Intrigue surrounds Gatti's return to the ring

For six rounds last June, Floyd Mayweather Jr. punished Arturo Gatti like a child slowly plucking wings off a fly.

It was a methodical, brutal beatdown until Buddy McGirt, Gatti's compassionate trainer, finally stopped the fight in the corner before the start of the seventh round because he knew Gatti would never quit.

When it was over, Gatti had lost his junior welterweight title and took the loss as badly as any of the defeats he had previously suffered.

But Gatti (39-7, 30 KOs) has a warrior's heart and is not the type to give up. He never has during his numerous tough fights, despite spilled blood, busted bones and massive punishment.

Who can forget this image: Gatti, near tears and in enormous pain from a broken hand, leaning in close to tell McGirt about the injury between rounds during one of the Micky Ward fights. When McGirt asked Gatti what he wanted him to do, Gatti's response was simply that he had to keep fighting.

That huge heart is one of the reasons Gatti has endeared himself to so many fans during an exciting 15-year career during which he has won titles at 130 and 140 pounds.

So Gatti, 33, will try to rebound from the crushing loss to Mayweather on Saturday night (9:45 ET) as HBO opens its 34th year of boxing coverage. He is moving up to welterweight to face undefeated Danish southpaw Thomas Damgaard (37-0, 27 KOs), a former European welterweight and junior welterweight champ, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.

"Gatti is very upbeat and really looking forward to the fight," said Carl Moretti, the vice president of promoter Main Events and a close friend of Gatti's.

"It's usually hard for a fighter to train over the holidays, but he had no problem with it. Buddy [McGirt] has been very pleased with what he's seen. Gatti's legs are fine. He's punching really hard at the weight, so all the indications are positive. But you just have to see it in the ring Saturday night."

A victory could propel Gatti into another significant fight, perhaps against newly crowned welterweight champ Carlos Baldomir. But a loss, particularly another bad one, might spell the end.

Whatever happens, Gatti is glad to be getting back in the ring because he said it was so hard to get over the loss to Mayweather.

"I took it really hard, my loss, because I didn't expect it to go that way," Gatti said. "Your mind wants to do something and your body wasn't responding. It was hard to deal with. I was really down about it but I wanted to get back in the ring fast. I'm not getting any younger. I moved up to 147 pounds and I feel great."

Pat Lynch, Gatti's manager and close friend, said Gatti wouldn't even speak about the loss to Mayweather until recently.

"He was very quiet about it," Lynch said.

"Only recently did he bring it up and tell me how much it bothered him. He said it was on his mind, that it wasn't really him in the ring that night, that he just didn't have it. But he said he knows now that Mayweather is a great fighter."

Gatti said that while he has come terms with the loss, he is still disappointed he didn't even make it competitive, a fact he attributes to the Herculean task of making 140 pounds.

"When I stepped on the scale, that was the victory for me," Gatti said. "There is no excuse though. I fought a great fighter. I'm not saying I would have won the fight, but I would have given him hell. Now I have to live with what happened for the rest of my life. But making that weight was really, really hard.

"I was hallucinating when I was making weight. I have no idea how I made the weight. But that's the past and I thank God that I am healthy. Most fighters couldn't take the beating I took and lose the weight I lost and be normal after the fight. I wish I could have been myself that night. It would have at least been competitive. But, hey, Mayweather is a great fighter."

Lynch agreed that making weight was definitely a factor in Gatti's poor performance.

"He had to work out three times the day of the weigh-in just to make the weight," Lynch said. "Arturo was a walking zombie. I think he left the fight in the gym. Were we going to win? Probably not. But would it have been more competitive without the weight issue? Definitely."

After the resounding defeat, no one around Gatti is quite sure what to expect from him, so they will be watching the fight Saturday very carefully for any signs of slippage.

"I think there is an element of apprehension to how any fighter comes off a fight like the Mayweather fight," Moretti said.

"You want to see if he questions himself in any way. Does he have confidence? Is he OK physically? I don't think those things are problems for Gatti, but you never know until the bell rings.

