"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."