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Friday, September 30, 2011

Reyes: The pursuit of a batting title vs. avid fans

It was the final Met game of the season and the last of my 20-game ticket plan, a season ticket plan that I have purchased for at least the last decade, maybe longer.

Even though I am a sportswriter for a living, I am also a diehard Met fan. Purchasing that ticket plan and going to as many games as possible during the summer represents my vacation, my solace, my release.

On Wednesday, I debated whether I should go to the final game of the year. I was going alone. The weather looked grim at best. I almost bagged it entirely.

But then I remembered one thing. Not only was it the final game of the season, but it was also going to be the last game that one of my favorite Mets of all time, Jose Reyes, was going to be in a Met uniform.

Sure, there's still hope that Reyes will re-sign with the team, but the reality of the situation points to the talented All-Star shortstop playing somewhere else in 2012.

The Mets organization keep saying that they would love to have Reyes come back, but GM Sandy Alderson is also saying that the team will operate with a smaller payroll next year, probably in the $100 million range.

Well, the team is already on the hook for $25 million for Johan Santana and $16 million for Jason Bay. I'm no math wizard, but it doesn't leave a lot left over for the remaining 23 players and Reyes is going to demand $20 mill a year, there's even less. It seems to me that the Mets are grooming Ruben Tejada to be Reyes' low-priced permanent replacement.

So this could very well have been Reyes' last game as a Met. I then decided to go to the game and cheer for Reyes at every chance, every at-bat, every appearance.

When they announced the starting lineup, I loudly started the "Jose, Jose, Jose" chant and did so for the first inning, as he went out onto the field, as he made his first plate appearance.

And then, Reyes gets a bunt single, reaches first base and was quickly replaced for a pinch-runner. So much for the cheering him at every at-bat. He had one.

Immediately, I didn't know who made the decision to take Reyes out of the game. At first, I thought it was manager Terry Collins' decision. As much as I adore Collins as a manager (only the fourth real manager the franchise has ever enjoyed), I was livid that he took Reyes out.

I mean, it ruined the team's chances to compete that day. The lineup already resembled something that would be unaccepted at Class AAA Buffalo and now the leader of the team was out before the game even started.

And I was mad at Collins for denying the diehard Met fans (like me) a chance to cheer for Reyes as many times as possible.

But as I drove home from CitiField, I heard the post-game press conferences and realized it was Reyes who asked to come out, because he wanted the batting title.

And then, I got mad at Reyes. Because the batting title obviously meant more to him than giving the diehard Met fans one last chance to give him adoration.

I got mad because in pursuit of a batting title, Reyes forgot about his teammates, his manager and more importantly, the fans who came to see him and wanted to see his team end a disappointing season with a victory.

And I wondered whether Reyes was truly worthy of the adoration he received from fans, especially if he never thought about them when he opted out of the last game.

When Reyes was at his best, there was no more electrifying player in the game. There was nothing better than watching him dash around the bases in pursuit of a triple, then getting up and doing ''The Claw" in appreciation. Reyes got everyone going with a stolen base, a diving grab deep in the hole at short. His energy and level of excitement when he was not at the plate or in the field was also a joy, high jumping into a teammate, inventing a new greeting and handshake.

I loved the old "Profesor Reyes" clips on the scoreboard, teaching everyone how to speak Spanish. How else would I have known that "La tortuga es muy lenta," which translated means, "The turtle is very slow."

He was a joy to watch and I was so happy he was mine.

But now, I have a different feel, like I just sipped a glass of sour milk. I don't know what to think. I know Reyes doesn't think he did anything wrong and that's the main reason why I'm so pissed.

He shortchanged his team by being selfish and he stuck it to the fans that totally adored him for not playing for them.

It would be like Richard Kiley leaving his last performance of "Man of La Mancha" without singing "Impossible Dream." Or like Billy Joel stepping off stage at a concert after singing "Piano Man."

Jose Reyes gave us nine seasons, some of which were injury-plagued, but he left us with a lot of solid memories. I was there for his first home game in 2003 and I was there for his last game in 2011.

