It wasn't supposed to end like this. We weren't supposed to see Arturo Gatti on his hands and knees, struggling to get to his feet against a nondescript hand-picked opponent like Alfonso Gomez, straight off the set of the TV reality show, "The Contender."
After all, this was Arturo Gatti, the local hero with residences in Jersey City and Hoboken, the boxing star who had the nickname of "Thunder" and provided thousands of thrilling moments during his championship career.
Gatti was supposed to thrill his faithful followers one more time, the ones who flocked to Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall last Saturday night to witness the fan favorite pulverize an opponent again. Gatti was expected to take a few punches along the way, then rally to a majestic victory in front of all the beloved fans who adored him for the last 15 years.
Even the next big payday was already lined up. After Gatti disposed of Gomez, there was a showdown planned with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. some time in November, back in Atlantic City where the local boxing fans migrated like the swallows flocked to San Juan Capistrano.
So this return to the ring represented simply a tune-up for Gatti, a chance to shake out the cobwebs from nearly a year's absence from the ring and the opportunity to line up another million-dollar paycheck.
There was only one problem. Gomez was not privy to any of those pre-arranged plans. He wasn't going to stand for the idea that he was a walkover, that he represented nothing more than a workout for the extremely popular Gatti.
All along, Gomez was certain that he could win the fight. He wasn't overly cocky, just confident. He watched tapes of recent Gatti losses to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Carlos Baldimir and realized that despite his less-than-stellar 16-3-2 record, Gomez had a height and reach advantage, not to mention an age advantage as well. "I was real comfortable with having him as an opponent," Gomez said after the fight. "I was real comfortable having him within my distance."
And Gomez, nine years Gatti's junior, displayed every ounce of being in control from the outset. He was the aggressor; he was the one with the fresh legs and faster jabs; he was the one who was going to send the local hero into retirement.
Gomez won the first round easily, despite the crowd chanting, "Gatti, Gatti, Gatti," throughout the opening round. Gatti rallied somewhat to take the second round, especially nailing one upper cut that seemed to hurt Gomez. But by the third round, the night belonged to Gomez. He landed two hard rights to start the third round, snapping Gatti's head back each time. Another stiff left jab seemed to hurt Gatti toward the end of the round. In the fourth round, Gomez took complete control, pounding Gatti several times with combinations. A series of right hands stunned Gatti and he had the appearance that he was going down. But Gatti had shown similar unsteadiness several times before in his career and managed to rally each time. The 9,348 in attendance were sensing a similar comeback, like their native son had done time and time again.
The fourth round ended with Gomez connecting three straight right hands to Gatti's head. It was Gomez's round in a big way.
Fear and hope
At that point, Gatti's wife ran out of the arena.
"I'm not watching any more of this," she said as Gatti's manager Pat Lynch tried to stop her from leaving. She didn't stop.
It was painful to watch someone so beloved and so brilliant for so long getting destroyed by a journeyman. It was almost like watching Willie Mays trying to chase after a fly ball for the Mets in the 1973 World Series or Patrick Ewing clanking his patented fade-away jumper while wearing an Orlando Magic pinstriped uniform.
But this was different to everyone in attendance, because no one thought this day would actually happen. Sure, everything has to come to an end, especially in professional sports, but when it came to Arturo Gatti, you just expected another comeback.
In the fifth round, Gatti gave the hometown crowd some hope. He connected with a stiff left that moved Gomez, then countered with one overhand right and three upper cuts. Gomez didn't seem to be really hurt by the flurry. He hit the two-time former world champ twice and silenced the crowd sensing the comeback.
Gatti hit Gomez with a left that ended the round and perhaps gave a glimmer of hope to the local hero.
In the sixth round, Gomez fired off eight straight punches of all varieties - and none connected. Gomez hit air on all eight, which caused Gatti to do a mini-shuffle, a la Muhammad Ali, and raise his arm in jubilation, much to the delight of the crowd. It was the last time they would cheer.
