JERSEY CITY - Boxing trainer Mike Skowronski honed his skills beside Arturo Gatti at Jersey City's Ringside Gym and said the former champ's longtime friends never liked Gatti's wife - who is suspected of strangling him.
Skowronski, Gatti's one-time stablemate, sparring mate and cornerman, said Amanda Rodrigues met the boxing legend while working as a stripper in northern New Jersey and quickly became his business adviser and then his wife. Friends in the working-class area of Jersey City where Gatti paid his dues in the ring were suspicious of her motives but didn't want to offend him by pushing the matter.
"She tried to take over - she pushed him away from everybody," Skowronski said Tuesday. "I chose not to be around it, if you can imagine that, after being friends for 20 years. A lot of his friends did the same."
Rodrigues, a native of Brazil, is accused of strangling Gatti with her purse strap as he drunkenly slept. Rodrigues told investigators she awoke Saturday to find her husband's body in the apartment they rented in Brazil. But police said she was the only suspect.
Ringside Gym is located along the rough-and-tumble Route 1 & 9 truck route that snakes across northern New Jersey from the Holland and Lincoln tunnels out of New York City. Gatti was a wiry 17-year-old when he joined his older brother Joseph there in 1989.
The Gattis lived on one side of the truck route in boxing guru Mario Costa's single-family home and ate breakfast each morning in his White Mana diner. They trained on the other side of the truck route in his second-floor boxing gym, eating dinner in the Ringside Lounge below.
Regulars recalled Gatti on Tuesday as a great kid who never forgot the working-class neighborhood.
"Everybody was his friend here," said Nunzi D'elia, 73. "He basically grew up here. We're taking it real hard."
Bartender Manuel Montiro said, "He wasn't fancy. It hurts, especially the way he died."
Gatti considered the area home and returned often even after becoming a world champion. The bar is festooned with his fight posters and trophies.
Costa still laughs about the time he found a bruised and battered Gatti eating cheeseburgers and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches at White Mana the morning after a big fight in Atlantic City. Gatti had starved himself to make weight for the bout and said he'd been dreaming of the diner for days.
"What hurts is that he was by himself when he died, with nobody to protect him, because he was loved by so many people around here," Costa said.
Everyone has a Gatti story at Ringside. Costa likes to remember the starry-eyed teen who followed him around when he visited Montreal, begging for a chance.
Ricky Roman, 32, remembers sneaking away to neighborhood basketball courts with Gatti so the tough Canadian could break out the boxing gloves and give the local kids a shot. Gatti was small, but powerful. He also had "heavy hands," boxing lingo for knockout power.
Skowronski, 38, of Passaic, remembered Gatti as a prankster with a penchant for pulling down the shorts of other boxers. He also recalled how hurt the teenage Gatti was by his father's premature death. It was a source of strength for a boxer renowned for his courage, who was always trying to measure up to his old man's exacting standards.
Skowronski said he would play soccer with Gatti when they were teenagers, even though he hated the sport, which is a big deal in his friend's native Quebec.
"I loved him," Skowronski said. "I'd stand in the net and play goalie."