But if that's the way we're left to remember Reyes, then that's sad. Congrats, you got a batting title, the first Met to ever do so. But you disappointed a lot of people in the process, including perhaps literally the biggest fan he had. Literally, of course.

And just by the way Alderson is talking, I have to believe Reyes is going elsewhere and we're left to cheering for Ruben Tejada. He's a good player. But he's no Jose Reyes.


I cannot believe how fickle the Boston Red Sox are. They collapse down the stretch and they make Terry Francona the scapegoat? Fire Francona for what happened? Do you not remember that he was the guy who brought you a World Series title for the first time since like 1900-something and he then backed it up with another three years later?

I'm not a Red Sox fan by any means. Their pompous ''we're better than you'' attitude, which permeates from the front office to the players and definitely the fans, is downright annoying and sickening.

But Francona was the epitome of grace and class, no matter what was happening around him. He was someone you could root for among the "Red Sox Nation" madness. Now, they show him the door.

Well, he wasn't the one who signed John Lackey, Carl Crawford and Daisuke Matsusaka to ridiculous contract. He didn't break Kevin Youkilis' back and pull his groin. He didn't hurt Buckholtz. He didn't choke. The players did.

Just goes to show you how fickle people can be. Francona will land on his feet somewhere. As for the Red Sox, we all know how teams that blow huge leads in September fare after they blow it. Need proof? Look how good the Mets have been since the collapses in 2007 and 2008. They've been super.

The idea that Kobe Bryant announcing he would play in Italy would actually help the idiotic owners and players solve the ridiculous NBA lockout is just insane. One doesn't have anything to do with the other.

I had hopes that the Rams would be a playoff contender this year. Well, three weeks into the new season and so much for that. When do the pitchers and catchers report for spring training anyway? I shouldn't feel that way, because Wednesday night was the most thrilling night of baseball I've ever seen, but now, as the playoffs begin, there's really nothing to get excited about.

Well, maybe there is. My adopted home away from home, Milwaukee, is buzzing with Brewer fever, the first time since I was there as a student at Marquette in 1981 and 1982, with "Harvey's Wallbangers."

So, with that in mind, GO BREWERS!!!!


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Thursday, September 22, 2011

The blame for the college conference confusion? GREED

Every day recently, the sports pages have been filled with more stories of colleges jumping ship, leaving their long-standing associations with their respective conferences and heading for greener pastures and new leagues.

It's actually too confusing to keep up with. Syracuse and Pitt leaving the Big East for the ACC. Missouri leaving the crumbling Big 12 for the SEC. Teams in the Big 12 looking to head to the Pac-12, which has now decided against expansion. Other teams rumored to go to a host of different conferences. It's really a mass exodus.

Quite honestly, if you want to know the main reason for all of this mess, it's as simple as this. It's $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

The colleges all want a little slice of the American dollar. It has nothing to do with geographic locations or educational affiliations. Nope. This is all about the greenback.

And who started the money train rolling along? None other than the almighty ESPN, which claims to be biggest and best supporter of college athletics. Sure, they started ESPNU and televise more college football and basketball games than anyone.

However, ESPN has to begin to take the fault for this ridiculous trend of schools leaving their respective conferences.

And it began when ESPN agreed to help start and defray the start-up costs for Texas to launch their now-controversial Longhorn television network.

It's a network that will now enable Texas to collect as much as $30 million in added revenue every year, money that does not have to be shared with the remaining members of the floundering Big 12.

So schools like Nebraska and Texas A&M saw this trend and realized it was an unfair advantage for Texas. Not only were they getting revenues that the others were not able to attain, but having these programs televised all the time on this network represented an unfair recruiting advantage as well, something that Texas really didn't need in the first place.

So Nebraska bolted for the Big Ten and a good slice of the highly successful Big Ten Network's television cash. Texas A&M bolted for the SEC. The Big 12 has been decimated by these departures and apparently, it's not over.

And it's led to a trickle down effect to the other leagues. The Big East made a ridiculous move in their marketing of a televison package for football and that bungling has led to the exits of Syracuse and Pitt.

Instead of getting a guarantee of a little under $5 million from the Big East, the two schools now stand to get as much as $17 million from the ACC.

