1998 has been a year of few great matchups, and fewer great fights. The last fight that garnered serious fight-of-the-year consideration was back in January, when Arturo Gatti was stopped on cuts by Angel Manfredy. So it was with great interest that boxing fans tuned in tonight to see Gatti's return to the ring.
In 1995, Gatti-Patterson was considered by many to be fight-of-the-year. Gatti-Rodriguez and Gatti-Ruelas topped the best-of lists from 1996 and 1997. Was it too much to ask that Gatti turn in yet another heart-stopping performance? Apparently not. His opponent tonight was Philadelphia's Ivan Robinson, a quick handed fighter known for his high output and minimal power. Together, they fought the fight of the year.
Ivan Robinson was not given much of a chance to beat Arturo Gatti. In 27 pro bouts, he had scored only 10 knockouts. His most memorable performance was a decision loss to then IBF lightweight champion Phillip Holiday in a fight that broke PunchStat records for output over 12 rounds. Many felt Robinson's best days were left back in his extensive amateur career and his best fights were left back in the legendary Philadelphia gym wars. Surely he would be no match for the power, determination and skill of Arturo Gatti.
But Arturo Gatti did not come prepared. Although he was able to weigh-in at 136 pounds, he had to completely dehydrate himself to do so. Like he had so many times before, Gatti dried out, weighed-in and then drank back on the depleted weight. In doing so, he gained 16 pounds in 24 hours. The size advantage he brought into the ring was canceled out by his increased tendency to swell. Gatti's worst swelling (against Patterson and Rodriguez) came after dramatic weight fluctuation prior to his fights, and tonight was no different.
Ivan Robinson came out to begin the fight and immediately launched a huge overhand right that landed flush on Gatti's head. That punch may have won the fight. The blow caused Gatti's swelling to begin instantaneously, and only 60 seconds into the fight, Gatti's left eye was nearly swollen shut. That punch, and the subsequent flurries Robinson landed in the opening stanza, changed Gatti's gameplan. Arturo had been talking all week about debuting a "new style" (actually a return to the boxing skills he masterfully displayed in his rematch with Patterson). Once Robinson damaged Gatti's eye, snapped his head, and wowed the pro-Gatti crowd, the gameplan flew right out the window. Arturo Gatti went to war.
Gatti started dropping bombs near the end of the first round, and he continued all night. But all the artillery in the world was not enough, as Robinson was able to return successfully in nearly every exchange. After only two rounds, Gatti's face was mess. His left eye was slammed shut and his nose and eye trickled blood. War was not an option, it was a necessity.
Before you can launch a come from behind victory, you need to get behind. Gatti followed the script perfectly. He lost the first three rounds and was on his way to losing the fourth when a short right to the top of Robinson's head sent him down in a neutral corner. Mighty Ivan arose and the fight continued at it's incredible pace.
In the sixth round, Robinson's was able to hit Gatti at will, and he dished out enough punishment to finish most fighters. The improved defense that Gatti bragged about in pre-fight press conferences was nowhere to be seen as he absorbed punch after punch after punch flush on his mangled face. Out on his feet and reeling across the ring, Gatti somehow landed a punch that in turn sent Robinson reeling. Gatti chased his now-wobbling attacker, but time ran out. As the bell ended the sixth, the crowd was rabid.
And so it went. Rounds 7, 8 and 9 featured more Robinson punishment, and more Gatti dramatics. Slumped in his corner between these frames, Gatti looked exhausted. After the seventh, in particular, Gatti looked like he was completely spent. The dehydration the day before surely weakened him in the later rounds of this bout, when he most needed his strength.
As the tenth and final round began, Gatti was hopelessly behind on points, exhausted and drained, and nearly blind. Despite his history of comebacks, another rally seemed too much to ask for, especially after Ivan Robinson spent the first two minutes of the round beating Gatti pillar to post. Again out on his feet and moments away from being the victim of a devastating kayo, Gatti returned fire. With 45 seconds left in the match, a Gatti combination caught Robinson and sent him across the ring and into the ropes on wobbly legs. Gatti chased, the crowd screamed, and the seconds ticked down. Robinson was on his way to repeating the last-second loss of fellow Philadelphian Meldrick Taylor. Unlike Chavez, however, Gatti could not finish. The final bell sounded with both men standing. Fight of the year.
Despite Gatti providing the only knockdown of the fight, as well as all the dramatics, it was difficult to give him many rounds over the high output and accuracy of Ivan Robinson. Even the rounds scored for Gatti were rounds in which he was absorbing enormous punishment before coming back with single huge punches that hurt Robinson. The judges saw it nearly the same. Robinson (26-2) was given a split decision, winning 98-93 and 96-94 on two judges cards, with a third judge turning in the improbable score of 96-93 in favor of hometown boy Gatti.
Although Gatti (29-3) logs his second consecutive loss, there really wasn't a loser tonight. Robinson finds himself back in the title picture at 135, and Gatti retained his title of "most exciting fighter". After the bout, both men talked of a rematch. It's anyone's guess as to why Gatti, who currently does not have a title confining him to one division, continues to sweat down to 135 when he is more than big enough to fight at 140 (possibly even 147) much more comfortably.
As each man stood talking to Larry Merchant after the fight, they both seemed to realize that they had just fought the fight of the year. Robinson was ecstatic knowing that he had accomplished something no one thought he could. Gatti was obviously more subdued, and hardly noticed when his closed eye trickled tears of blood during the interview. It will be a long recovery for both men, and a much deserved one at that.
On the undercard, Ferocious Fernando Vargas kept his record blemish-free (14-0/14KO) by taking 6 rounds to stop game opponent Darren Maciunski. The stronger Vargas dropped Maciunski in the first with a short right and again in the second with a more devastating right that Maciunski walked right into. But Maciunski was not dissuaded, and attempted to halt the onslaught by being rough on the inside with Vargas. Towards the end of the fourth round, that roughness resulted in a clash of heads that opened a huge gash to the side of Vargas' right eye. The blood distracted the previously uncut Vargas, but not as much as the referee's ruling that the cut was caused by a punch. That ruling meant a stoppage would result in a TKO loss to Vargas. Fernando came out in the fifth and sixth throwing bombs. His eagerness to end the bout exposed his porous defense, but not before he could do some damage. Raking Maciunski to the body, Vargas trapped his opponent on the ropes and unloaded an unanswered barrage that mandated the ref halt the fight. The stoppage came with only seconds to go in the sixth round, and with Maciunski on his feet, there was some commotion about an early stoppage. But Maciunski's face had become an overcrowded collection of contusions, and he did not return a single punch over Vargas' flurry. Vargas TKO6.
-Arturo Gatti's makeover was supposed to be in the ring. Out of the ring, he was sporting a new tattoo (on the back of his neck), blond streaks in his hair, and new colors (opting for all black over his traditional white and blue).
-Larry Merchant, trying out his hand at stand-up comedy, quipped that the FBI should check and see if the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress was in fact Arturo Gatti's blood. Groan.
-Vargas remains the IBF #1 contender at 154 lbs. IBF junior middleweight champion Yori Boy Campas has until December to defend against Vargas. However, Campas may drop the title so that he may dip to 147 and challenge Oscar DelaHoya. For his part, Vargas might not be able to make 154 much longer, as he came through the ropes tonight (after rehydrating) at 166 lbs.