Arturo Gatti stands ready to defend his junior welterweight title in one of the year's biggest fights against Floyd Mayweather. But the sheer fact that Gatti has a title to defend, that he is considered among the best in the business that he is even still fighting is nothing short of amazing.
When Gatti (39-6, 30 KOs) meets Mayweather (33-0, 22 KOs) Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET) at sold-out Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., he will be at the pinnacle of the sport few ever thought he would reach, especially after being left on the scrap heap just four years ago. But that was before a change in lifestyle and a career-altering pairing with trainer Buddy McGirt.
"When I got Arturo [in late 2001] he was at the point in his career where a lot of people wrote him off," McGirt said. "Six years ago, if you asked if this [Mayweather] fight would have taken place, they would have laughed."
In March 2001 Gatti, whose first world title came at 130 pounds, weighed a career-high 147 pounds to face Oscar De La Hoya. De La Hoya was coming off a loss to Shane Mosley and was looking to fight a big name, but a safe name, in his return.
The naturally smaller Gatti fit the bill. He was popular and somewhat credible, having won four fights in a row. But the wins were against mediocre competition, and many figured Gatti was washed up after a career filled with tough fights and a three-fight losing streak in 1998.
Gatti had been in so many brutal, grueling battles and this was before the Micky Ward trilogy that many considered the De La Hoya fight Gatti's golden parachute. He'd give De La Hoya a few hard rounds and then succumb. But as something of a "thank you" for all the thrilling fights he had been in, Gatti would earn a sweet $1.8 million payday that would fund his retirement.
"The three losses in a row [and] he was not doing the right thing in the gym it was a rough time for all of us," said longtime manager Pat Lynch. "But he was going to get a nice payday to fight De La Hoya. Thanks for the memories. Thanks for everything you've given all of us, and you know, good-bye."
Indeed, De La Hoya did pound Gatti, knocking him down in the first round and battering him until Gatti's trainer, Hector Rocha, threw in the towel in the fifth round.
But Gatti didn't retire. Instead, he parted ways with Rocha, cut down on his drinking and partying, dropped back to 140 pounds, found his savior in McGirt and worked his way back to the top.
"I was finished. I was shot. I don't have it any more. I screw around too much," said Gatti, 33, in describing what he read and heard people saying about him before his resurgence.
"The only thing that was right was I was going a little too crazy in between fights," Gatti said. "Those days are over. Those things have changed. People wanted me to retire, but I knew in my heart that I still had it. Look where I am today. I teamed up with Buddy and it's the best thing that happened.
"I think that Buddy and I are one, and we work great together. I won a lot of my fights by listening to Buddy in training camp, and I bring that to the ring."
After the De La Hoya fight, Gatti took about six months off to regroup and contemplate his future.
"He knew he had a lot more to give. He then wanted to make changes," Lynch said. "To find Buddy McGirt at that point in his career was like something sent from God."
After the De La Hoya fight, "you're talking about a guy who was totally unsure if he should continue fighting or not," Lynch said. "He was hearing and reading that maybe he shouldn't fight anymore and he started to second-guess himself. Meeting Buddy, who said, 'You'll win another world title, forget about being shot' that's what he needed more than anything at that time. Buddy was a former fighter telling Arturo that he had more to give. That is why it was like a gift from God."
Late in 2001, Gatti got the bug to train again and went to Vero Beach, Fla., where he enjoyed the peace and quiet. He ran into McGirt, a former two-time champion who was working at the gym Gatti used.
"He [Gatti] said, 'Who you training these days?' I had trained Johnny Tapia and was going to train Antonio Tarver," McGirt said. "He said he was looking for a new trainer. I said, 'Let's work together for a few days and see how the chemistry is.' The chemistry was great. I understood what he needed to do."
Lynch remembers how excited Gatti was after his first meeting with McGirt.
"He called me and said, 'Pat, Buddy McGirt is down here training fighters. I had a talk with him today and we're going to work together for two weeks and see if we have chemistry and if we get along,'" Lynch recalled. "Two days later, he called me back and said, 'Pat, Buddy is the new trainer.' It didn't take two weeks, it took two days. The rest is history."
In January 2002, Gatti and McGirt had their first bout together. Fighting on the undercard of the first Vernon Forrest-Mosley fight, Gatti knocked out former titleholder Terronn Millett in the fourth round. Before the knockout, Gatti was boxing and moving well, as he had done earlier in his career when he defeated Tracy Patterson for the junior lightweight title.
The legendary trilogy with Ward followed before Gatti claimed a vacant title against Gianluca Branco in January 2004. Gatti then scored dominant knockout wins set up by his boxing skills against former titleholders Leonard Dorin and James Leija to set the stage for his defense against Mayweather.
Gatti gives much of the credit for his rebirth to McGirt, who once knocked out Gatti's older brother Joe in a 1995 middleweight fight. Gatti said it is McGirt who constantly reminds him that while he can brawl when he needs to, he is also a good boxer who doesn't have to take as many punches as he once did.
"He drilled it in my head and I like it," Gatti said.
"People would love that he would go out there and get cut, swollen and score a late-round knockout. That's what it became," McGirt said. "I said to him, 'You can do one of two things when you leave the gym: You can go back to your hotel and worry about having bruises on your face or you can go play golf because you're not getting hit in the gym.' He said, 'I want to play golf.' I said, 'OK, let's get in there and move that head and work on certain things.'
"I'm very proud of him for the way he turned his life and career around."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.