When it comes to marketing and promoting, Hollywood studios have nothing on HBO. (It’s not TV, after all; it’s HBO.) But when it comes to marketing and promoting boxing, HBO may have gone too far. On November 23, six months after one of the most violent televised fights ever, Mickey Ward (38-11, 27 KO’s) and Arturo Gatti (34-6, 28 KO’s) will meet again on HBO in a 10-round junior welterweight bout at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, and all we can hope for is that nobody gets killed. The first time they fought, both were lucky enough to leave the ring remembering their own names.
The first Gatti-Ward fight was heralded by boxing columnists and insiders alike as one of the greatest of all time—”a once in a lifetime moment,” remarked HBO boxing chief Kerry Davis—because of its unremitting action and savagery. The boxers, however, were simply following form. Famous for absorbing and doling out wicked amounts of punishment, both Gatti and Ward are wired to always be in this type of war. It’s why making them fight each other the first time was like some cruel socio-pugilistic experiment. After Ward won a controversial majority decision, the clamor for a rematch left the fighters no career choice but to do it again. Each will get an estimated $1.25 million.
“To me, they’re selling their blood,” says Michael Katz, the Yoda of boxing writers who’s covered fights for more than 30 years. “But then, that’s what people want to buy. It’s why Tyson is still a big draw, why guys like [Pernell] Whitaker and Roy Jones are looked down upon. Anyone who misses either Gatti or Ward [with a punch] should be penalized 15 yards. These guys are club fighters. There’s little skill involved. God bless them for their courage, but it ain’t boxing.”
But it is entertaining, and Ward’s advisor, Lou DiBella, is proud of this matchup: “It was beautiful in its brutality by their total disregard for their well-being,” DiBella says of their first fight. “Michael Katz takes pokes at me because of this type of matchup, but c’mon. You have two guys who by virtue of their style of fighting always give the fans 110 percent, and with the success of the first fight they can make the biggest payday of their career. Mickey’s almost 37. He’s never made the money to take care of his family. Ward and Gatti, if you know them, were born to be fighters. If they didn’t have boxing as an outlet, they would be doing it in the streets.”
Gatti-Ward is not the first of its kind. It follows in the footsteps of Carmen Basilio vs. Tony DeMarco and Johnny LoCicero vs. Caveman Lee—masterpieces of violence that straddled the line between sport and transgression. Guess where HBO stands. “Unless there’s a serious health issue with the fighters, they’ll fight the rematch,” says Xavier James, vice president of HBO Sports. “We leave it to the managers and the fighters to decide what to do since they know the fighters the best. There were a few people who thought it was too violent, but they were in the minority. Most people loved it.”
But will most people recognize the rematch for what it probably will be? “As a person who appreciates the science of boxing, I saw the first fight as a pure slugfest, no skill involved,” says Steve Acunto, founder of the American Association for the Improvement of Boxing, which conducts clinics on safety. “Those two are going to end up in the loony bin.”