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When Life Imitated Art: The Birth of the Legend of Arturo Gatti

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In retrospect, the timing was eerily appropriate. Less than 24 hours after Arturo “Thunder” Gatti announced himself as his generation’s most compelling action fighter, Braveheart, a film about William Wallace, the legendary, late 13th century Scottish warrior, took the Best Picture Oscar at the 68th annual Academy Awards.

Nor was that the only applicable movie analogy after the nearly blinded Gatti’s epic sixth-round knockout of Wilson Rodriguez on March 23, 1996 – to be technically accurate, very early on March 24, considering that the fight, the second installment of HBO’s recently launched Boxing After Dark series, ended at 12:40 a.m. in the Eastern time zone. Upon entering his dressing room at Madison Square Garden, Gatti, his face a lumpy mess, turned around and shouted, to no one in particular, a familiar catch-phrase from Rocky, the fictional tale of a never-say-die boxer which was named Best Picture of 1977.

“Yo, Adrian, I did it!” screamed an exuberant Gatti, just 22 days shy of his 24th birthday and possibly unaware that his promising ring career had just crossed over into a different dimension.

“That was the transitional fight that took Gatti from being a budding attraction and a champion (the back-from-the-brink conquest of Rodriguez was his first defense of his IBF junior lightweight title) to being a cult figure,” Lou DiBella, now a promoter but then the senior vice president of HBO Sports, said when contacted for his thoughts on a slugfest that became an instant classic, one of many authored by a fighter who demonstrated time and again he was always ready, even eager, to go down into the trenches.

“There’s no question that fight changed everything. It was a Rocky movie, the most dramatic fight I’ve ever seen to this day. I’m not going to say it’s the best fight I’ve ever seen, but it certainly was the most dramatic. The myth and legend of Arturo Gatti was born that night.”

Pat Lynch, Gatti’s manager, agrees with DiBella that the Rodriguez bout represented a sea change for his Italian-born, Montreal-reared, Jersey City-based fighter.

“There were a few people who knew how entertaining and exciting Arturo could be, but that’s the one that really put him on the map because it was televised by HBO and a lot of people got to see it,” Lynch recalled. “He had shown signs of being that guy early on, in a fight against Leon Bostic (winning an eight-round majority decision on Jan. 8, 1994, in Catskill, N.Y.). I remember that fight vividly. I was walking back to the dressing room when Al Gavin (a veteran cutman) made a sign with his hands as if to say, ‘That kid’s got ‘em (cojones) this big.’ That was the kind of throw-down war that Arturo came to be known for, but his coming-out party was definitely the Wilson Rodriguez fight.”

It is curious then that Gatti-Rodriguez has become, if not exactly forgotten, a somewhat lesser entry in Gatti’s thick file of unforgettable trials by combat. Ask fight fans what they most remember about Gatti – who was just 37 when he died under mysterious circumstances in Brazil on July 11, 2009 — and they’re apt to cite his three bouts with Micky Ward, two of which were won by Gatti. Although Gatti was a participant in three Fights of the Year as selected by The Ring magazine (1997, KO5 of Gabriel Ruelas; 1998, L, SD10 to Ivan Robinson and 2002, L, MD10 to Micky Ward), his demolition derby with Rodriguez was aced out for 1996 Fight of the Year, understandably given its more consequential nature, by Evander Holyfield’s 11th round stoppage of Mike Tyson.

“I think it’s fair to say the trilogy with Micky Ward is the defining memory of Gatti in the ring,” said Larry Merchant, the longtime color commentator for HBO boxing telecasts who was at ringside for Gatti-Rodriguez. “At the time Gatti fought Rodriguez we knew he was an exciting brawler, but given the circumstances – it was just the second Boxing After Dark show – and the theatrical drama of that fight, it’s a part of his legacy, although maybe not as much as his fights with Ward.”

It’s also fair to say that Gatti was not exactly an unknown commodity when he squared off against Rodriguez. Even before he wrested the IBF 130-pound title from Tracy Harris Patterson on a 12-round unanimous decision on Dec. 15, 1995, the ruggedly handsome, tri-lingual Gatti had been identified as a potential superstar with the kind of crossover appeal that would find favor with fringe and even non-boxing fans. Integrated Sports International, a sports management company that represented, among others, Oscar De La Hoya, the NBA’s Hakeem Olajuwon and NFL’s Steve Young and Drew Bledsoe, envisioned Gatti as a key addition to its lineup of athletes who could also serve as commercial spokesmen.

