Stag at Sharkey’s, George Bellows, 1909
From Triple Canopy:
On May 18, 2002, Arturo Gatti fought Micky Ward in a ten-round nontitle bout. If that means something to you now, realize that at the time it meant very little beyond the promise of an entertaining scrap. Gatti was thirty years old with four losses and Ward was thirty-six with eleven. That’s where the promise came in, because truth is every professional boxer (about twenty thousand worldwide) looks astounding on a heavy bag. To paraphrase Bruce Lee though, bags don’t hit back.
See, the pursuit’s dirty little secret is that its truly elite practitioners simply don’t get hit cleanly that often. By cleanly I mean the kind of cinematically flush, head-snapping bombs someone like Rocky Balboa specializes in absorbing. The most technically proficient boxer of our lifetime, Floyd Mayweather Jr., has fought professionally forty-one times and has had that happen to him maybe thrice. So if you want to see that kind of greatness go to his fights because he’s the Tolstoy of boxing and you will see highest-level, once-in-a-lifetime, skill. But if you want to see another kind of greatness you need to go down at least one level, maybe two, and that’s the level where Gatti–Ward took place, a level where fighters do get hit cleanly in something at least approaching Hollywood etc., and, because getting hit hard by another person who is good at hitting is no fun, a level where we feel we learn something visceral about the people involved.
Until round 9 the Gatti–Ward fight conformed perfectly with this expectation as both fighters were skilled enough to deal significant punishment but not so skilled that they could avoid its return. But it is Arturo Gatti’s actions in the ninth round, a face he forms, a conscious decision he makes, a course he wills himself onto, that continue to linger almost a decade on. Watch the round again the way you might listen to an unfamiliar piece of music you want to form a relationship with.
The round begins with announcer Larry Merchant wondering whether Gatti can continue to absorb punishment from the stronger Ward, a concern no one would ever again voice regarding this individual. The left hook Ward lands a mere fifteen seconds into the round is almost inhumanly cruel. To truly understand these three minutes in human history you have to appreciate that even among the insane subset of humans that is professional boxers it is not the type of punch someone gets up from. (To see the overwhelmingly default reaction to such a punch when even elite boxers are involved watch this:
The face Gatti wears while kneeling by the referee’s count certainly doesn’t suggest he will rise again. That he does and even almost wins the fight go beyond telling us everything we ever need to know about Gatti to almost beginning to tell us what we need to know about ourselves, and I am not going to explain that further beyond asking you to look at that face again.