It was only an hour or so after the news broke that Arturo Gatti – the former Jersey City and Hoboken resident who electrified boxing crowds with his never-say-die style – was found dead in a Brazil hotel room, when someone very close to Gatti predicted what might have happened in a cryptic phone call.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if his wife did it,” said the caller, who will remain anonymous for obvious reasons. “People are going to think it was an overdose or something, but I truly think his wife had something to do with it.”
Sure enough, that call turned out to be prophetic.
Two days later, Brazilian police took Gatti’s wife, 23-year-old Amanda Rodrigues, who used to live in Union City and worked as a dancer/stripper at the Squeeze Lounge in Weehawken, and officially charged her with Gatti’s murder.
Gatti was found dead at the age of 37 and police allege that his wife used a purse strap to strangle a drunken Gatti, then allege that she hit him over the head with a blunt object. Gatti was in Brazil with his wife and his 10-month-old son, reportedly on a second honeymoon. Gatti and his wife had an extremely volatile relationship since they were married in October of 2007 and twice he sought advice to file for divorce.
Just two months ago, Gatti received 10 stitches in the head after Amanda allegedly threw a lamp at him in a hotel room in Hawaii.
His violent death ends what was truly a remarkable fairytale story in professional boxing.
Gatti, a native of Canada, came to the United States at age 17 and settled in Jersey City with his older brother, Joe, and became a professional boxer soon after. His first job in the United States was as a hamburger flipper at the famed White Mana Restaurant on Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, across the street from the Ringside Lounge, where Gatti was first introduced to boxing locally.
Gatti fought his entire pro career for Main Events Promotions, which ironically held a prime-time boxing card Saturday night featuring their latest star, another Jersey City resident named Tomasz Adamek, the IBF cruiserweight champion of the world. Adamek won his fight with a fourth-round technical knockout and dedicated his victory to the memory of Gatti.
“He wasn’t just important to me, but to all of boxing,” Adamek said after his win. “I met him at my manager [Ziggy Rozalski]’s daughter’s birthday party. He was a legend in boxing. This is a sad day for everyone who loves boxing. I’m going to miss him forever.”
After turning professional in 1991, Gatti worked his way up the ranks. He fought in a lot of local shows and in small venues, making a name for himself. In 1997, Gatti won his first world crown, capturing the IBF super featherweight championship of the world, defeating Tracy Harris Patterson in Madison Square Garden.
In the coming years, Gatti became a fan favorite in Atlantic City and especially on cable network HBO, which televised several of Gatti’s bouts, including the famed trilogy with Micky Ward from May, 2002 through June, 2003. Gatti lost the first fight to Ward, then came back to win the next two. He won the second fight despite fighting most of the bout with a severely broken right hand.
“He became a cult figure,” said Carl Moretti, who was the matchmaker for all of Gatti’s fights with Main Events. “He made the most appearances on HBO, and that made it all sweeter. People always looked forward to see him fight. There were 12,000 people there to see him. I doubt if we’ll ever see that again in these parts. People were just entertained by him. They knew that at the end of the day that Arturo was going to give then a great value for their entertainment dollar. I think they could relate to the effort he was giving every time he got into the ring. He attracted people of all colors, creeds, backgrounds. People who didn’t like boxing still loved Arturo Gatti. They just loved watching him perform. They fell in love with him.”
After a few tough losses, Gatti managed to make comeback and after comeback, much like he did in practically every fight.
Gatti eventually came back to win the WBC light welterweight championship over Jesse James Lejia in January of 2005, his second world crown, but lost the title to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. later that year.
Gatti’s last win came over Thomas Damgaard in Atlantic City in 2006, but suffered losses to Carlos Manuel Baldomir for the WBC welterweight title, losing a chance to capture his third world belt, and then his final fight, almost two years to the date of his untimely passing, on July 14, 2007, when he lost to Alfonso Gomez in Atlantic City.
Ironically, it was that fight when then-girlfriend Rodrigues tried to climb into the ring, screaming uncontrollably, wanting the fight to stop. She screamed at referee Randy Neumann that a very badly beaten Gatti “was close to death.”
“Stop this fight,” she yelled. “This is murder. If he dies, then the blood will be on your hands.”
After the loss to Gomez, Gatti retired.
“He didn’t handle retirement well,” Moretti said. “He wasn’t disciplined enough to handle it. I never expected him to live a long life and I wasn’t going to be totally shocked if something happened to him. But this way? It’s almost surreal in a way. The part that his wife was allegedly involved is shocking and the way he died is almost ironic. He was as tough as they come in the ring and he dies this way.”
Jersey City’s Mike Skowronski was perhaps Gatti’s best friend. Skowronski, now a respected boxing trainer and manager, worked in Gatti’s corner since his pro debut and the two were inseparable, especially in social circles.