DiBella’s first Boxing After Dark telecast, the main event of which had been WBO super bantamweight champion Marco Antonio Barrera’s 12th-round stoppage of Kennedy McKinney, had been an aesthetic and ratings smash, with Barrera going down once and McKinney four times. Hoping to build on that momentum, DiBella wanted to pair Gatti with Wilfredo Vazquez, a former WBA super bantamweight and featherweight champion who had more name recognition than Rodriguez, a 30-year-old native of the Dominican Republic based in Spain who was the IBF’s No. 2-ranked junior lightweight but had never fought in the United States. Lynch lobbied for Rodriguez, whom he incorrectly believed would pose a somewhat easier test for Gatti after he had gone 12 grueling rounds with Patterson only three months earlier.

“I wanted Vazquez because he was the bigger name,” DiBella reasoned. “I had no problem with Rodriguez. I thought it was a good fight. But I was trying to build a series. We did incredibly well with the ratings for Barrera-McKinney and I wanted to make sure we had a follow-up show that was attractive, so we doubled down with Junior Jones-Orlando Canizales as the lead-in. We had three of the best lower weight-class fighters in the world, and two of them were fighting each other.”

Jones and Canizales held up their end with Jones, a Brooklyn native, winning a minor super bantamweight title on a unanimous, 12-round decision to the delight of the announced attendance of 3,698 (about 800 below capacity) in the Theater at Madison Square Garden. It might have been a tough act to follow, considering that one well-regarded boxing writer had labeled Gatti-Rodriguez as a “gimme” for Gatti, who went in with a 24-1 record and 20 KOs, including 14 in the first round.

Some gimme. Tagged with laser-like accuracy by Rodriguez’s stiff jabs and overhand rights, Gatti returned to his corner after the first round with a puffy left eye and a mouse beginning to form under his right. It got worse for him in the second round, when he was floored with a three-punch combination. He was up at the count of three and, as was his custom, fought back gamely, refusing to clinch, but the condition of both of his eyes was rapidly deteriorating.

Fortunately for Gatti, one of the best cutmen in the business, Joe Souza, had just joined his support crew and was proving to be a valuable addition as he feverishly worked his magic. Souza’s handiwork was evident when the ring physician examined Gatti after both the third and fourth rounds, with Gatti five times correctly answering how many fingers the doctor was holding up. But Gatti knew, as did trainer Hector Roca, that his field of vision would soon be too impaired for him to be allowed to fight on.

In typical Gatti fashion, each time he appeared to inch close to a loss by stoppage, he would launch a counterattack that bought him precious seconds. Despite being docked a penalty point by referee Wayne Kelly in the fifth round for repeated low blows, Gatti ripped a left hook to the liver that put Rodriguez down for a six count in the fifth round. It was a harbinger of what was to follow in the sixth, when, with Rodriguez’s right hand held low to protect his injured side, Gatti went upstairs with another hook that landed flush on the jaw, the challenger collapsing onto his back where he was counted out at the 2:16 mark. He would remain prone, unable to rise, for over a minute.

“We’ve been billing Arturo Gatti as one of the most exciting fighters in the world,” said his promoter, Dino Duva. “I just wish he wouldn’t make it this exciting.”

Kelly was asked how close he had come to awarding a TKO victory to Rodriguez, who was ahead by three points on two of the official scorecards and was behind by one point on the other. “I was close to stopping it in the third,” he said. “But I’ve worked with Gatti before and know he’s very resilient.”

Gatti, of course, went on to become the franchise fighter in Atlantic City, so much so that Lynch observed that “People planned their vacations around going there for the full weekend when Arturo fought there. His fights were that kind of must-see event.

“I pulled up to Bally’s one time and the bell kid came out to get all our stuff. He saw the corner jackets and the robe that were in my car and he asked, `You’re with Team Gatti?’ I said yeah. He goes, `We love it when Gatti comes to town. Everybody makes money.’ And it was true. The taxi drivers made money, there were more restaurant reservations made. His following in Atlantic City just grew and grew. He had a cult following like you’d see anywhere the Grateful Dead played.”

Rodriguez wasn’t so fortunate. He did not get a rematch with Gatti and had only one more meaningful fight, a unanimous decision loss to Angel Manfredy, before retiring in 1999 with a 48-11-3 record and 37 KOs. Perhaps Gatti-Rodriguez has lost some of its original luster because Rodriguez did not rise in prominence as did Ward, whose three-bout passion play with Gatti has made him a more or less equal partner for posterity’s sake.

