By Dean Berks – Back in the 90’s, waiting patiently to view certain international fights was the norm. Sometimes weeks or months passed before a fight you had read about in one of the boxing publications found it’s way on to either Sky Sports or Eurosport (when both were part of your subscription, oh the good old days!). If not, the other way to view was to order fights on VHS from boxing enthusiasts who had built up an envious collection that they would then share for a price. For £10 or £12, you could select the fights required to fill a 3 or 4 hour VHS cassette, then eagerly await the sound of the thud on your front door mat as the postman put you out of your misery. None of this instant YouTube stuff! I spent a small fortune obtaining fights this way, adding to my own expanding collection. But the beauty of this was that now and again you would stumble on a gem, a fighter that would grab and hold your attention for the remainder of their career. And it was through this process that I truly “fell in love” with Arturo “Thunder” Gatti.
I had watched Gatti’s 1995 coronation when he outpointed Tracy Harris Patterson over twelve entertaining rounds to become IBF super-featherweight champion. I thought he looked a good, solid fighter, but nothing prepared me for what I would witness in his maiden defence against Wilson Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was ranked number two by the IBF and possessed a 43-7-3, 24 KO’s record. He had already been knocked out in a previous title shot by then champion John John Molina and had also been stopped several times before that. It was generally expected that Gatti would retain without too much trouble. However, someone certainly forgot to tell Rodriguez.
I had read the report of the fight previously in the now defunct KO magazine, but even that superb piece couldn’t fully translate the raw emotion of the titanic battle I was about to view.
In front of a packed crowd in New York ‘s Madison Square Garden, Gatti (24-1, 20 KO’s), appeared to have left his defence in his dressing room as he ate jab after jab, followed by straight rights, from the slick moving challenger. With just two minutes gone in the opener, Gatti was displaying swelling underneath his left eye. He came out for the second looking to increase the pressure but was struggling to pin down Rodriguez, who’s stick and move tactics were proving highly effective. But things were going from bad to worse to almost disastrous for Gatti when his right eye also started to badly swell and then he was unceremoniously put on the seat of his trunks from a straight right left hook right hand combination from Rodriguez. Gatti’s title reign was starting to look over before it had begun. But in a fashion that would become synonymous with him, he picked himself up and started throwing leather back at the challenger. A fierce exchange ended a terrific round, with both men walking to each other’s corner before promptly realising their mistake! Gatti’s corner went to work with the enswells whilst frantically urging him to start working the body before he became in serious danger of being stopped. Responding, Gatti blasted Rodriguez with a right hand, wobbling his man to start the third. For the next two minutes Gatti let rip with power left hooks as the energised crowd erupted in to chants of “Gatti, Gatti”, willing their fighter on to victory. But Rodriguez was making a mockery of his record, slugging toe to toe with Gatti in a compelling three minutes of action. Gatti made his way back to his corner at the bell, his right eye becoming more and more of a slit. The ringside doctor examined Gatti, demanding him to cover his left eye whilst asking him how many fingers he was holding up. Gatti correctly answered two as his corner once again tried to reduce the swelling. The action continued in round four as Gatti went looking for that one punch to turn things permanently in his favour, but Rodriguez was having other ideas. With a minute left, he started teeing off on Gatti again. Gatti punched back but Rodriguez had him in serious trouble, driving him to the ropes as Gatti kept soaking up punches. Amazingly, he returned fire again, finishing the round on top. But what was already a tremendous fight turned real life “Rocky” when Gatti, who had been pounding Rodriguez’s torso throughout the fifth, including a stray one which cost him a point, finally broke through the teak tough challenger, dropping him with a rib crunching left hook to the body. Rodriguez slowly sank, the power of the punch forcing his legs to involuntarily give way. He listened to the referee’s count, bravely rising before the count of 8. Smelling blood, Gatti pounced as the crowd roared in disbelief at what they were witnessing in front of them. But Rodriguez wasn’t done just yet, punching with the champion as the bell rang. The crowd were in euphoria at this incredible spectacle. As the bell rang to start round six, Gatti looked invigorated by his previous success and came out like a lion pursuing its wounded prey. Rodriguez tried to keep his distance but Gatti was cutting the ring down in size, thumping home powerful shots that were eroding the last resistance out of the challenger as the arena filled with chants of “Gatti, Gatti”. Then with just under a minute left in the round it happened. Gatti stepped in with a thunderous left hook, the punch catching Rodriguez flush on the jaw. Rodriguez crashed to the floor, the fight finally extinguished from him. He instinctively tried to stir, but to no avail as the referee reached the count of ten. His incredible challenge had come to and abrupt end. A victorious Gatti breathed in the adulation from the crowd. His legend had begun.
Many unbelievable nights followed for Gatti. Win, lose or draw, he featured in some of the most memorable fights in ring history, displaying an almost inhuman ability to absorb punishment whilst packing the power to distribute enough of his own. An absolute warrior to the core.
But for many, like myself, the journey began with Rodriguez. And I’m proud to say I unashamedly fell in love with Gatti at the moment, and all these years on, I still am.