Photo via Flickr/Bryan Horowitz.
Photo via Flickr/Bryan Horowitz.
The specifics of how it happened are shady and vague, as is often the case with businesses in Jersey City. But, somehow, sometime during my junior year in high school, a friend’s father, who owned a business in Jersey City, grew tight with Arturo Gatti. This was, at that time and in that place, something like becoming buddies with a comic book hero, or a demigod. I watched Gatti for the first time against Wilson Rodriguez in 1996, when he walked through countless punches and scored a spectacular knockout with his eyes basically swollen shut. From that point, I’d never miss a single Gatti fight. The very idea of him existing in real life was jarring.
The wonders piled up. Around that time, my mother started playing tennis with one of Gatti’s best friends. When he found out I was a fan, that friend showed up with an autographed picture of a bloodied, staggered Gatti with my name spelled wrong on the inscription. He also brought me a blue Rawlings windbreaker crudely emblazoned with “Gatti: World Champ” and a clip-art pair of boxing gloves. More evidence that, somewhere out there in some other New Jersey, Arturo Gatti was indeed real. By what would have been Gatti's 40th birthday last month, he was notably less mythic. His collapse played out luridly, violently, quickly and in public, and ended with his death under suspicious circumstances in a hotel room in Brazil. Years after his death, and several years longer than that after the death of his myth, Gatti is finally a bit more comprehensible, and even more tragic than he seemed while manfully absorbing all those beatings in the ring. What I—and seemingly every other kid in North Jersey at that time—loved and admired about him both masked and enabled the things that would inevitably destroy him. He was, even at his apex, always on his way back to earth.
Gatti's supremely aggressive fighting style was utterly bereft of logic, and also the thing that made him so special and perversely admirable. Utilizing minimal defense and taking massive amounts of punishment, Gatti constantly seemed on the brink of disaster before charging back swinging. It made for terrifying and wonderful theater.
In Jersey, Gatti’s fights were the boxing equivalent of a Giants game or Bon Jovi concert, with what seemed like the entirety of Jersey City making pilgrimage down the Turnpike to wave Italian flags and holler along with AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" during his ring walk. After his epic trilogy with Micky Ward in 2002-03, Gatti finally appealed to the masses, and eventually found his way into a $3.5 million purse for a pay-per-view fight against Floyd Mayweather in 2004. Gatti was widely outclassed and beaten even more thoroughly into a pulp than usual.
It didn't matter much. For boxing fans, Gatti was a no-nonsense guy in a sport filled with nonsense. The curmudgeons holding a flame for the sport adored him because he was a throwback to the Mancinis and LaMottas of yesteryear who lived to fight; clichéd as it might be, it was easy to picture Gatti throwing bare-knuckle punches for 15 rounds. Just by stepping in the ring and fighting the only way he knew how, he both elevated and simplified everything around him.
There were times, late in his career, when Gatti and trainer Buddy McGirt endeavored to eschew brawling in favor of a more technical style that involved more defense and fewer open wounds. But though Gatti had skill to pull it off, it never really took; when he got in trouble, Gatti would without fail resume leading with his face en route to another painful and sensational Gatti performance. A leopard doesn’t change his spots.
The one time I met Gatti, it was about an hour after he’d won the middle fight of his trilogy against Ward. I was about to leave Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall when Gatti walked out from the back with his fiancée at the time, Vivian—a beautiful, dignified woman who was widely credited with curbing his drinking and refocusing him on boxing.
The opportunity was too great to pass up, so I asked if he could stop for a picture. I had no idea at the time that Gatti had destroyed his right hand in the fight and was on his way to get it fixed—I wouldn’t have asked—but he obliged me anyway. Vivian took the picture, and I watched them walk away, seemingly headed—well, after that stop at the hospital—toward the good life.
A little over a year later, at the press conference before his fight against Gianluca Branco, Gatti openly wept over losing Vivian. The room turned awkwardly quiet; Gatti’s blood and sweat were familiar by that point, but not his tears. I wondered what had gone wrong, but by the time "Thunderstruck" played Gatti out to the ring that Saturday, I’d forgotten all about it.
There were obvious signs that not everything was right with Gatti. But you had to want to see them, and everyone was simply too busy watching his fights, and writing the virtues he displayed in the ring back onto the fighter himself, contrary evidence notwithstanding. We romanticized his taste for nightlife, which is to say that we glossed over multiple DUIs, ignored domestic violence charges, and looked past an overdose on coke, booze and pills that might have been a suicide attempt.
And of course we glorified the level of punishment he’d endure in his fights, while we stayed willfully oblivious as to what all those punches to his skull might actually have been doing to its contents, to him. The famed ninth round of his first fight against Ward was the best I’ve ever seen, but at what cost to the participants, physically and psychologically?
Three years ago, when I first heard Gatti had died, I reflexively thought the same thing about him as everyone else who loved him: something was wrong. He’d never have given up in the ring, so he’d never have given up on life. Right or wrong, it helped me cope.
On top of that, his new wife just seemed like bad news. When Brazilian police ruled Gatti’s death was a suicide and removed her as a suspect, she celebrated being released from jail as if she had won a sweepstakes. Given that he had bizarrely changed his will to leave everything to her three weeks before he died, in effect she had.
But, finally, none of that really matters, at least relative to how bad things had clearly gotten in Gatti’s head by that point, after all the punishment from his years in the ring and the years of unchecked and enabled substance abuse outside it, all the anger and the anger management issues. There is a retrospective sense of doom to that press conference where he broke down, crying in that room full of shocked people and their recording devices. There is the sense that he knew what was coming, and was powerless to do anything about it. If he never gave up in the ring, he seemed to have no such problem recognizing defeat in the real world.
He was not the first athlete to experience that, and certainly won't be the last. He left us with a lot of incredible moments, and was by all accounts a gregarious and charitable man, at least during the times when he had it together. I still think of him often, still hold him in the highest regard, but not the way I did when I gloried in those secondhand bits of evidence—my friend's father's story, the misspelled autograph, that goofy windbreaker—of his existence and magnanimity. He was so much more human than I was ever quite able to believe.