"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.