March 23, 1996: Arturo Gatti vs. Wilson Rodriguez
March 23, 1996: Arturo Gatti vs. Wilson Rodriguez
By Eric Raskin
The greats don't become great overnight. But sometimes the viewing audience becomes aware of their greatness—or at least their potential for greatness—all at once. Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. LeBron scoring Cleveland's last 25 points against Detroit in the Conference Finals. Jerry, George, and Elaine waiting for a table in that Chinese restaurant.
It's not necessarily the best moment they'll ever have, the highest high they'll ever reach. But it's the moment when what will make them iconic is fully revealed. And without that moment, the story almost certainly doesn't play out the same way.
For Arturo Gatti, the defining action fighter of the HBO Boxing era, that moment arrived in his 26th professional fight, his first defense of his first title belt. The opponent was a little-known, oft-beaten fighter from Spain by way of the Dominican Republic named Wilson Rodriguez. As Steve Farhood cracked in KO magazine after the fight, "Every newly crowned champion is entitled to a gimme first defense." What we didn't know prior to the night of March 23, 1996, was that Gatti and "gimme" simply don't go together.
Gatti-Rodriguez was supposed to be routine. Gatti-Rodriguez was supposed to be drama-free. Instead, Gatti-Rodriguez was the night Arturo Gatti became Arturo Gatti.
"To my way of thinking, Arturo has the complete package." —Dino Duva
Born in Italy, raised in Montreal, and based since his teenage years in Jersey City, New Jersey, Gatti was a high-cheekboned, trilingual 23-year-old with that crossover marketing potential so rarely found in boxing. Integrated Sports International, the sports management company that represented Hakeem Olajuwon, Steve Young, Drew Bledsoe, and Oscar De La Hoya at the time, signed Gatti even before he confirmed his in-ring worth with a close decision over veteran Tracy Harris Patterson in December '95 to claim a junior lightweight belt. Now he had a title, an endorsement deal with the sports drink All Sport, and a glittering record of 24-1 with 20 knockouts, 18 of which came in the first two rounds.
There was reason for pause, of course. You had that one loss to the otherwise anonymous slickster King Solomon in '92, which included Gatti's only official knockdown suffered to that point in his career (he always insisted it was a slip). You had Patterson rallying to sweep the late rounds of their fight while Gatti's left eye slammed shut. You had CompuBox crediting Patterson with a 52 percent connect rate overall. And you had the fact that junior lightweights have never drawn like heavyweights—or even middleweights or welterweights, for that matter.
Still, most of the signs pointed toward stardom. "Arturo's got everything going for him. He's a breath of fresh air," said co-promoter J. Russell Peltz after the Patterson fight. "To my way of thinking, Arturo has the complete package," agreed co-promoter Dino Duva. "He's good-looking, he has charisma, he has an exciting style. And he can fight. When you put all that together, you have something special. I really believe he can be as big as De La Hoya." (That may sound like hyperbolic promoter-speak, but if we're talking about De La Hoya's star wattage circa late-'95, Gatti did eventually prove Duva correct by reaching those approximate heights.)
"We were so excited to be on HBO," Gatti's manager Pat Lynch recalls. "HBO was the king of boxing, we thought if we get a contract with them, we'd have it made." HBO was equally eager to be in the Gatti business, bringing him into the fold to headline the network's second ever Boxing After Dark card, an event at the Theater at Madison Square Garden billed as "March Mayhem."
"We pushed for Wilson Rodriguez, thinking that would be an easier touch for us." —Pat Lynch
They say it's the punch you don't see coming that hurts the most. Wilson "Black Label" Rodriguez, a 30-year-old who had never fought in America while running up a journeyman's record of 43-7-3 with 24 KOs, was the punch you don't see coming.
Rodriguez had tried for a title belt once before, losing by knockout to John John Molina in 1994. That was the Dominican's only defeat among his previous 27 fights, but good luck recognizing the names of any of the guys he beat during that run. If there was one interesting name on his entire ledger, it was Jose Luis de la Sagras. Rodriguez fought him twice in 1990; by '96, de la Sagras was Rodriguez's co-trainer. Oh, and Rodriguez went 0-1-1 against him.
