When Arturo Gatti meets Floyd Mayweather Jr. tonight in a 140-pound bout at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, he will put his World Boxing Council light welterweight title on the line along with something much more valuable.
To date, it is defined by three consecutive savage fights against Micky Ward, from May 2002 to June 2003. Gatti won the second two to breathe life into his career and the bloody, primal trilogy earned him a reputation as a blue-collar fighter who triumphed more with courage -- rising off the canvas, continuing to punch with a broken hand -- than talent.
But Gatti, 33, thinks that in celebrating his mettle, many "forget about my ability."
"Those three fights with Micky Ward were great fights, we killed each other in all three," Gatti said. "That's what people remember. . . . But it takes more than brawling. My talent came out in those fights."
Indeed, Gatti was considerably more polished in his two victories over Ward. And he didn't need to stand toe-to-toe to tough it out in his three subsequent fights -- all wins that improved his career mark to 39-6.
But none of those bouts -- in part due to the caliber of his opponents -- did anything to reshape Gatti's reputation. He still is seen mostly as an overachieving tough guy without a marquee triumph. (Ward, who retired after his third fight with Gatti, was a journeyman with a record of 38-13.)
A victory over Mayweather (33-0) would change that. The as-yet untouchable 28-year-old is mentioned at or near the top of any "best pound-for-pound" discussion, having dominated and won titles at 130 and 135 pounds before moving up to 140 and defeating Washington's DeMarcus Corley by unanimous decision and Henry Bruseles by technical knockout.
Gatti, who is 6-1 under trainer Buddy McGirt, is a significant underdog. But he said he is not surprised by naysayers.
"A lot of people are gonna have to apologize to me after this fight," he said.
Mayweather will have to be first in line if Gatti does win tonight's pay-per-view HBO fight. He has labeled Gatti a "C-level" fighter and said he is looking past this fight.
"All of his shots are wide," Mayweather said of Gatti. "He's flat-footed, and like I said before, he's a club fighter that they put on HBO, and they put C-minus fighters in there with him."
Mayweather's confidence is understandable. He is quick, excels defensively and is powerful enough to have scored 22 knockouts.
In much the same way Gatti needs a victory over Ward for his legacy, Mayweather needs a victory over the popular Gatti. Despite his personality and a spotless record that includes victories over Jose Luis Castillo (twice) and Diego Corrales, Mayweather still flies beneath the radar of the casual boxing fan.
Like middleweight king Bernard Hopkins, Mayweather's technical, defensive style is appreciated by few other than boxing purists.
Gatti will have one clear advantage -- the crowd. He calls Jersey home, and Atlantic City is his turf.
If nothing else, Gatti has said he will stop at nothing to win -- even if it means conjuring up the gladiator style with which he made his name. Moments after trying to highlight his pugilistic skills, he bragged about exactly the things that draw attention away from them. He talked about his chin and his ability to take a punch. He talked about his heart and his willingness to rise from the canvas.
He talked about his willingness to "die in that ring." And he questioned whether Mayweather would do the same.
"Mayweather's a great fighter, he's got ability," Gatti said. "Tough? I don't know how tough he is."