Right before the end of the sixth round, Gomez pummeled Gatti hard on three straight punches - two rights and a left - that staggered the weary champ and sent him back to the corner, knowing full well that he needed a knockout to win the fight.
It wasn't coming. The seventh round began with Gomez on the attack, sensing the victory. He continued to pummel the 35-year-old Gatti into frightening submission, hitting him seven straight times without Gatti retaliating. The barrage continued, with Gomez pounding one after another in downright scary succession. Sixteen, 17, 18, 19 times, Gomez blasted Gatti with not a hint of a punch coming in return.
Gatti couldn't even raise his arms to defend himself. The barrage reached 21 straight punches - which was six more punches than what Benny "Kid" Paret withstood in his fatal fight with Emile Griffith some 40 years ago.
All totaled, Gomez connected on 40 of 62 power punches thrown in the seventh round alone. It was brutality, witnessed on national television.
Onlookers really feared for Gatti's life, because finally, there was no fight left in the kid who never quit. There was nothing left. Nothing.
People at ringside were yelling at respected referee Randy Neumann to stop the fight.
"I didn't think he was concussed," Neumann said after the fight. "I thought he was fighting back. I've seen him come back before. He always had a puncher's shot. I couldn't take that away from him."
When Gatti finally went down, the count began, counting down the brilliant Gatti's career. One, two, three...Gatti struggled to get to his hands and knees, but nothing more. Larry Hazzard, the New Jersey State Boxing Commissioner and a former referee, climbed into the ring and ran to Gatti's aid, stopping the fight at the 2:12 mark of the seventh round.
In that instant, boxing in Hudson County, as we knew it, died.
While Gomez climbed on the ropes celebrating his victory, medical professionals rushed to Gatti to see if he was fine. After a few seconds, he got to his feet and in true competitive, warrior-like fashion, wanted to continue fighting. Just like any other professional athlete, Arturo Gatti didn't want it to be over.
Nor did anyone else inside Boardwalk Hall. Frankly, nor did anyone else - period. Even the man who sent Gatti into retirement.
"I do feel bad for him," Gomez said after the fight. "This loss pretty much propels him into retirement. He's one of my all-time idols, with his heart, with the way he kept coming back. He helped to keep boxing alive. But I can't say I beat a stronger guy. He said he was going to box me, but I was the one who set him up with jabs. I hit him downstairs, I hit him upstairs, and it was just a matter of time before it ended. I really thought he was going to be a lot stronger."
Added Gomez, "This is the fight that every boxer dreams of and looks for. This makes me more of a contender. I now have a chance to get a title."
Gatti was nowhere to be found after the fight. He was taken to Atlantic City Hospital to have his lip stitched and to get examined for any possible concussion. He told HBO that he was officially announcing his retirement, and that if he was coming back, "It would be as a spectator."
Main Events president Kathy Duva addressed the media after the fight.
"We spoke with Arturo and he has decided to hang them up," Duva said, with tears visible in her eyes. "We support that decision 1,000 percent. His legend will live on forever. All good things come to an end, and we're sad to see this legend's career end."
However, in the minutes after, the boxing promotion group was celebrating the victory of up-and-comer Kermit Cintron , a victor earlier in the evening. Cintron represents Main Events' big paydays now. The changing of the guard took place rather rapidly, without much fanfare. Gatti was out the door and Cintron was in.
But an entire county saw its professional boxing hopes die with Gatti's career, because in reality, there isn't a real local contender on the horizon. Sure, there may be a rising star in the amateur ranks, but the number of local pro boxers is miniscule and the number of true contenders is non-existent.
That's why there was such finality when Gatti struggled to get to his feet. It represented an end of an era. Not only did it represent the end of Gatti's brilliant career, but it also represented the end of the influx, the injection of adrenalin, that pro boxing desperately needed in Hudson County - an area with a rich, storied and historic boxing tradition. Here's to hoping that some warrior picks up the torch from Arturo Gatti and continues with the same drive, determination and fervor. It won't be easy to recreate.