Requiem for three of boxing's best

Aug 4, 2009 5:07 PM
Pulling No Punches by Michael Katz |

Tragic deaths match by their senselessness

The odds were always against them, and we’re not talking sportsbook odds to determine which way to bet. This isn’t about gambling. This is about life and death.

Alexis Arguello, Vernon Forrest and Arturo Gatti, three of boxing’s best who died violently in the game’s terrible month of July, overcame those odds in the ring. And there was a sad reminder of the perils when a young Mexican prelim kid, Marco Antonio Nazareth, succumbed to brain injuries four days after being stopped by Omar Chavez, one of Julio Cesar’s sons, in the same month.

Arguello, Gatti and Forrest were killed far from the rings where they entertained us with their blood and guts and skills and courage.

Suicide was blamed in the cases of Arguello and Gatti. Forrest was a victim of multiple shots in the back from punks robbing him in Atlanta.

It was as jolting as a punch to the groin.

All fighters know the dangers in the ring – death, blindness and brain damage. Danger lurked on the ring apron, too, with bloodthirsty managers and promoters – and unscrupulous family and friends, hell, even governments.

Arguello’s first fortune was confiscated by the Nicaraguan government he tried to topple, but later joined. The United States didn’t do Joe Louis any financial favors, either.

There seems no sense in trying to make sense of all this. Forrest’s murder was especially heartbreaking, though easier to understand. Bad things happen to good people and this was one of the best to grace the game, the only active fighter to win the Boxing Writers Association’s Good Guy Award, mainly for establishing Destiny’s Child, which offered a place to live to mentally challenged adults.

Forrest, only 38, was himself somewhat Destiny’s Stepchild. His wonderful talents in the ring went comparatively unappreciated. He was a terrific boxer, but not terribly exciting. His style relied on his mental strength as well as his sharp jabs. But he would not back down from a fight. In a sense, he was slain by success. When some hoods robbed him as he was putting air in one of his Jaguar’s tires, he grabbed a gun from the car and went after them. When he gave up the chase and turned to go back to look after his 11-year-old godson, he was shot seven or eight times in the back.

The deaths of Arguello and Gatti shocked us more because authorities ruled both suicides, not that we’re necessarily buying it. I am not suggesting that authorities in Nicaragua or Brazil, where Gatti died while on a second honeymoon, are less trustworthy than those in, say, New York or California.

Okay, we saw Arguello give up in his second fight against Aaron Pryor, choosing to sit upright on the canvas, his arms hugging his knees, while being counted out. That was a surrender based on two fights where he accurately surmised that his best was not good enough to beat his opponent. And he did discuss suicide in the past and while I find it difficult to believe he would shoot himself in the heart, instead of the head, Nicaraguan police said they found shot burns on his hand.

Gatti taking his life, on the surface, is unfathomable. He never gave up in the ring, rising from the beaten time and again. Now he goes to Brazil, his wife’s home country, on a second honeymoon to see if they can smooth out their rocky marriage, bringing the infant Arturo Jr.

We’re now asked to believe he hanged himself with the baby in the rented apartment.

As Lou DiBella would tell the memorial service in Jersey City after the Brazilian verdict changed from homicide to suicide, "Arturo Gatti loved life. Let me repeat that. Arturo Gatti loved life." More than 600 mourners at St. John the Baptist Church applauded.

The family can’t believe Gatti killed himself and have exhumed his body for a private autopsy. But down in Brazil, his widow, a 23-year-old former exotic dancer who spent more than two weeks in jail because she was first suspected of strangling him with a purse strap, said her husband was drunk, "Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing, maybe he thought I would leave him the next day."

The Brazilian police said Gatti, in a very public brawl, had picked up the 100-pound Amanda Rodrigues and thrown her to the ground and was subsequently pelted by stones from angry onlookers.

There are too many holes in too many stories for anyone to easily accept the suicide tale. Gatti’s ring style may have looked suicidal, almost hara-kiri. In real life, though, he was more "live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse," like the young hood in Willard Motley’s novel, Knock on Any Door. He didn’t hold anything back. No, there are no great insights here, just a reminder we should also mourn the Marco Antonio Nazareths of the game, too.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Michael Katz