That "gimme first defense" so many new titlists get? Rodriguez checked all the boxes.
"We battled to get Rodriguez as an opponent," Lynch remembers. "HBO wanted us to fight someone else, and as crazy as it sounds in retrospect, we pushed for Wilson Rodriguez, thinking that would be an easier touch for us."
Lynch and the rest of Gatti's team thought they'd done their due diligence on Rodriguez, and the only worrying element they came across was his level of experience. "I remember being at a prefight press conference, and someone cited a stat that this kid had more 10-round fights than Gatti had ever had fights in his life," Lynch says. "That's when it hit us that we're really in with a seasoned veteran. Arturo didn't have much ring experience outside of going the distance and winning the title against Patterson. Before that, if you look at Arturo's record, he was knocking everybody out. In terms of experience going rounds, we didn't have it.
"Still, I thought we were safe. After all, Rodriguez wasn't really known as a puncher."
"Gatti's getting a little boxing lesson here in round one." —Jim Lampley
Max Kellerman was about a decade away from joining the HBO broadcast team, but his voice was present in the arena as Rodriguez entered the ring to Max and his brother Sam's rap song "Rumble Young Man Rumble." Wearing yellow trunks with black trim, the rat-tailed Rodriguez heard a smattering of boos, but they were quickly drowned out by the opening strains of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." Gatti, wearing white trimmed with blue, jogged to the ring at a brisk pace, and his handlers did their best to keep up.
Gatti, who made a then-career-best $65,000 purse for the title win against Patterson, was about to bank $180,000 for this one, but there was already talk of an even bigger payday for a Patterson rematch in the fall. And it didn't take long for Patterson to make an imprint on Gatti-Rodriguez—not because Gatti got caught looking ahead, but because of the damage the ex-champ's fists had done to him three months prior. Only 35 seconds into the fight, after some standard circling and jabbing, Rodriguez landed his first right hand, and Gatti's left cheekbone began swelling immediately. The challenger kept jabbing and dropping in right hands over the top, and with a minute to go in the round, Gatti was pawing at the eye that gave him so many problems late in the bout with Patterson.
"It became apparent immediately that we brought him back too soon after the Patterson fight," Lynch admits. "For his eye to swell up that quickly, in the first round, from not a hard-punching guy—we couldn't believe it."
Gatti fired off a trademark wild left hook late in the round, but it missed and Rodriguez countered with a flush jab. "Gatti's getting a little boxing lesson here in round one," HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley declared. It was a downright dominant frame for Rodriguez, who looked exceedingly comfortable as he landed 30 of 78 punches to just 16 of 61 for Gatti. In the corner, Joe Souza, brought in to replace Percy Richardson in the wake of the near-disastrous swelling against Patterson, started working for his paycheck immediately, busting out the Enswell, a glob of Vaseline, and a Q-tip.
"Gatti is in real trouble unless he can do something dramatic." —Larry Merchant
If the opening round was a three-minute-long "Oops" for Gatti, the round that followed was a three-minute-long "Oh shit." He came out bending deep at the knees, utilizing head movement, and pumping the jab. He was trying to box intelligently. But Rodriguez's jab was finding a home anyway, and a minute into the round, Gatti's right eye was as messy as his left. "I think Gatti is in real trouble unless he can do something dramatic, guys," declared color analyst Larry Merchant. They were all about to find out what real trouble truly looked like.
With a minute and 15 seconds to go, Gatti backed Rodriguez toward the ropes and unfurled another one of those wide hooks. Rodriguez countered with a right hand and then a perfect left hook of his own to the jaw, dropping Gatti on the seat of his trunks.
"Before the fight, he had purchased a BMW sports car," Lynch recounts, "and I kept saying, 'Arturo, just wait till after the fight,' but he bought it anyway. He always had to have something to keep him busy, you know? So they asked him after the fight, 'What was the first thing that went through your mind when you got dropped?' He said, 'There goes my BMW, and Pat Lynch just had a heart attack.' He was almost right about the second part."