Gatti was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013, an honor more than a few pundits believe is undeserved because he never quite made it to the top tier of superstardom that owes in equal parts to popularity and success inside the ropes. DiBella would argue that Gatti did deserve enshrinement for the excitement he so frequently generated, even if his skills never approached those of De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr., both of whom defeated him with relative ease.

“Gatti was never a pound-for-pound guy,” DiBella acknowledged. “If you were a warrior and had a good night, you could rumble with Gatti. But he was an incredible fighter, and you can’t rewrite him into Floyd Mayweather. He was just a blood-and-guts warrior. Gatti wasn’t really happy if he didn’t get into a war.”

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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In a Massive Upset, Dakota Linger TKOs Kurt Scoby on a Friday Night in Atlanta

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Although it was an 8-rounder on a show with two “tens,” Kurt Scoby’s match with Dakota Linger was accorded main event status on tonight’s card at the Overtime Elite Arena in Atlanta. This had everything to do with Scoby (pronounced Scooby), a former record-setting college running back who was considered one of the brightest prospects in the 140-pound weight class. “[Scoby] works harder than almost anyone I’ve ever seen,” said veteran New York promoter Lou DIBella in a conversation with Keith Idec. “But he’s literally getting better after every fight and he’s got the hammer of Thor, man. He can punch through walls.”

The Duarte, California product who has relocated to Brooklyn and trains at Gleason’s Gym, was undefeated (13-0) heading in and was expected to make Linger his ninth straight knockout victim. But Linger, a 29-year-old Buckhannon, West Virginia policemen whose first ring engagements were in Toughman competitions, wasn’t intimidated by Scoby’s press clippings or by Scoby’s bodybuilder physique.

Linger, who improved to 14-6-3 with his tenth win inside the distance, took the fight right to Scoby and repeatedly found a home for his overhand right. In the sixth round, after Linger strafed the ever-retreating Scoby with a barrage of punches, referee Malik Walid determined that he had seen enough and waived it off. The decision seemed a tad premature, but neither Scoby nor his cornermen offered anything in the way of a protest.

Tournament results

In the first installment of an 8-man super welterweight tournament, Brandon Adams returned to boxing after his second three-year layoff and showed no ring rust whatsoever. Adams, a 34-year-old family-man who grew up in the Watts district of LA, dismissed Ismael Villareal with a wicked punch to the liver in the waning seconds of round three. The official time was 2:59.

A former wold title challenger, Adams who improved to 23-3 (16 KOs), has become the king of boxing tournaments. He first attracted notice in 2018 when he won the fifth edition of “The Contender” series, scoring a wide 10-round decision over Shane Mosley Jr in the championship round.

Villareal, a second-generation prizefighter from the Bronx whose dad fought the likes of Hector Camacho, declined to 13-3.

Adams next opponent will be Francisco Veron who will bring a record of 14-0-1 (10).

In an energetic 10-rounder, Veron, a Florida-based Argentine with a strong amateur pedigree, scored a unanimous decision over Mexico-born, LA southpaw Angel Ruiz (18-3-1). The judges had it 100-90, 99-91, and 96-94.

Ruiz certainly had his moments, but Veron launched and landed many more punches despite fighting the last six rounds with a damaged eye.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 281: The Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia Show

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Over the years bouts between old foes such as Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia tend to be surprising.

Yes, both are only 25 but have known each other for many years.

When undisputed super lightweight champion Haney (31-0, 15 KOs) steps into the prize ring at Barclays Center to meet challenger Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) on Saturday, April 20, fans will be witnessing the continuation of a feud that began more than a decade ago.

And though the champion is a heavy favorite, familiarity is Garcia’s best weapon heading into their fight on the Golden Boy Promotions card that will be shown on PPV.COM with Jim Lampley and friends. DAZN pay-per-view is also streaming the card.

In many ways Haney and Garcia have ventured down the same path. From amateur sensations to fighting in Mexico while teens to asking for the biggest challenges available.

“Whichever version of Ryan shows up on April 20, I will be ready for him. Ryan Garcia is just another opponent to me,” said Haney who holds the WBC super lightweight title after his win over Regis Prograis.

The first time I saw Haney as a pro he battled the dangerous Mexican contender Juan Carlos Burgos at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula. It was an impressive performance against a fighter who fought three times for a world title.

Haney was 19 at the time.

My first look at Garcia as a pro was in his first bout in the U.S. when he met Puerto Rico’s Jonathan Cruz at the Exchange in downtown Los Angeles. The Boricua looked at Garcia and tried intimidating him with stares, taunts and the usual patter. During the fight both swung and missed until the second round when Garcia zeroed in and took him out.

Garcia had just turned 18, the legal age to fight in California.

