Renowned cutman Joe Souza dies

A young Arturo Gatti was making his first junior lightweight title defense against Wilson Rodriguez in March 1996 in what turned out to be a dramatic sixth-round knockout victory. It was the fight that began the Gatti legend as the comeback king and ultimate blood and guts warrior.

But without famed cutman Joe Souza, who died Monday night at his home in San Antonio after battling prostate cancer since 2002 at age 77, in his corner, Gatti probably would not have been able to continue in the fight long enough to make the stirring comeback.

Gatti's right eye was badly swollen by the third round and the fight was on the verge of being stopped, but Souza, a master in the corner when it came to reducing swelling and closing cuts, worked his magic, allowing Gatti to continue.

It was the first of their many fights together, and Pat Lynch, who managed Gatti for his entire career, gave Souza credit for the impressive work on the eye.

"He saved Arturo's title that night," said Lynch, who had hired Souza on the recommendation of their mutual friend, trainer and manager Lou Duva. "If Joe didn't open the eye in the corner, he would have lost the title that night."

Souza, also an amateur boxing coach in San Antonio, worked with numerous top professionals during his career. His first champion was San Antonio star James Leija, who won a junior lightweight title with Souza in his corner in 1994. Souza, who learned from mentor Ace Marotta, worked with numerous star fighters, including Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Fernando Vargas and Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, among many others.

Many of the fighters Souza worked with were promoted by Main Events.

"Joe worked with just about every fighter that fought under the Main Events banner for a very long time," Main Events' Kathy Duva said. "I remember first meeting him in Texas around 1980. Ace Marotta took him under his wing early on and taught Joe all of his secrets. After Ace's passing, Joe became Main Events' go-to guy in the corner.

"He was such a sweet man. Kind, considerate and sincerely caring. Everyone at Main Events loved him and will miss him."

"Joe was James' amateur coach and asked me to manage him," said Lester Bedford, who was friends with Souza for about 30 years. "I wasn't interested in managing fighters, but Joe talked me into it. When I saw James fight I was more enthusiastic about it. Joe got his name and experience working James' corner. When he won the title against Azumah Nelson, Joe probably saved James in the fight because he had a really bad cut. He saved him in many fights. James was probably cut 40 times in his career. You can imagine how many times he could have lost meaningful fights if he didn't have Joe in the corner."

Souza, who was born in New Bedford, Mass., and boxed as an amateur, relocated to San Antonio after retiring from the Air Force in the early 1970s. In his adopted hometown, Souza worked at the San Fernando Gym and oversaw the city's amateur boxing program for more than two decades, stepping down because of his illness.

It was during his time at the San Fernando Gym that Bedford met him.

"We had a longtime friendship. He was just a sweetheart of a guy," Bedford said. "He tried to come across like a rough, tough guy, but he was a real sweetheart. He's one of those characters you meet not just in boxing, but life in general, that you know you will never meet again. My picture of Joe forever is seeing him with two oversized Q-tips behind each ear and another one sticking out of his mouth -- and the fight had been over for 30 minutes.

"Many, many times he took short pay. He never argued about the money. It wasn't about the money for Joe. He just loved being in the corner."

When Leija challenged Gatti for a junior welterweight title in 2005, Souza was torn. Should he work the corner with Leija, who gave him his start in the pros, or go with Gatti, who was defending his title and offering more money?

"He turned down the chance to work Gatti's corner to work with James because he was loyal," Bedford said. "Gatti was a little upset at first, but it was very important to Joe to be loyal because James had given him the opportunity in his first world title fight. So he turned down more money to work with James that night out of loyalty."

Gatti wound up knocking Leija out in the fifth round in what turned out to be Leija's final fight.

"We understood the decision Joe made," Lynch said. "It wasn't that we were so much pissed, it was like, 'Now what do we do?' He was a great cutman. Joe was a good guy, always telling a joke. He is definitely going to be missed."

Souza was inducted into the San Antonio Boxing Hall of Fame in its inaugural class last summer.

He is survived by his wife, Virginia, with whom he would have celebrated 50 years of marriage on Dec. 1, and two children, son Arthur and daughter Marie.

Funeral services are scheduled for Nov. 22 at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.

Dan Rafael is ESPN.com's boxing writer.