By Thomas Gerbasi
It’s been the same ritual every year for the last few. The International Boxing Hall of Fame sends out its ballot in the fall, I check off the name Naseem Hamed and send it back to Ed Brophy and his stalwart crew in Canastota, New York.
By the time the ballots sent in by the rest of my colleagues are counted, Hamed is nowhere to be found on the list of inductees. That won’t stop me from believing the ever-polarizing “Prince” deserves induction among boxing’s best, and it certainly won’t stop me from voting for him.
The question is, will he have company on the deserving but not voted in list as Arturo Gatti is added to the ballot? That’s the question floating around the boxing world as ballots are being distributed this week. Should a fighter who doesn’t qualify as one of the best ever be included in a fraternity that, in theory, should be reserved for the greatest boxers to ever lace up the gloves?
It’s a question I’ve asked since 2005, two years before the end of Gatti’s career, and four years before his tragic death in 2009.
For the record, in a piece I wrote in January of 2005, I believed Gatti deserved induction to the Hall based on his body of work and impact on the sport up to that date. In those final two career years, he only won two of five fights, beating a legitimate former world champion in Jesse James Leija and 37-0 European standout Thomas Damgaard. The losses were to a lock for Canastota, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and two decent, but not superstar-level, foes in Carlos Baldomir and Alfonso Gomez.
I’ll take that finish with a grain of salt, considering that we never counted Muhammad Ali’s losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, Sugar Ray Leonard’s defeat to Terry Norris, or Sugar Ray Robinson’s string of late-career performances against them in considering their greatness.
But did Gatti do enough over the course of his 16-year career to deserve to sit among those legends? If you break it down into various components, you may come up with a definitive answer in the affirmative.
First, look at his skill set. When he had to, Gatti could box. His wins over Tracy Harris Patterson proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt, and even in his wins over Terronn Millett and Leo Dorin, he proved that he could win a fight without having to get cut up and beat up first. Gatti was a sharp puncher who wasn’t fast in a Floyd Mayweather way, but he was quick, and his reflexes could set him apart from most fighters. And though it should be obvious, it bears mentioning that you don’t get to the world championship level of this game and remain there without having a complete grasp of the basics.
Back in 2005, I discussed this topic with ESPN’s Dan Rafael, and he took offense to some writers and fans describing Gatti as a “glorified clubfighter.”
“I think that’s so disrespectful to Gatti to call him that,” said Rafael. “I know that they’re not saying that with malice, necessarily, but you don’t become a two-time world titleholder, even in this day and age of alphabet titles by just being a bum or being a clubfighter. The guy has the deepest heart, the biggest well to draw from of anybody, including Evander Holyfield. And there have been times when he’s been able to box when he’s needed to, so obviously he can.”
He could box, and he could bang. That’s a complete fighter.
The next topic of determination should be his level of competition, and when you consider the top talent of his era, Gatti fought more than his fair share. Current or former world champs on his ledger included Mayweather, Leija, Gabe Ruelas, Baldomir, Patterson (twice), Calvin Grove, Joey Gamache, Oscar De La Hoya, Millett, and Dorin, and top contenders Micky Ward, Angel Manfredy, and Ivan Robinson should also be included when it comes to quality opposition faced. Only Mayweather and De La Hoya are likely to get their cards stamped into the Hall of Fame, but Gatti should at least get a solid B for the opposition he faced.
The bad news is, he lost a lot of those bouts, including fights against Mayweather, De La Hoya, Ward, Manfredy, and Robinson (twice). If you’re going to put a big strike against Gatti’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame, that’s the big one. Of course, Gatti is in good company when it comes to not being able to get past “Money” Mayweather or the “Golden Boy,” but the two defeats to Robinson and the loss to Manfredy hurt him considerably.
So why continue at this point? It’s because Arturo Gatti was more than a win-loss record or a trophy case full of championship belts. What Gatti brought to the ring night in and night out was something you couldn’t quantify. He brought excitement. Win or lose, he was going to give you everything he had and he would keep swinging until the fight was over. And if you were fighting him and you thought you had him hurt and on his way out, that’s when he was the most dangerous. He knew that in boxing, there was a 20 point touchdown or a 10 run homerun, and he never stopped looking for it. Nose bloody, eyes closed, jaw swollen, hands broken, if he had something that he could hit you with he would throw it.
That style of fighting isn’t just old-school, it’s become almost extinct. In the five years since his last fight, who has really stepped up to assume the mantle as the new era’s “human highlight film”? Who is the guy non-boxing fans were talking about around the water cooler on the Monday after the fights? Who is the one who gives you butterflies in the stomach the way you used to get only with Mike Tyson fights?
No one since Gatti.
And though his wars with Ward, Ruelas, Wilson Rodriguez, and Robinson probably shortened his career significantly, they did more for him than 25 fights against cupcakes would have done. It created a legacy that when you think of action in the boxing ring, Gatti is the first name that comes to mind, and it’s almost as if he became a verb over the years, with fans cheering on a comebacking fighter by saying he’s “doing a Gatti on him.”
Not too many fighters get that kind of respect. And for the boxing fans who fell in love with the sport during his era, he was their Marciano, LaMotta, or Graziano. He was the Italian kid with the megawatt smile who would charm your wife or girlfriend and then put on the gloves and become the guy you would want on your side if things went bad on a Saturday night. Gatti was everyman with intangibles that went into the Superman realm. Heart, balls, guts – whatever you want to call it, Gatti had a helluva lot more of it than anyone else.
In other words, Arturo Gatti set a high bar for what it meant to be called a warrior in the world of boxing. I respect anyone who walks up those four steps and answers the bell, and I’ve always believed that you can never question the heart or courage of any fighter, but when you see some fall short of that high bar, I don’t criticize, I just appreciate guys like Gatti even more. It takes a lot to be a prize fighter. To do it like Gatti did it takes so much more.
That’s why every year at this time, I’ll check off Arturo Gatti’s name just like I check off Naseem Hamed’s for inclusion in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. If you’re celebrating the best this sport has to offer, Gatti may not have been the best boxer, the biggest puncher, or the greatest champion. But having the biggest heart and being the most exciting fighter of his era should count for something.