About 10 years ago, big-time boxing in Atlantic City was nearly down for the count.
The sport never dried up, but most of the major bouts were being held in Las Vegas.
Then Arturo Gatti came along and lifted it off the canvas.
"I'd say that Arturo Gatti singlehandedly revived boxing in the state of New Jersey and especially in Atlantic City,'' former state boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard said Sunday in a phone interview. "I don't know if Arturo will go down as a great fighter in terms of how we traditionally measure greatness, but he certainly provided some of the greatest thrills for fans in history of sport of boxing."
Hazzard was among those who were stunned and saddened to learn that Gatti, 37 and just two years into retirement, had been found dead Saturday morning at a posh resort in Brazil.
According to The Associated Press, Gatti's wife, 23-year-old Brazilian Amanda Rodrigues, was detained as a suspect early Sunday morning after she gave contradictory statements to police in her interrogation.
News of Gatti's death rocked the boxing community.
There was always the belief that since Gatti had survived dozens of brutal duels without a major injury that he was somehow destined to live a long and prosperous life. Almost every one of his bouts had been grueling, punishing fights, especially his three fights with Micky Ward and two slugfests with Ivan Robinson.
"It's devastating," Robinson told the New Jersey Herald on Saturday night. "When I heard about (Gatti's death), it was crushing.
"Of course, you want to think back to the two fights we had in Atlantic City (in 1998), but it goes beyond that. The respect I had for him, I can't even put into words. He was a tremendous person, as well as a tremendous fighter."
At home in A.C.
It was both qualities that turned him into an icon in Atlantic City. Twenty-three of his 49 career bouts were held there. He was 17-6 in those fights. His final nine bouts were staged at Boardwalk Hall, where fans filled the seats and screamed, "Gatti! Gatti!" until they were hoarse.
They didn't come because of his talent. Gatti was a three-time world champion but lacked the skills of other Boardwalk Hall performers such as former champions Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather Jr. That was made apparent when Mayweather hopelessly outclassed Gatti in their 2005 meeting.
Gatti's popularity stemmed from both his brawling style and his down-to-earth personality. He could relate to the fans because he was one of them. He thought nothing of signing autographs for hours after a fight, win or lose. According to Harrah's Entertainment consultant Ken Condon, who booked Gatti's last nine fights at Boardwalk Hall, there were times when he came back to the Boardwalk after getting treated at the hospital.
"Atlantic City has always been a special place to me because of the way people receive me," Gatti said in 2005 before his fight with Mayweather. "They are always so nice to me and it's been that way since the beginning.
"I really enjoy Atlantic City, the whole atmosphere. I honestly don't see myself ever fighting anywhere else again. I know that may hurt some people's feelings, but that's the way it is. Atlantic City has always been good to me."
Loyalty was also one of his biggest traits. Main Events was his promoter for his entire professional career. Pat Lynch was the only manager he ever had. There were a few trainers, but he had a special bond with Buddy McGirt.
The two parted ways before Gatti's final fight, a loss to Alfonso Gomez in 2007, but had previously enjoyed a terrific run during which they became close friends. When Gatti won the junior-welterweight title by beating Gianluca Branco in 2004, he bought McGirt a new SUV. For McGirt's 40th birthday, Gatti gave him a replica of the championship ring that McGirt had won as a boxer but had pawned a few years earlier.
A few weeks after losing to Mayweather, Gatti went out to dinner with McGirt in Vero Beach, Fla.
"We went to a karaoke bar and Arturo got up there and starting singing some Engelbert Humperdinck song ("Love Me With All Your Heart/Quando Caliente el Sol")," McGirt said in a 2006 interview. "Then he came over and said, 'Buddy, thank you for your support.' "
Others thanked Gatti by protecting him. Sometimes, that meant protecting him from himself.
Hazzard, who is now an official with the International Boxing Federation, always worried that Gatti was too tough for his own good. While he was the State Athletic Control Board commissioner, Hazzard jumped through the ropes to stop at least two of Gatti's fights - his losses to Mayweather and Gomez - to save him from further punishment.
"He was the kind of blood-and-guts fighter who just would not quit," Hazzard said Sunday. "Because of that, you had people who thought I should have never stepped in to stop some of his fights, that he deserved the right to be carried out on a stretcher if he chose. That was just ridiculous. There were times when I thought Arturo was walking that fine line between life and death in the ring. When that happened, I intervened.
"Arturo's death is a tragic loss to the boxing industry and boxing community. For me, it's an extra sense of sadness because it's like losing a family member. I got to know Arturo on a personal level. With all the adoration and fame he attained, he was still a very humble person and nice guy. It's a tragedy that he is gone."
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