Both fighters did not have the Olympics credentials that lead to fame. But their talent has allowed them to fight through the dense smoke that is professional boxing.

Haney has defeated numerous world champions such as Prograis, Vasyl Lomachenko and George Kambosos Jr., while Garcia has stopped champions Javier Fortuna and Luke Campbell.

As amateurs, Garcia and Haney battled six times with each winning three.

“They know each other very well,” said Oscar De La Hoya of Golden Boy Promotions. “Ryan is going to beat Devin Haney.”

Haney has a buttery-smooth style with one of the best jabs in boxing. He’s very adept at keeping distance and not allowing anyone to fight him inside. His reflexes are outstanding, yet he seldom fights inside. That’s his weakness.

Garcia fights tall and has superb hand speed and a lightning quick left hook. Though his defense lacks tightness his ability to rip off three-punch combinations in a blink of an eye pauses opponents from bullying their way inside.

“These guys always just look at me and look at me like I don’t know how to box,” said Garcia on social media. “Why was I one of the best fighters in the amateurs. Why was I a 15-time National champion…why did I beat everyone I came across.”

Haney is a strong favorite by oddsmakers to defeat Garcia. But you can never tell when it comes to fighters that know each other well and are athletically gifted.

When Sergio Mora challenged Vernon Forrest he was a big underdog. When Tim Bradley fought Manny Pacquiao the first time, he was also the underdog. And when Andy Ruiz met Anthony Joshua few gave him a chance.

Haney and Garcia have history in the ring. It should be an interesting battle.

PPV.COM

Jim Lampley will be leading the broadcast on PPV.COM for the Haney-Garcia card at Barclays and texting with fans on the card live. He will be accompanied by journalists Lance Pugmire, Dan Conobbio and former champion Chris Algieri.

The PPV.COM broadcast begins at 5 p.m. PT. and is available in Canada and the USA.

Other News

MMA stars Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal will be holding a media day event on Friday, April 19, at NOVO at L.A. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

Diaz and Masvidal will be boxing against each other in a grudge match on June 1 at the KIA Forum in Inglewood, Calif. The two MMA stars met five years at UFC 244 with Masvidal winning by TKO over Diaz due to cuts.

This is a grudge match, but under boxing rules.

Fight card in Commerce, Calif.

360 Promotions returns to Commerce Casino on Saturday April 20 with undefeated super lightweight Cain Sandoval leading the charge.

Sandoval (12-0) faces Angel Rebollar (8-3) in the main event that will be shown live on UFC Fight Pass. Also on the card are two female events including hot prospect Lupe Medina (5-0) versus Sabrina Persona (3-1) in a minimumweight clash.

Doors open at 4 p.m.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Heavyweight Merry-Go-Round

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Heavyweight Merry-Go-Round

There were few surprises when co-promoters Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren and their benefactor HE Turki Alalshikh held a press conference in London this past Monday to unveil the undercard for the Beterbiev-Bivol show at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on June 1. Most of the match-ups had already been leaked.

For die-hard boxing fans, Beterbiev-Bivol is such an enticing fight that it really doesn’t need an attractive undercard. Two undefeated light heavyweights will meet with all four relevant belts on the line in a contest where the oddsmakers straddled the fence. It’s a genuine “pick-‘em” fight based on the only barometer that matters, the prevailing odds.

But Beterbiev-Bivol has been noosed to a splendid undercard, a striking contrast to Saturday’s Haney-Garcia $69.99 (U.S.) pay-per-view in Brooklyn, an event where the undercard, in the words of pseudonymous boxing writer Chris Williams, is an absolute dumpster fire.

The two heavyweight fights that will bleed into Beterbiev-Bivol, Hrgovic vs. Dubois and Wilder vs. Zhang, would have been stand-alone main events before the incursion of Saudi money.

Hrgovic-Dubois

Filip Hrgovic (17-0, 13 KOs) and Daniel Dubois (20-2, 19 KOs) fought on the same card in Riyadh this past December. Hrgovic, the Croatian, was fed a softie in the form of Australia’s Mark De Mori who he dismissed in the opening round. Dubois, a Londoner, rebounded from his loss to Oleksandr Usyk with a 10th-round stoppage of corpulent Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller.

There’s an outside chance that Hrgovic vs. Dubois may be sanctioned by the IBF for the world heavyweight title.

The May 18 showdown between Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury has a rematch clause. The IBF is next in line in the rotation system for a unified heavyweight champion and the organization has made it plain that the winner of Usyk-Fury must fulfill his IBF mandatory before an intervening bout.