Gatti popped up at referee Wayne Kelly's count of two, started bouncing on his toes, and took a deep breath. "Getting off the floor kind of woke me up," he said afterward. "I got scared when I went down. I didn't even know I was down until I looked around. I said, 'Oh my god, I'm gonna lose the fight.'"
"Thunder" stormed right back but Rodriguez opened up with combinations, landing flush with both hands. The Dominican kept dropping in those rights over Gatti's left, and when the titleholder got close, Rodriguez tied him up. Gatti's aggressive fighting spirit was on display as he marched forward, winging punches, but he couldn't get much done. Just before the bell, Gatti loaded up on a wild left, but the straight, sharp right hand of Rodriguez got to its destination first. Everything that could possibly go wrong for Gatti that round had. "While the boys and girls from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey were performing their death-defying deeds a few floors above," Jack Obermayer wrote in The Ring, "Gatti was walking his own tightrope in a one-ring circus."
Souza went for the left eye when Gatti sat down, but someone else in the corner yelled, "The other eye!" The cutman switched to Gatti's right side, saying, "I got it, I got it." With a mouthful of cotton swabs, doing a respectable Don Corleone impression, Souza spoke directly to Gatti: "Listen to me, listen to me. You ain't got no time. You gotta get out there and do it, all right?"
"This has been a time-capsule round." —Jim Lampley
Gatti tossed all recollection of proper boxing technique aside as he came after Rodriguez at the start of round three, and Rodriguez chipped in by missing some wild roundhouse punches of his own. "It's going to take some drama to rescue Arturo Gatti's star status here," Lampley declared. Gatti did his best to oblige when he countered Rodriguez's right with his best left hook of the fight, but aside from momentarily pitching forward, the challenger took it well.
The first chants of "Gat-ti! Gat-ti!" rang out midway through the round, but Rodriguez was unfazed. He speared a clean right hand into Gatti's jaw, prompting further pessimism from Lampley: "It's going to take a near-miracle against a tough guy to knock out." Again, Gatti responded on cue, pinning Rodriguez along the ropes and initiating an exchange that brought much of the crowd—and even press row—to its feet. Rodriguez went ahead and played Gatti's game, standing at close range and slugging, and the young titlist drilled him with a counter left that set his head at a 45-degree angle.
"This has been a time-capsule round," Lampley declared as the third stanza neared its conclusion. But seeing Gatti's eyes up close, he followed with the caution, "Hard to imagine that Gatti can last much longer."
"Cover your left eye or it's over!" —Dr. Stephen Gelfman
As soon as Gatti sat down in the corner, Souza and ringside physician Stephen Gelfman made like a couple of hockey players battling for a puck along the boards, practically hip-checking each other for position. Souza started going to work on the left eye, but the doc cut right in and told the sexagenarian Enswell artist to "back off." What followed would become a part of eternal boxing lore.
"Cover your left eye," Gelfman told Gatti. "I'm all right," the fighter responded, hoping to talk his way out of trouble. "Cover your left eye or it's over!" So Gatti affixed his left glove to his left eye—for about one second before taking it away. "I said cover it!" the exasperated physician yelled. Gatti complied, then answered correctly when Gelfman twice asked him how many fingers he was holding up (two, then one). The doc exited, and Souza was finally able to start doing his job.
"It was madness in the corner," Lynch remembers. An urban legend spread in later years about a cornerman tapping a nearly blind Gatti on the back, two taps and then one tap, to help him pass his exam. "I've heard that too, and that would make for a great story, but it didn't happen," says Lynch. "I think Arturo could juuust see out of the eye enough to get it right. Or maybe he was guessing. If he was guessing, he was getting the numbers right, thank God."
"What is keeping these guys up?" —Larry Merchant
"If the third wasn't a candidate for Round of the Year," Farhood wrote in KO, "the fourth certainly was." The wall-to-wall action started with Gatti loading up to the body, backing Rodriguez up with a right hand to the ribs 30 seconds into the round. Rodriguez tried a jab, but Gatti countered it with a booming straight right hand. "Gatti, boxing in the dark, through nearly closed eyes, here on Boxing After Dark," Lampley quipped. Gatti's half-blind rally continued with a sizzling counter right that forced Rodriguez to hold and inspired another "Gat-ti! Gat-ti!" chant.
