Mel brooks once wrote a sketch for Sid Caesar, whose character was so powerful he could kill a Buick by punching it in the grille. "Oh yeah?" says Arturo Gatti. "When my father was a kid in Italy, he knocked out a mule by socking it in the jaw."
Gatti's whamming fists may come from his old man, Giovanni, and so may his mulishness. "If Dad was still alive, he'd make me fight him," he says. "He'd see I'm too stubborn to move my head like I should."
A fiery, free-swinging pinwheel of a boxer, Gatti has built a 33-4 record scuffling straight up, like an angry wallaby. He's geared to fight in only one way: to wade in and whale. "I love to bleed, love it," he says. "People at ringside bring umbrellas to my bouts so they won't get splashed."
At 28, Gatti is a little burlier than he was in 1995 when he outpointed Tracy Patterson to win the IBF junior lightweight crown, and no less tough. The WBC ranks him fourth at 140 pounds; the WBA, fourth at 147. Gatti's next fight will probably be in February, when he looks to get a title shot against either the WBC's super lightweight champ, Konstantin Tszyu, or its welterweight king, Shane Mosley. "It don't matter which," Gatti says, matter-of-factly. "Blood is blood, no matter what it weighs."
Gatti has a lean, expressive face, pure Napolitano, with a swaybacked nose and a mouth that in repose knows something of cruelty. Tattooed on the back of his neck are a pair of boxing gloves dripping with blood under the inscription VICTORY. In conversation Gatti comes across as shy and even a little shambling, jittery and prone to struggle for words in four languages—English, Italian, Spanish and French. He tends to stare at you as he would at an indistinct but compelling point in the distance, such as a UFO or a third ear on a ring girl. "I'm a calm guy," he says. "When I sleep." Between the ropes, though, he turns predatory, desperate. His defensive strategy—if it can be called strategy at all—amounts to absorbing as many blows as he throws.
"In the gym he's decent defensively," says his manager, Pat Lynch. "But when he steps on the canvas, he disregards all the planning. If he gets slugged, he feels obliged to slug back."
Patience is not a Gatti virtue. "He's maybe a little too competitive," says veteran trainer Gil Clancy. "Guys who get hit that much don't usually last long."
That Gatti has lasted this long—he's been a pro for nine years—is a testament to his mule-slugging father. Arturo learned the fundamentals in Giovanni's room: Papa schooled him at home in Montreal, where, as an immigrant from Caserta, north of Naples, he carved out a career as an electrician.
If the demanding Giovanni lived for his work, he may have died for his obstinacy. In 1990, while standing on a ladder at a job site, he fell to the floor and landed on his back. For a week he refused treatment. "When he did accept it, it was too late," Arturo says. "He died of internal bleeding." Giovanni was 46.
No longer expected to be the "hardest-punching electrician in Montreal," 19-year-old Arturo followed his junior middleweight brother, Joe, to the U.S. and turned pro. "I've got a little brother up in Canada," Joe told Lynch. "I want to bring him down here before he gets into trouble."