Thrice As Nice: Gatti-Ward

Arturo Gatti was a victim of Micky Ward's late-career surge in fight No. 1, then he turned the tables. AP Photo/Mary Godleski

To mark the third fight in the rivalry between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday, every day this week ESPN.com will look back on another memorable boxing trilogy. There have been many in the sport's history, of course, and we don't claim that the five we will review are necessarily the greatest. (If you want one man's version of the best, here is a top-10 list from 2006.) But each of the selected three-bout series has some particular relevance to the Pacquiao-Marquez trilogy that makes it worth celebrating.

Arturo Gatti versus Micky Ward
May 18, 2002: Mohegan Sun Casino, Uncasville, Conn.
Nov. 23, 2002: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.
June 7, 2003: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.

For many modern-day boxing fans, this is the very definition of a classic boxing trilogy. As all good trilogies should -- and as the first two fights of the Pacquiao-Marquez rivalry did -- it enthralled crowds with exciting back-and-forth action that included plenty of momentum shifts. So great was the series that it elevated the profile and stature of both men and ensured they would be forever linked together in boxing memory.

Gatti, a former world titlist, was already a favorite of fight fans, but not for his brilliance so much for his heart and the fact that he so frequently battled back from adversity. The very essence of Gatti had been established with his astonishing 1996 victory over Wilson Rodriguez: Dropped in Round 2 and with his right eye closing, Gatti came roaring back to drop and stop his foe in the sixth. His popularity had earned him a date with Oscar De La Hoya, during which he was comprehensively drubbed, but he had rebounded with a win over Terron Millett when Ward came calling.

Ward was a B-level fighter on a late-career upswing after fighting professionally for 17 years. His bread-and-butter punch was a left hook to the body, and he used it to singular effect in the first contest against Gatti, including in the remarkable ninth round -- one of the most incredible three minutes of boxing ever witnessed. The two men had fought back and forth on even terms over the first two-thirds of the contest, but at the beginning of the ninth, Ward dropped Gatti with a body shot that hurt him badly. Gatti rose, but Ward proceeded to pummel him for more than a minute until he tired and, astonishingly, Gatti turned the tables before Ward found a second wind and again tore into Gatti for the final 40 seconds of the round. The result was the greatest win of Ward's career.

But in the second fight, Gatti showed his other side. As beloved as he was for his brawling, he was a skilled boxer, and he used those abilities to outclass his foe in the rematch. As is often the case in trilogies, the second bout was the least eventful, but the third fight seemed to be going the same way -- Gatti outboxing and hurting Ward, breaking his eardrum and sending him to the ropes -- until Gatti broke his hand in Round 4. That allowed Ward to turn it into another brawl, although Gatti still had enough to win a contest that, like their first encounter, was named fight of the year.

After the third fight, Ward retired, and some years later he achieved broader fame when he was portrayed by actor Mark Wahlberg in "The Fighter." Gatti secured one more big payday, a one-sided beating at the fists of Floyd Mayweather Jr., and retired in 2007 after two consecutive defeats. His trainer for those final two fights was none other than Ward.

Gatti died in a Brazil hotel room on July 11, 2009, in what remain mysterious circumstances.

Wednesday: Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales
Tuesday: Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier
Monday: Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.