The pace amplified to full-on frantic in the final minute of the round. Rodriguez scored with a right-left-right-left combo, Gatti absorbed it and fired back with a left hand, and Rodriguez ripped home three more shots in return. "What is keeping these guys up?" Merchant wondered aloud. That question became harder to answer just a moment later, when a left hand from the Dominican left Gatti hurt worse than at any point since the second-round knockdown. Gatti reeled into a corner and Rodriguez drummed his head back and forth with an eight-punch combination. Of course, in what would become typical Gatti fashion in the years ahead, Thunder was standing and trading just a few seconds later. And in similarly typical Gatti fashion, he snuck in a wicked low blow and got away with it. As the final seconds of the round ticked down, Gatti was winging away with no response from Rodriguez, prompting the defending titlist to give his opponent a cocky nod of the head as he strutted away at the bell.
Dr. Gelfman came to the Gatti corner to test his vision again, and again, Gatti successfully counted fingers twice. But perhaps the more significant drama was unfolding some 25 feet away. There, Rodriguez's cornermen offered straight-forward advice that reeked of creeping concern: "Stay away from him."
"Can you believe this kid?" —Larry Merchant
A couple of seeds for what would unfold in the Gatti-Rodriguez fight were planted two years earlier, in an eight-rounder at the Friar Tuck Inn in Catskill, New York. Gatti was taking on clubfighter Leon Bostic in what was supposed to be an easy 15th win, but Bostic was surprisingly game and Gatti, dealing with a back injury in camp, was undertrained. The result was a much wilder, more entertaining affair than expected, with Gatti doling out low blows and digging deep to win a majority decision.
"After the Bostic fight," Lynch remembers, "we're walking into the dressing room, and there's [veteran trainer/cutman] Al Gavin. And he's got his hands spread by his crotch, and he goes, 'This fucking kid's got 'em this big. I've never seen a bigger set of balls on a person in my life.' That was the fight that told us what kind of heart Arturo had. So what he did against Rodriguez, we knew he had something like that in him."
Just as important as Lynch learning what his fighter was made of that night was the referee seeing it firsthand. That was the first time Wayne Kelly worked a Gatti fight. He also presided over the title win against Patterson. So by the time the Rodriguez fight rolled around, he knew not to stop it at the first (or second or third) sign of trouble.
"Looking at his eyes, they looked okay," Kelly said following Gatti-Rodriguez. "I've worked his bouts before, and I know his resiliency. I had to give him more time in such an important fight."
Kelly gave him enough time to make it to round five and turn the tide. Rodriguez came out jabbing and moving, as his corner suggested, but Gatti had figured out how to slow him down: by going to the body, on both sides of legality. A very low left hand just over a minute into the round was followed by a low right hand. Gatti uncorked a combination of hip shots, then came up with a cracking left to the jaw. A fantastic hook to the flanks froze Rodriguez with a little over a minute to go, but Gatti followed with a right cross to the bottom of the beltline, and Kelly had seen enough. He docked Gatti a point.
Still, the kid from Jersey City wasn't deterred from his game plan. At 2:22 of the round, he planted a perfect left to Rodriguez's liver, and the challenger sunk to his knees.
"After he dropped him with the bodyshot, we jumped up, I looked in Rodriguez's eyes, and I knew Arturo had him," Lynch says. "I figured it was only a matter of time. Especially as hard as Arturo punches."
Rodriguez rose at the count of eight in obvious pain, and as Gatti launched more missiles to the body, Merchant asked, "Can you believe this kid?" Gatti wasn't the only warrior in the ring, though. Rodriguez, as close as he was to being knocked out, answered with a six-punch combination as the round neared its end.
"What we're seeing is the pure spirit and skill of terrific athletes." —Larry Merchant
Through five rounds, Gatti had inched ahead by one point on one judge's scorecard, but Rodriguez still led by three on the other two cards. You had to figure, though, that the scorecards wouldn't matter. HBO's resident wordsmith Merchant made certain to get in a big-picture tribute to what he was witnessing before it was too late: "Folks, when you see fights like the ones we've had on [Boxing After Dark], it redeems all the bad stuff you ever hear about boxing. What we're seeing is the pure spirit and skill of terrific athletes."
