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A Fight Fan Remembers Arturo Gatti

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I know of no other sport where athletes lay themselves so bare as do fighters in the ring. It’s what makes boxing both such an exhilarating and brutal enterprise. No disguise can be worn for long in the squared circle. In there, you are who you are, and it’s only a matter of time before the truth of your being is exposed to the world. Or to put it another way, in the august words of Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” ↵

↵Retired boxer Arturo Gatti was found dead in a Brazilian hotel room this past Saturday, apparently stabbed and then strangled after a drunken bacchanal the night before. His young wife, Amanda Rodrigues, has been accused of his murder. ↵

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↵Gatti was 37 years old. No one will ever say that he was an all-time great, and yet without question he was one of the sport’s biggest stars of the last 20 years, and one of the most universally beloved fighters of his or any other era. ↵

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↵His fights are the stuff of legend – Gabriel Ruelas, Angel Manfredy, the two wars with Ivan Robinson and the Mickey Ward trilogy, of course. Simply jaw-dropping, all of it. If you are unfamiliar with these bouts, then get yourself over to YouTube pronto and prepare to be amazed. This man showed us more of himself in the ring over the years than we had any right to see, and he did it freely, usually with a smile on his face that belied the superhuman amounts of pain that he was wont to absorb seemingly every time he stepped through the ropes. ↵

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↵Because of this, because of the swollen-lipped, ear-to-ear smiles, and because of the courage and character and damn-the-torpedoes esprit de corps he put on display time and time again, fight fans like myself felt like we knew him intimately, and thus are heartbroken at his untimely passing, at the loss of someone who had come to symbolize the unconquerable spirit, the true believer. ↵

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↵Those who did actually know Arturo intimately often have said that his fast life was bound to catch up with him eventually, that it was clear to them that the only place where he was unconquerable was in the ring. Out of it, he was all too human, a drinking, drugging, bar-brawling paean to excess and candles burnt at both ends with the veritable blowtorch of life on the edge of madness. Like many a beloved wild man before him, Gatti was a devotee of that edge. As a fighter, it made him a warrior-king. But as a man, it led straight to chaos and heartache and, as it so often does, an early demise. ↵

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↵What is it that Mickey Rourke says at the end of The Wrestler? He’s about to head into the final contest that will probably kill him, and he turns to Marisa Tomei, gestures to the ring, and says something like, “I’m fine in there… the only place I get hurt is out here.” I’ve been thinking about that line these last couple of days. You always sensed that there was exuberance and joy woven into Gatti's endless turmoil, and yet one wonders if there wasn’t something in the larger-than-life Gatti persona that he simply could not out-run in the end, some essential poison in the 180-proof cocktail that was his existence. ↵

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↵How could a guy like that continue to be? We asked the same question a million times watching him fight – “how can he keep doing this?” As much as we’d have liked to imagine it otherwise, the answer was that he couldn’t. He cheated death for going on two decades, and on such a relentless orbit, he was not likely to grow old gracefully. ↵

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↵And so finally, though his sordid death saddens and disturbs me, I want to celebrate him now for exactly what he was without judgment or qualification. He was of that very rare breed that includes many a famous rock star, poet and artist-vagabond for whom the pursuit of the incandescent moment is everything. Gatti’s imperfections were numerous, but he had a heart the size of a beluga whale, and with it he transformed his elemental virtue, the will to endure, into performance art of the highest order. He inspired me many times over, sent chills up and down my spine of pure awe for what was possible of a man. Now that he’s gone, all I can say is that I’m very grateful to have known him so well, if only as one of the legion of fans he brought with him on those ritual flights of his, the ones that took us all so very, very close to the sun. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.