By Matt Richardson
For boxing fans, the image is an indelible one.
Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, grimacing while clutching his ribs, a single knee on the canvas. It was the ninth round of Gatti’s first fight with Mickey Ward. May 18, 2002. What had occurred in the previous eight rounds had already made the bout great but what transpired later in the ninth and in the tenth and final round made the fight legendary.
HBO, which aired all three thrillers between the two junior welterweights during an eleven-month period between May 2002 and June 2003, agreed that the fights were as exciting and historic as they seemed at the time. As a result, the network has released a new episode of “Legendary Nights,” a series documenting the best and most popular fights aired by HBO during its decades-long run. The episode is the first in the series since it ended an impressive run in 2003.
The show will air this Saturday, October 19 at 12:00 AM ET following a junior welterweight clash between Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodnikov.
Despite more than a decade passing since both men first fought one another, the emotions of their battles still run high. Ward, who was in attendance at a private screening at HBO’s headquarters on Wednesday night and has since had an Academy Award-winning film made about his life, said he still can’t believe how far he’s come since that first fateful night in 2002. “I’m thankful,” he said. “If someone told me that all of this would happen I would have to ask them ‘what bar are you at and how much did you drink?’”
“To be in the category with these fighters is just crazy,” Ward continued. “Being remembered like this, to be honest, is more important than the actual fights.”
The documentary, which showed Ward as he travelled to the International Boxing Hall of Fame last June to celebrate the induction of Gatti, is interspersed with footage of all three fights and interviews with most of the participants, both in the ring and out. Hanging over the show like a dark, thunderous cloud, however, is the tragic passing of Gatti in July 2009.
As if the thrill of the three fights and the behind the scenes theatrics weren’t enough, the death of Gatti and its effects on those involved in the trilogy is illustrated beautifully and dramatically. Many of those interviewed, including HBO’s Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant, fight back tears on the screen. Sniffles and sobs could be heard in the theater at HBO, too.
“I miss him and think about him every day,” Ward said in comments to the audience gathered at the conclusion of the airing. “We wanted to win but we didn’t want to kill each other,” he said.
It’s a theme that is reiterated throughout the documentary. Despite the savage nature of their bouts, both Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward waged something beautiful together. They were vicious inside the ring but buddies outside of it. They clearly gained a mutual respect that only could have been earned by two boxers who fought the way they did as often as they did. That respect was compounded so much that Ward even trained Gatti for his final professional bout in 2007.
As boxing fans clearly know, it’s hard to do justice while explaining the Gatti-Ward trilogy. Their fights were so great and so exciting that they spoke for themselves. Documenting them is an almost thankless task but, yet, one that HBO passes with flying colors. Frankly, this episode of “Legendary Nights” is as powerful as that left hook to the body that dropped Gatti in the ninth.
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