Rodriguez's spirit, however, was draining. Gatti plowed forward to open round six while the challenger barely threw punches. Gatti landed a wide left to the temple, then a left to the body, and Rodriguez pumped out a few jabs but an increasingly confident Gatti slipped them. Standing forehead-to-forehead, Rodriguez made a last stand, but Gatti got in the last word of their exchange with painful punches downstairs.
With just over a minute to go in the round, a brutal left to the body had Rodriguez in visible pain. A few seconds later, both gladiators threw left hooks at the same time, but Gatti's got there first and got there with maximum impact, sending Rodriguez down on his back. He could barely roll onto his right side before Kelly reached the count of 10 at 2:16 of the round. The comeback was complete. "I know I have the heart and I have what [it takes] to be champion," Gatti said in the ring afterward. "I proved it tonight."
Rodriguez's response was mixed. He offered some excuses—all perfectly valid. "In one of the rounds, my hand got hurt, and I just couldn't keep throwing my right hand. I think it's fractured, because I can't even close my hand." Rodriguez continued, "He hit me below the belt at least six times, and it was only once that he got one point taken away from him." But when the excuses were done, the praise for his opponent followed. "He's a true champ. I could not believe the way this guy came back, and he will go very, very far."
"People will never forget this fight. It will be shown over and over and over again." —Larry Merchant
Said Lampley moments after Gatti thrust his arms into the air in victory, "You'll never see better drama for a young prospect on his way to superstardom." You'll also never see a more dead-even fight in terms of stats. Rodriguez out-threw Gatti, 449 to 445. Rodriguez out-landed Gatti, 237 to 236. They both landed at a 53 percent connect rate. It was that kind of fight. "People will never forget this fight," Merchant insisted. "It will be shown over and over and over again."
To an extent, Merchant was right. However, somewhat limiting the need for constant replays of Gatti-Rodriguez was the fact that Gatti kept providing live recreations for the next decade. The next year, he was in the Fight of the Year against Gabriel Ruelas, another back-from-the-brink left hook knockout victory. The year after that, Gatti lost to Ivan Robinson in another Fight of the Year. His trilogy with like-minded warrior Micky Ward produced two more Fights of the Year, in 2002 and 2003. Even the "easy" fights were rarely easy. Because Gatti just wasn't wired that way.
"I remember when he was fighting Calvin Grove on CBS in 1997, Grove's moving a lot, and for the first three rounds, Arturo's boxing, he looks beautiful," Lynch recalls. "But from the fourth round on, it's balls to the wall. I mean, he just engaged in a war. He got stitched up after that fight, and he's sitting in the doctor's office, and I'm like, 'Arturo, I don't understand. You could have won an easy decision.' And he looks up at me, he says, 'You think I wanted to be patient and chase him for 10 rounds? I'd rather get punched in the face.' That's what he said to me. How do you answer that?"
While Gatti was turning himself into a folk hero, Rodriguez was turning into a footnote. He got another shot on HBO, losing a decision to Angel Manfredy in '97, won a few more small fights in Spain, then lost an eight-rounder in '99 to unknown Miguel Angel Pena and retired at age 33. He exited the sport quietly and has remained out of the public eye ever since.
If it's not a fairytale ending, it's at least a happier one than Gatti's. Two years after a knockout loss to Alfonso Gomez ended his career in 2007, Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in his wife's homeland of Brazil at age 37. The death was initially ruled a homicide and Gatti's widow was arrested, but Brazilian authorities later declared it a suicide. After follow-up investigations and multiple autopsies, the cause of death remains a subject of debate and uncertainty.
That horrific tragedy was followed by the ultimate honor in 2012, when Gatti was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Had he been the sort of guy to box his way cautiously to easy decision wins, maybe he would have lived longer, and maybe he wouldn't have been a Hall of Famer. But Gatti was the kind of guy who, to use his own words, preferred to get punched in the face.