Fighters like Gatti what make boxing great

In anticipation of UFC 100, I asked HBO’s Hall of Fame boxing commentator Larry Merchant over for dinner. OK, it was kind of like asking Carl Sandburg to come over and watch Def Poetry Jam, but he kept an open mind and accepted the invite.

Then, late Saturday afternoon, he called to decline, saying that the death of Arturo Gatti had left him grieving and with little appetite.

I only saw Gatti once live, against a fighter named Wilson Rodriguez in the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden. Gatti was losing convincingly through the early part of the fight, his right eye all but closed. I wasn’t alone at ringside calling for the fight to be stopped. I saw no purpose in Gatti’s perseverance — until he dug a long left hook into Rodriguez’s liver. Rodriguez stepped back as if he needed a moment to figure out what had just happened. Then he dropped. I’d never seen a punch like that. Still haven’t. Gatti won by knockout in the sixth round.

“That’s when we knew,” said Merchant. “That’s when we knew Gatti was for real.”

The promoter Lou DiBella saw Gatti make his way backstage that night. The ridges around his eyes were bloody, his face already quilted with purple bruises. But he seemed awfully happy with the pair of hotties waiting for him in the dressing room.

“Yo, Adrians,” he said.

Another fighter would’ve gone straight to the hospital. But Gatti took his girls across the street, to a Seventh Avenue bar that had been packed largely in his honor.

Gatti through the years

Arturo Gatti

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Arturo Gatti was one of the most exciting and courageous fighters of his era. Take a look at his storied career.

Yo, Adrians.

It takes a real tough guy to emerge from a fight — especially a fight like that — with his sense of humor intact.

Which brings me back to Saturday night and UFC 100. The much-anticipated heavyweight fight ended with a huge man pounding the merely big one beneath him. Then Brock Lesnar celebrated his good fortune by impersonating a cheap wrestling villain and giving the fans his middle finger.

It was a relief to know that Merchant had been spared this indignity. But I couldn’t help but think, if only there had been more Arturo Gattis — guys who bled and brawled with such memorable valiance — there’d have been no need for Brock Lesnar or UFC.