On Saturday, HBO will air its first installment of the revitalized "Legendary Nights" series by reliving one of the most historic trilogies ever staged, the punishing series between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward.
The aftereffects of their savage encounters produced ripples that continue to this day. In the short-term, both men's profiles were lifted in ways far beyond the ring. Ward joined Gatti as a blood-and-guts warrior of the highest order and he gained enough mainstream name recognition that a movie based on his life story eventually was filmed. As for Gatti, the Ward fights capped off a career that elevated Gatti to first-ballot Hall of Fame status in 2013, four years after his tragic demise and six years after his final ring battle. In the long term their names forever will be joined by a hyphen, a treasured designation in boxing circles because that precious punctuation is proof positive of a pairing's everlasting greatness.
For all the accolades their wars received -- their first and third fights were deemed Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year in 2002 and 2003 -- Ward's third consecutive such honor and Gatti's third and fourth in a seven-year span -- the most remarkable consequence was a friendship so strong that Ward served as Gatti's trainer for "Thunder's" final bout with Carlos Baldomir.
Combat sports, and especially boxing, create an exclusive bond forged by shared experience. Some are adversarial like Frazier against Ali, Basilio against Robinson and Hagler against Leonard but far more often than not they create a sense of mutual admiration. That, in turn, spawns friendships that sometimes last decades like Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio, Basilio and Tony DeMarco and Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, among others. That sense of friendship and mercy prompted Leonard to let Roberto Duran off the hook in the recently-aired "30 for 30" documentary "No Mas," which saw the two fighters leave the building with arms draped around the other's shoulder.
Their battles lit up TV screens, stirred worldwide sporting passions and created legends that will continue for as long as time exists. One aspect of the Gatti-Ward series that further illustrates their ferocity is the statistics compiled by CompuBox, which was at ringside for all three fights.
The initial battle, staged at the Mohegan Sun on May 18, 2002, produced numbers that defied reality and pushed the limits of human endurance, especially from the middle rounds onward. The first two rounds, however, belonged to Gatti, whose original fight plan was to use his legs and box from long range. In the opening six minutes Gatti averaged 29 jabs per round and built a 57-18 bulge in total connects, landing 42% of his total punches to Ward's 32%. But starting in round three Ward began cutting the distance and started to impose more of the trench warfare he sought, for while Gatti prevailed 39-24 in total connects, those 63 combined connects included 53 landed power shots, with Gatti garnering 30 to Ward's 23.
Ward narrowed his mathematical gap further in round four when a Gatti low blow prompted referee Frank Cappuccino to deduct a point. In round five the war was truly on as Gatti went 54 of 96 overall (56%) and Ward 44 of 83 (53%). Of their 98 combined connects, 88 were power punches.
Gatti successfully re-imposed his mobility and hand speed in the seventh by throwing 31 jabs, which allowed him to out-land Ward 28-16 overall and out-throw him 69-34. But Ward continued to plug away as he landed 47% of his total punches to Gatti's 41% and in round eight he turned the fight his way as he brawled his way to a 37-19 lead in total connects while landing a stratospheric 65% to Gatti's 53%.
The ninth round, however, lifted this fight from very good to, no pun intended, legendary. In a three-minute span Emanuel Steward declared "the round of the century" -- an assessment that may still be correct come the year 2101 -- Ward decked Gatti with a sickening hook to the liver and tried his best to finish him only to have Gatti dig as only he can dig and produce an awe-inspiring rally. Ward then regrouped and battered Gatti to the point where the fight could have been stopped, but Cappuccino, as old-school as they come, let them fight on.
The numbers were beyond eye-popping. They landed a combined 110 punches in the round, of which 102 were power punches -- 42 for Gatti, 60 for Ward. The 102 power connects between them were nearly FOUR TIMES the 26 produced by typical 140-pounders and better yet from a fan's perspective, their accuracy was devastating as Gatti connected on 69% of his power punches while Ward landed 73%.
Even more amazing was that Gatti managed to win the final round but that heroic effort didn't save him on the judges' scorecards. Frank Lombardi saw the fight as HBO's Harold Lederman did -- 94-94. But he was overruled by Dick Flaherty (94-93) and Steve Weisfeld (95-93), who saw Ward as the majority decision winner.
While Ward prevailed on the scorecards, Gatti dominated statistically. He out-landed Ward 350-268 overall, 54-43 in jabs and 296-225 in power shots, mostly because he threw so many more punches (779-550 overall, 284-138 jabs, 296-225 power). The punishment dished out is best captured by the sky-high marksmanship on both sides: Gatti landed 45% of his total punches and 60% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts while Ward connected on 49% of his total punches, 31% of his jabs and 55% of his power punches. As a point of comparison, the average 140-pounder connects on 30% overall, 21% jabs and 36% power.
Given the historic fury that transpired in fight one, fight two was a must-make and it was staged November 23, 2002 at Boardwalk Hall, which in boxing is known as "The House That Gatti Built." Fighting in his adopted hometown and applying a superior strategic blueprint, Gatti ended up boxing rings around the slower, older Ward from beginning to end. He out-landed Ward in nine of 10 rounds overall -- with round nine again being Ward's best with a 24-20 edge -- en route to a wide unanimous decision (98-91 twice, 98-90).
Some illustrations of Gatti's dominance: Of a possible 30 statistical categories (total punches, jabs and power punches), Gatti prevailed 24-3-3 and created connect bulges of 276-180 (total), 71-46 (jabs) and 205-134 (power). Gatti averaged 79.2 punches per round to Ward's 62.6 and was the more precise puncher overall (35%-29%) and in power shots (48%-32%). Ward did land a higher percentage of jabs (22%-20%) but that provided little solace as Gatti averaged 36.2 jabs per round and commanded distance throughout.
The rubber match on June 7, 2003 again was waged at Boardwalk Hall and in terms of action and drama it fell between the pulsating first and the scientific second. Gatti maintained a high-octane pace (84.5 punches per round), nicely divided his offense between jabs (384) and power punches (461) and was the far more accurate man (41%-20% overall, 26%-9% jabs, 54%-27% power) en route to decisive connect advantages in all three phases (349-128 overall, 98-21 jabs, 251-107 power). Gatti fired 38.4 jabs per round -- 30 was the benchmark trainer Buddy McGirt established for all three fights -- and Ward, who said before the fight that this would be his swan song, dropped Gatti in round six, but simply didn't have the energy in his nearly 38-year-old body to equal his rival's effort. He averaged 63.9 punches per round -- slightly above the 60.2 junior welterweight average -- but he no longer could cash in on his attempts the same way.
Despite the statistical and judicial dominance (Gatti prevailed 96-93 twice and 97-92), the back-and-forth action was enough to deem it 2003's Fight of the Year by Ring magazine, a fitting end to a most thrilling and tumultuous trilogy.