming a bad hand.
Ward was left with a $10,000 offer to face an undefeated kid who had knocked out 15 opponents on his way to a 16-0
record. Ward wasn't supposed to change Alfonso Sanchez's career arc that night when the smiling young Mexican slipped into a
place he'd never been before. It wasn't the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. It was hell's back door, although it
didn't seem that way at first.
For six rounds, Sanchez's win column seemed ready to expand at the expense of Ward's face. Round after round he was beating
the Irishman's features into an unrecognizable pulp, and all Ward seemed able to do in response was slam his gloved fists
together in frustration.
As the punishment continued, referee Mitch Halpern watched closely, finally coming to Ward's corner before the seventh
round and warning him he was taking too much punishment.
"I told Ward, 'Show me something or I'm stopping the fight,'" Halpern would later say in amazement. "He was one punch
away from me stopping it. Then he threw a hell of a punch."
Before he could get to that though, Ward heaped verbal abuse on his chief second, Jimmy Connolly, who was threatening to
stop the fight. Ward had gone down the previous round and was trailing by an obscene nine points on one judge's card and
eight on another. His 3½-year comeback from driving a road paver was grinding to a halt when he pulled
himself up from his stool.
Some 77 seconds later, Ward slammed a left hook under Sanchez's rib cage, forcing the air and all the fight out of the
young Mexican hotshot. And that was that.
Sanchez sunk to his knees like an ocean liner slowly taking on water. He sagged forward, like a drooping flower stem in
late fall, his forehead gently resting on the canvas.
Halpern didn't have to count to 10, but he did anyway.
"I hurt Sanchez with one [body shot] earlier and I heard him grunt, but he was so strong that I had to keep covering
up," Ward said that day. "I couldn't get another one in, but I still felt I could get him if I had the guts. That's what
you've got to have. I waited and I wanted."
He waited and waded through 110 punches to the head (according to CompuBox) just to land that one body shot. When he did, all debts had been paid.
A few months later, Ward was fighting Vince Phillips for the junior welterweight championship. That title fight ended in
three rounds, when Ward's eye split open. He was back on boxing's secondary circuit, two years older and deeper in debt.
Ward would experience a moment similar to that of the Sanchez fight two years later against fellow journeyman Reggie Green. This
time it wasn't the Thomas and Mack Center, but rather the Icenter, an old ice arena in New Hampshire.
Green hailed from Maryland but had walked the same hard road, never quite getting to the destination he'd set out for.
That is what boxing is for most prizefighters: a long walk to an ice arena in Nowhereville. Yet things can happen in
such places on the right night. Or the wrong one, depending on where you end up.
That night, less than 2,000 people, plus an ESPN2 audience, witnessed the kind of savagery one normally only reads about.
For 20 seconds short of 10 rounds they had beaten each other half to death because they knew what they were fighting
for. Their lives.
They banged each other to the body and head, Green most often getting the better of it. Or so it seemed. Certainly the
outward evidence was that Ward's face could not take much more after being nearly knocked out in the third round. But Green was unable to finish the job, and that was a mistake against a guy willing to pay so much just to hit you in
the rib cage.
Over the fight's last three rounds, Ward tore at Green's body like an angry rottweiler. He slammed blow after blow into
Green's midsection, and with each punch, a little more of Green was on the floor. Then finally, with only 20
seconds left before the final bell would have tolled defeat for Ward, he landed the last of those body shots, followed by a
mind-numbing right hand to the face, and Green reeled backwards and sagged into the turnbuckle. He was defenseless and on
his way to unconsciousness or worse when referee Norm Veillieux stepped between them and saved Ward's career and
Green's cornermen poured into the ring. Not one protested the stoppage, even though their man was only 20 more seconds of
brutality away from victory. As they did, Ward tapped his glove against his heart as blood poured out of a cut along his
lip, a cut so deep he wouldn't need to open his mouth to brush his teeth.
"I had the will," Ward said that night. "He's a hell of a fighter, but I could feel I was getting to him
to the body. I
was hitting him on the elbows and to the sides and that takes a lot out of a guy. I knew I had to do it."
ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas knew exactly what Ward was doing, too.
"That was not entertainment," Atlas said. "That was not business. That was fighting. This is a barbaric thing at the
core of it. It ain't always pretty, but it's real. As the mobsters say, that was a real guy up there. It was like the
first time your parents took you to the zoo and they said, 'That there is a lion.' And you look and he roars and you
think, 'Yeah, that's a lion!' Tonight, if you never been there before, that was a fighter."
Two fighters really. Two weeks earlier, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad split $31.5 million for doing a lot
less than Green and Ward (who earned $35,000 between them) did to each other that night. Atlas, a long-time and
highly respected trainer before he began his television career, understood what that meant.
"There's an urgency about what they do," Atlas said. "There's no list of options for them. The only option is to fight.
It's about winning, because if Ward doesn't, he's back to 'almost' again and 'almost' ain't good enough when you got no
No other options but to accept the risk of throwing punches to the body until somebody breaks.
Ron Borges, who has won numerous Boxing Writers Association of America awards, covers boxing for HBO.com and for Boxing Monthly.