by Hamilton Nolan
Micky Ward is an exceptionally soft-spoken man for someone whose fame was earned through punching and bleeding. After a screening this week of 'Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward,' a documentary devoted to his most brutal battles (airing Saturday night on HBO following World Championship Boxing: Alvarado vs. Provodnikov), Ward stepped to a podium in HBO’s headquarters and remembered his opponent in those three historic fights, Arturo Gatti, as a friend. “We had so many memories,” Ward said. “Good, and, obviously, bad at the end.” Gatti himself was not soft-spoken at all. But he was not there to say his piece.
Over a period of just 13 months in 2002 and 2003, Ward and Gatti engaged in three boxing matches that came, rather unexpectedly, to define both of their careers. Had they never met, Ward would have retired as a respected journeyman, just another tough, straightforward Irish fighter out of Massachusetts; Gatti would have had his own flashy and varied career like many other highly-touted Jersey showoffs. Together, however, they each found someone similar enough to themselves to create a situation like two stubborn mountain goats trying to pass each other on a rocky path only big enough for one of them. They butted heads for thirty rounds.
Ward won the classic first fight, in which Gatti got up from a devastating ninth round body shot to finish. Gatti took the second fight, in which Ward shattered his eardrum and lost his equilibrium yet pushed on to the end. And Gatti won the tiebreaking third fight, even though he broke his right hand early on. Each man suffered immensely. Each man instantly came to be defined by these fights, to the near-exclusion of the rest of their careers. “It was the greatest, most dramatic trilogy in the history of boxing,” said Lou DiBella, Ward’s promoter. “They became blood brothers.”
It is the friendship of the two men that shines through most in the film. They came to be like Army buddies, brought together forever by war. In their case, the war was with one another. Yet they grew so close by pushing each other to the edge that after Ward retired, he briefly became Gatti’s trainer. “When I beat him at the racetrack, he wouldn’t talk to me,” Ward recalled with a smile. “He wanted to go home.”
For all of Gatti’s flash inside and outside of the ring--and for all of his wild nights and partying, which were legendary--he comes off as a man equally decent as the humble Ward. Their story, of course, is shadowed by Gatti’s death in 2009 in Brazil (ruled a suicide, though significant skepticism still exists among Gatti’s friends and family, who plausibly believe he was murdered). Their parable seems deceptively simple on its surface: the humble man lived, the wild man died. But that’s not it at all. Gatti and Ward were far more alike than they were different. “He had a wild side, but who doesn’t?” Ward said of Gatti. “Whoever says they don’t, they’re lying.”
More than anything else, both men represent the iron will of a harsh sport--the will not to win, but to fight to the end, no matter the cost. Their fights, and their suffering, stand as a testament to what is possible.