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Yo boxing fans, this Bud’s for you

Jun 3, 2003 6:17 AM

Arturo Gatti walked face-first into the double door. Both eyes were swollen shut and his cornermen were aghast.

They needn’t have worried. Even steel doors to the face can’t hurt Gatti. And he was only kidding, making fun of his condition.

"Yo, Adrian, I’m home," he yelled, his voice carrying down empty Madison Square Garden corridors.

The real-life Rocky had just retained the IBF junior lightweight championship at the arena’s small room with one of the most miraculous comebacks in boxing history.

Somehow, Referee Wayne Kelly did not stop the fight as Gatti was being battered by Wilson Rodriguez. Kelly would say later, "I’ve reffed him before, I know how he can come back."

Lazarus was deader than Gatti that night. It was his first title defense and he took a terrible beating before coming back in a fight that would have shamed Sylvester Stallone if he had ever tried to choreograph one like it.

Not only a star, but a persona was born. Gatti, who always could box and punch, had embarked on a career of flat-out exciting masochism. He let you hit him, just as long as he could hit you back. Purists could shudder, but Gatti was on his way to seven-figure paydays in nontitle junior welterweight fights. Go argue with success.

Gatti didn’t argue. He celebrated. He became one of boxing’s great party animals. Once, after the annual Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner, half the diners got drunk with him that night.

He had to abandon the 130-pound division. Lou DiBella, then head HBO boxing programmer, kept putting him in wars. DiBella, on occasion, would give him a couple of "easy" bouts as a reward (ironically, DiBella is now with Gatti’s greatest rival now, Micky Ward).

For a while, it seemed Gatti would never again be a world-class fighter. In his only appearance of 2001, he was the cannon fodder for Oscar de la Hoya. Ten months later, with Buddy McGirt in his corner, Gatti was a revelation in destroying the dangerous Terronn Millett. He actually boxed to set up his power shots.

He was on the verge of a second heyday. After Rodriguez, there was another comeback from doom against Gabriel Ruelas. There were wars with Angel Manfredy, Ivan Robinson (twice) and if any year beginning with a "1" or "2" was going to have a fight of the year, it seemed Gatti was a requisite.

It happened again last year. He had two fights with the tough Ward, and there wasn’t a knowledgeable boxing fan around who did not anticipate another Rocky movie. It was breathtaking, even if the skill level left something to be desired.

The ninth round should be put in a bottle, not for young boxers to use as a textbook, but for mankind to use as blueprint for courage and guts, for never giving up.

Ward got the decision, though Gatti’s new trainer, Buddy McGirt, said neither guy should have lost and a draw would have been the best result. They did it again six months later and this time Gatti listened to McGirt and boxed Ward, knocking him down ”” and virtually out ”” in the third round on the way to a clear-cut points victory.

And here they are again, coming up this Saturday in the main event on HBO for the rubber match. Ward says this is his farewell fight. He’s a less talented New England version of Gatti, somewhat slower and plodding, but with a never-say-die attitude and a left hook to the side that could fell an ox.

First, Michael Grant ”” remember when he was the next big thing in the heavyweight division, at least until he panicked and closed his eyes and got knocked out in the second round by Lennox Lewis ”” meets a young undefeated and untested prospect in Dominick Guinn.

And then, it’s Gatti-Ward III and keep your money in your pocket. You shouldn’t be rooting for either guy. This is one of those matchups where it’s possible to root for both.

Ward wins, he exits happily. Gatti wins, he probably could have another big payday ”” and beating ”” against Kosta Tszyu. Oops, that may be a good reason to root for Ward ”” to save Gatti a beating from The Russian.