“He used to come to my door and wake me up at 4 a.m.,” Skowronski recalled. “He used to do it just to bust my chops and wake me up. He did it almost every night. That’s just the way he was. That was Arturo. I’d give anything to have him do it again, but it’s never going to happen.”
Skowronski said that he hadn’t spoken to Gatti for three days prior to his death.
“I knew something was wrong, because every time I tried to call him, I got a weird busy signal,” Skowronski said. “In my heart, I felt something was wrong. I miss my friend already. He made me popular in Jersey City. I was so lucky to be part of his life for the last 20 years.”
Moretti was asked how he was going to best remember his friend.
“I don’t think it will be boxing related,” Moretti said. “I’m going to remember when we weren’t in the ring, when we were doing different things, like going to Coach [Bob] Hurley’s golf outing every year and playing golf there. It was always a great day. Or going out to dinner and just laughing. It didn’t have to involve boxing. Of course, I will remember the fights as well.”
Moretti said that Gatti was so beloved by millions, but the boxer never truly appreciated the idol worship he had.
“He never grasped just how big he was,” Moretti said. “Not just in this area, but around the world. People would see me all over the place and tell me that their favorite fighter was Arturo Gatti. It didn’t matter where they were. But Arturo always stayed true to his roots. He loved being here. Maybe he didn’t want to be bigger than he was. He’d rather hang out with his local friends.”
“He never understood why people loved him so much,” Skowronski said. “There were millions of people on HBO who loved him, but there were the others who lived here, where he lived.”
Referee Neumann said that Gatti was a rare breed.
“I never saw a crowd show so much love for someone like the way that the crowds flocked to Arturo’s fights in Atlantic City,” Neumann said. “I mean, they were so into him and the crowds were electric. He just fought his heart out every fight.”
Neumann said that it was tough for him to stop Gatti’s last fight, simply because of Gatti’s incredible ability to come back in fights.
“I couldn’t stop that fight, simply because he was Arturo Gatti,” Neumann said. “He was much more dignified to go out that way. He had to be counted out. When he fought, you never knew if he could come back. He looked beaten and still came back.”
Don Elbaum has been a veteran of the boxing game for more than 40 years. Now working for Main Events, Elbaum vividly recalled Gatti’s intensity.
“In boxing, nothing ever surprises me, and with Arturo, he lived a fast life, but you just didn’t expect it,” Elbaum said. “As a fighter, if you looked up ‘heart’ in the dictionary, you’d see Arturo’s picture. I always used him as a prime example. I have young fighters coming up and I tell them that if they want to be a champ, if they wanted to be a contender, then they had to have the heart of Arturo Gatti. I always used him.”
Main Events president Kathy Duva was saddened by the loss of her company’s No. 1 attraction.
“People said that going to one of his fights in Atlantic City was like going to see a Grateful Dead concert,” Duva said. “It wasn’t a fight. It was an event. You would see the same people coming all the time, like they were old friends. There was a certain electricity when he fought in Atlantic City and we’ll never see that again. He was really entertaining, but it was a lot more than that.”
Added Duva, “This is an unspeakable horror and there are no words to express this tragedy. He grew up with us. He fought every one of his professional fights with us. He was so unassuming and I don’t think he ever understood just how much people loved him. Other people loved him more than he loved himself.”
Pound4Pound Promotions’ John Lynch of Union City, who was Gatti’s personal attorney for more than a decade, was devastated by the news of Gatti’s passing.
“This is a huge loss for the boxing community,” Lynch said. “He epitomized heart. That’s exactly what he was. The boxer with the biggest heart. Nothing was going to stop him. It’s a tragedy, because I feel he had a lot more to give to boxing. He would have been a great analyst for television. He was so well loved. He could have given back to the sport. He would have been great for the sport. I don’t know what it was about him, but he was so beloved. He fought hard and lived hard.”
And unfortunately, died hard as well – at an age where people aren’t supposed to die.
“I knew he wasn’t going to be the guy who lived until he was 90,” Skowronski said. “He lived a fast life in everything he did. But I didn’t expect he would be gone at 37 and gone this way. They don’t make them like him anymore. That’s my buddy, the one I’ll miss. I’ll miss everything he did. His heart, his determination stood out. He wasn’t overly skilled, but he made up for it with hard work. He’s just gone too soon. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.”
Apparently, his best friend wasn’t alone with those sentiments. Funeral services are still pending and more than likely will take place in Gatti’s native Canada, but whenever a service is held locally, you can be rest assured that people from all walks of life will come back and pay tribute to one of their own.
Arturo Gatti might not have been born in Hudson County, but he certainly was one of us. And Gatti will forever will be that way, one of us, one of Hudson County’s shining stars. He put professional boxing back on the local map and for that we all have to be forever grateful.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.