-- There was no title on the line tonight when Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward met at Boardwalk Hall, but much like their epic first bout in May, both fighters confirmed they were among the toughest in boxing as Gatti came away with a unanimous decision.
Gatti clearly was the better fighter this time in the junior welterweight fight, though he did not attempt to out-finesse Ward as he hinted he would try to do. Instead, the pair went toe-to-toe, with Gatti's polish outweighing Ward's resilience. All three judges scored in favor of Gatti, 98-91, 98-91 and 98-90.
"I boxed the way I was supposed to box in the first fight," said Gatti (35-6), who landed nearly half of the power punches he threw; Ward landed less than a third.
The first fight, won by Ward in a close decision, drew three standing ovations for its brutality. Tonight, the sellout crowd first rose to its feet after the third round, when Gatti knocked down Ward with a right and pinned him in a corner, nearly finishing him off. But Ward (38-12) tapped his stomach and motioned to Gatti for more, then rallied to rock Gatti with a right hook and later a flurry of lefts that drove Gatti to the other side of the ring.
"He caught me good with an overhand behind the ear," Ward said. "It threw my equilibrium off."
The entertaining third resembled the ninth round of their first meeting, in which Ward floored Gatti with a left hook before Gatti returned to punish Ward and came back with enough to win the 10th but not the fight.
Like that round, which has ascended to near-myth in the six months since, the knockdown proved decisive.
"I knew he was hurt," Gatti said. "He was never the same the rest of the fight."
Gatti, 30, spent the first 10 years of his professional career earning a reputation for taking incredible punishment but coming from behind for stirring late-round victories. But he has transformed dramatically while working under former champion Buddy McGirt over the past year, and exhibited his development in a fourth-round knockout of Terronn Millett in January, along with the opening rounds of his first fight with Ward.
A knockdown of Ward was an unlikely goal. A tough journeyman early in his career, Ward had driven a steamroller and worked as a prison guard during a three-year hiatus in the early 1990s. He had only been stopped once, because of a cut he suffered against Vince Phillips in August 1997, and established his hardiness and signature left hook to the body in a series of hard fights over the past five years.
Ward was never able to utilize that left hook. Every time he gained momentum, Gatti had an answer -- he used his left jab to buy time before using his superior hand speed to wear down Ward.
"I was trying to get my jab in, but he would always move away at the last minute," Ward said.
Gatti used his superior movement to keep Ward at a distance whenever he got going, and forced Ward to throw most of his haymakers while off-balance. He repeatedly ducked under Ward's body punches early, rising occasionally to stun him with a right uppercut.
"We worked on that, staying low and then coming up to hit him in the body," Gatti said.
While both fighters had their eye on Kostya Tszyu, the unified 140-pound champion, Gatti hinted there could be a third act if Tszyu elects to not to fight him after Tszyu's January defense against Jesse James Leija.
"It's one-to-one, and a third time I wouldn't mind," Gatti said.