The word warrior is thrown around so readily in boxing, it has lost some of its impact. While every person brave enough to step into the squared circle deserves immense credit, some fighters truly transcend bravery to become warriors in the gladiatorial sense of the word. Those who are willing to sacrifice everything to not only compete but to succeed, and not just succeed but to conquer. ‘Irish’ Micky Ward is one of these warriors, and on his 56th birthday we celebrate the first time he met a man cut from the same cloth. This is the story of the Micky Ward vs Arturo Gatti.
You may know the name Micky Ward from the excellent 2010 film The Fighter. Mark Wahlberg portrays the fighter like a Bostonian Rocky Balboa, battling personal and family problems to win the world light welterweight championship and send the punters home happy. As with many biopics, this was a slight bending of the truth. While Ward did win a WBU belt during his career, it was never considered a legitimate world championship. Nor was it his greatest achievement, that was to come after The Fighter’s cameras left Ward’s tale, when he shared 30 of the most brutal rounds in boxing history with Arturo Gatti.
In an era where unbeaten records are prized above all else, and social media boxing ‘experts’ are quick to pile on any fighter who falls short of perfection, it is difficult to convey the importance of these fights. The first Ward-Gatti meeting, at the Mohegan Casino in Connecticut, did not jump out as a world-level attraction on paper. Rather, the bout headlined an edition of secondary show HBO Boxing After Dark. The two men were renowned for being in exciting fights, but both had lost recently. Ward was coming off a fifth-round stoppage loss to Jesse James Leija, while Gatti was just one fight removed from being knocked out by Oscar De La Hoya. Make no mistake, the first Gatti-Ward fight was about rebuilding rather than bothering the top of the world rankings.
That context served to make what followed over the course of ten rounds even more remarkable. These weren’t two men fighting to improve their ranking or circumstances, this was two men fighting for their lives. ‘Thunder’ at least began with the pretense of wanting to stick to his boxing, taking an early lead with fast combinations as Ward plodded forward in search of something concussive. The Boston fighter was cut in the opening round, just the first of multiple war wounds these two prizefighters would inflict on each other.
An illegal low blow would fell Ward in the fourth, Gatti would get cut in the fifth. Dicky Eklund, portrayed in all his fragile glory by Christian Bale on film, warned his brother in the corner that he would not let the beating continue. ‘Irish’ Micky answered the call by hammering away on the former world champion, as Gatti’s earlier flurries took their toll on his stamina. The ninth round would elevate this fight from excellent tear-up to enduring classic, to be rewatched and recommended for the rest of time.
Just 15 seconds into the round, Ward threw lefts to head and body that had Gatti taking a knee. ‘Thunder’ rose, but was on the receiving end of the full ‘Irish’ artillery, and the end appeared to be seconds away. Unbelievably, illogically, under the constant Ward barrage, Arturo Gatti found the will to fire back. And fire back he did, driving his tormentor into the ropes, unloading with vast, swaying punches, flinging his whole pain-wracked body behind every blow. By now both men were just swinging for the fences, trying to level one another with the sort of punches they don’t teach you at boxercise. After seeing the initiative slip from his grasp, Ward found the will to snatch it with a white-knuckled grip, rolling Gatti’s head across his shoulders, to-and-fro as the fight looked over. But Gatti made it to the bell, and the final round beckoned.
Achingly, a miscommunication led to Ward celebrating as if he had won, believing Gatti had been stopped in his corner. No such luck, these two true warriors would have to walk through the fire once more to reach immortality. Both had their successes in a final round that would be a highlight of any other fight, but actually represented a drop in pace for this unbelievable clash. Still, the punches flew in at remarkable velocity as the bell tolled, 30 seconds early due to a timekeeping error. Ward would get the nod via majority decision, but fights like this do not have losers. They have triumph and greater triumph. They have two men enter the collective boxing consciousness, forever linked by the bloody violence they have inflicted upon each other.
Ward and Gatti would fight twice more. While neither fight quite ascended the astonishing heights of the first, both bouts were wonderful affairs. Two fighters who found the idea of a backward step personally insulting, their styles never failed to mesh. Gatti would win both the rematch and the trilogy fight, but neither man could stop the other. In 30 shared rounds, both men would come back from the brink to avoid a stoppage, having their dreams killed and resurrected in the constant pursuit of victory.
Micky Ward would retire after the third Gatti fight, after earning his career-best paydays for the trilogy and departing as a millionaire. ‘Thunder’ would rumble on, capturing the WBC light welterweight championship along the way. In his final fight, a seventh-round TKO loss to Alfonso Gomez, he was cornered by Ward. A bad night in the ring, but a fun piece of symmetry, and a wonderful sign of respect between the two great rivals. Gatti would tragically pass away two years later from a suspected suicide, and Ward attended the funeral. Reportedly, he gave the coffin one last, loving left hook. In a career defined by their shared one-upmanship, the grieving ‘Irish’ Micky Ward could not resist landing the last punch.