"Look at what just happened to Erik Morales [against Manny Pacquiao]. It just turned off in the sixth round for him. Is there a point where that happens in one of Arturo's fights? I think Saturday night will answer a lot of questions."

Gatti had to answer a lot of questions just to get his annual boxing license renewed in New Jersey, where he has fought so many of his most thrilling and punishing fights. Because of the amount of abuse he has taken in his career, and because the Mayweather fight was so one-sided, New Jersey boxing authorities asked Gatti to undergo a more thorough medical exam than normal.

Typically, boxers must undergo various medical tests, including an eye exam, CAT scan, an EKG for the heart and blood work, before being licensed in New Jersey. However, Gatti also submitted to an MRI and a complete neurological exam, which he had no problem doing.

Gatti said taking the extra battery of tests gave him peace of mind.

"They wanted to make sure I was healthy," Gatti said. "I had a great physical. I was checked from head to toe. I feel good. I had no problems. They tested me pretty much for everything and [the results] let me know I am healthy and it made me feel good and train as hard as I always have.

"I needed to know for myself. I felt good but I don't want to have something inside that is damaged that I don't know about going into a fight. I want to live a normal life. I was confident I was fine. The only thing that I have problems with is both of my hands."

Said Lynch: "We're always concerned about Arturo's health and it was really good of the Jersey commission to ask for the extra testing. We welcomed it. The last thing we want to do is put him in the ring if something is wrong. But everything was perfect, everything was fine. And I stay in touch with Buddy, who tells me what is going on in the gym. He'll be the first one to tell us if Arturo is slipping in the gym. But he told me he really likes what he is seeing with Arturo at the higher weight."

But Lynch conceded that he is guiding Gatti's career the way he has done for years.

"One fight at a time at this point," Lynch said. "I want to see how much he has left and if you see something you don't like you sit down and have a talk with him. Once I see what I don't like I will do my damndest to make sure he doesn't step in the ring again. But right now he is in terrific condition. But you don't know until the bell rings."

More boardwalk boxing: Gatti-Damgaard isn't the only boxing action on the Atlantic City boardwalk this weekend.

Former light heavyweight and cruiserweight champ Virgil Hill (49-5, 23 KOs) faces Valery Brudov (30-0, 23 KOs) of Russia for a vacant cruiserweight belt in the main event of a pay-per-view card Friday night (9 ET) from the Tropicana Casino and Resort.

At age 42, it will be Hill's 28th appearance in a world title bout. Although Brudov is untested and will be fighting outside of Russia or France for the first time, he has scored 11 consecutive knockouts.

Also on the televised portion of the card:

• Former lightweight champ Stevie Johnston (37-3-1, 17 KOs) meets Steve Quinonez (31-9-1, 17 KOs) in a 12-rounder. Johnston, who reigned as champ from 1997-2000, is on the comeback trail. After being stopped in the 11th round by Juan Lazcano in a title eliminator in September 2003, Johnston was idle for nearly two years, in part because of a serious car accident. But Johnston won both of his bouts in 2005 and is aiming for another title shot.

"Every fight I have is the biggest fight for me," Johnston said. "I have to get past this one to get to my next big fight. I'll fight any of the 140-pound champs: [Ricky] Hatton, Floyd [Mayweather] or [Miguel] Cotto."

• Hot junior welterweight prospect Mike Arnaoutis (15-0-2, 7 KOs) faces Marc Thompson (13-0, 11 KOs) in a 12-rounder.

• Lightweight contender Nate Campbell (27-4-1, 23 KOs) faces Francisco Javier Olvera (14-2, 12 KOs) in a 10-rounder. Campbell rejuvenated his career in October with a knockout of rising contender Almazbek "Kid Diamond" Raiymkulov on the Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones III pay-per-view undercard.

Strawweight titlist Muhammad "The Rock Breaker" Rachman (50-7-4, 22 KOs) of Indonesia was supposed to fight mandatory challenger Omar Soto (14-2-1, 10 KOs). However, the bout was scrapped this week because Rachman and members of his camp were having visa problems. The fight will be rescheduled.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.