The best guess is that the Usyk-Fury winner will relinquish the IBF belt. If so, Hrgovic and Dubois may fight for the vacant title although a more likely scenario is that the organization will keep the title vacant so that the winner can fight Anthony Joshua.

Wilder-Zhang

The match between Deontay Wilder (43-3-1, 42 KOs) and Zhilei Zhang (26-2-1, 21 KOs) is a true crossroads fight as both Wilder, 38, and Zhang, who turns 41 in May, are nearing the end of the road and the loser (unless it’s a close and entertaining fight) will be relegated to the rank of a has-been. In fact, Wilder has hinted that this may be his final rodeo.

Both are coming off a loss to Joseph Parker.

Wilder last fought on the card that included Hrgovic and Dubois and was roundly out-pointed by a man he was expected to beat. It’s a quick turnaround for Zhang who opposed Parker on March 8 and lost a majority decision.

Other Fights

Either of two other fights may steal the show on the June 1 event.

Raymond Ford (15-0-1, 8 KOs) meets Nick Ball (19-0-1, 11 KOs) in a 12-round featherweight contest. New Jersey’s Ford will be defending the WBA world title he won with a come-from-behind, 12th-round stoppage of Otabek Kholmatov in an early contender for Fight of the Year. Liverpool’s “Wrecking” Ball, a relentless five-foot-two sparkplug, had to settle for a draw in his title fight with Rey Vargas despite winning the late rounds and scoring two knockdowns.

Hamzah Sheeraz (19-0, 15 KOs) meets fellow unbeaten Austin “Ammo” Williams (16-0, 11 KOs) in a 12-round middleweight match. East London’s Sheeraz, the son of a former professional cricket player, is unknown in the U.S. although he trained for his recent fights at the Ten Goose Boxing Gym in California. Riding a skein of 13 straight knockouts, he has a date with WBO title-holder Janibek Alimkhanuly if he can get over this hurdle.

The Forgotten Heavyweight

“Unbeaten for seven years, the man nobody wants to fight,” intoned ring announcer Michael Buffer by way of introduction. Buffer was referencing Michael Hunter who stood across the ring from his opponent Artem Suslenkov.

This scene played out this past Saturday in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It was Hunter’s second fight in three weeks. On March 23, he scored a fifth-round stoppage of a 46-year-old meatball at a show in Zapopan, Mexico.

The second-generation “Bounty Hunter,” whose only defeat prior to last weekend came in a 12-rounder with Oleksandr Usyk, has been spinning his wheels since TKOing the otherwise undefeated Martin Bakole on the road in London in 2018. Two fights against hapless opponents on low-budget cards in Mexico and a couple of one-round bouts for the Las Vegas Hustle, an entry in the fledgling and largely invisible Professional Combat League, are the sum total of his activity, aside from sparring, in the last two-and-a-half years.

Hunter’s chances of getting another big-money fight took a tumble in Tashkent where he lost a unanimous decision in a dull affair to the unexceptional Suslenkov who was appearing in his first 10-round fight. The scores of the judges were not announced.

You won’t find this fight listed on boxrec. As Jake Donovan notes, the popular website will not recognize a fight conducted under the auspices of a rogue commission. (Another fight you won’t find on boxrec for the same reason is Nico Ali Walsh’s 6-round split decision over the 9-2-1 Frenchman, Noel Lafargue, in the African nation of Guinea on Dec. 16, 2023. You can find it on YouTube, but according to boxrec, boxing’s official record-keeper, it never happened.)

Anderson-Merhy Redux

The only thing missing from this past Saturday’s match in Corpus Christi, Texas, between Jared Anderson and Ryad Merhy was the ghost of Robert Valsberg.

Valsberg, aka Roger Vaisburg, was the French referee who disqualified Ingemar Johansson for not trying in his match with LA’s Ed Sanders in the finals of the heavyweight competition at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Valsberg tossed Johansson out of the ring after two rounds and Johansson was denied the silver medal. The Swede redeemed himself after turning pro, needless to say, when he demolished Floyd Patterson in the first of their three meetings.

Merhy was credited with throwing only 144 punches, landing 34, over the course of the 10 rounds. Those dismal figures yet struck many onlookers as too high. (This reporter has always insisted that the widely-quoted CompuBox numbers should be considered approximations.)

Whatever the true number, it was a disgraceful performance by Merhy who actually showed himself to have very fast hands on the few occasions when he did throw a punch. With apologies to Delfine Persoon, a spunky lightweight, U.S. boxing promoters should think twice before inviting another Belgian boxer to our shores.

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