Now, I can fully understand Pitt wanting to leave the Big East for a more viable football conference, because Pitt has a solid program in both sports.

But Syracuse? The school hasn't been relevant in football in ages. Sure, it's still a basketball giant, but football? I can't even remember the last time Syracuse was a bowl team.

And who is going to care about some of those ACC basketball games? Syracuse-Clemson doesn't exactly excite the masses. Nor does Syracuse-Maryland, or Syracuse-Georgia Tech or Syracuse-Wake Forest.

Sure, it's going to be great to face Duke and North Carolina, but that's only two games. Does anyone think the Carrier Dome is going to sell out for Virginia Tech or Miami?

You're losing some big time rivalries. Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova. UConn, although UConn is looking to join Syracuse in the ACC. Those were exciting basketball showdowns. It wasn't called "Big Monday" for nothing.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was on with Mike Francesa the other day and he said that he would hope to continue to play Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova in independent games. Hey, if I'm any of those other schools, do you think I'm going to be nice and throw a bone to Syracuse now? Hell, no. I'm giving the Orange the finger and tell them to go play with their dirty money, like Bugs Bunny said to Baby Face Finster.

Now, to try to save face, the Big East has extended invitations to places like East Carolina, Central Florida, Navy and Air Force. Wow, I can't wait for that Rutgers-Central Florida game at the RAC or East Carolina-Seton Hall at the Rock. Woooo, hooo...

It's college sports. It's not supposed to be about greed and avarice. But it sure has become that way.

So when you're about to begin pointing fingers at the mess that college sports is in right now, look no further than the forerunner and so-called leader of college sports, ESPN. They started it all. Now, who is going to clean up the mess?


Why did Facebook tinker with a good thing? You know the old saying, ''If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'' It didn't need fixing.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Gatti's death ruled a homicide, like we all knew it was

There was a press conference held last Wednesday at the Global Boxing Gym in North Bergen, with a host of investigators, medical experts, forensic scientists and even former FBI agents who all came to one conclusion that a lot of people knew two years ago.

That local boxing hero Arturo Gatti didn't take his own life and that he simply didn't die. The two-time world champion, who lived most of his life in Jersey City and Hoboken, was murdered in Brazil in July of 2009.

Gatti's manager, Pat Lynch of Union City, helped to pay for the investigation that took 10 months to complete.

But in reality, everyone who ever met Gatti knew that he didn't commit suicide.

In fact, I stumbled across three articles that pretty much proved the fact, two after his passing in 2009 and one after his last fight in July of 2007 in Atlantic City.

I thought I would share all three in light of the results of the investigation.

The first was printed in the Hudson Reporter in the days after Gatti's death.

HUDSON REPORTER, July 14, 2009

It was only an hour or so after the news broke that Arturo Gatti – the former Jersey City and Hoboken resident who electrified boxing crowds with his never-say-die style – was found dead in a Brazil hotel room, when someone very close to Gatti predicted what might have happened in a cryptic phone call.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if his wife did it,” said the caller, who will remain anonymous for obvious reasons. “People are going to think it was an overdose or something, but I truly think his wife had something to do with it.”

Sure enough, that call turned out to be prophetic.

Two days later, Brazilian police took Gatti’s wife, 23-year-old Amanda Rodrigues, who used to live in Union City and worked as a dancer/stripper at the Squeeze Lounge in Weehawken, and officially charged her with Gatti’s murder.

Gatti was found dead at the age of 37 and police allege that his wife used a purse strap to strangle a drunken Gatti, then allege that she hit him over the head with a blunt object. Gatti was in Brazil with his wife and his 10-month-old son, reportedly on a second honeymoon. Gatti and his wife had an extremely volatile relationship since they were married in October of 2007 and twice he sought advice to file for divorce.

Just two months ago, Gatti received 10 stitches in the head after Amanda allegedly threw a lamp at him in a hotel room in Hawaii.

His violent death ends what was truly a remarkable fairytale story in professional boxing.

Gatti, a native of Canada, came to the United States at age 17 and settled in Jersey City with his older brother, Joe, and became a professional boxer soon after. His first job in the United States was as a hamburger flipper at the famed White Mana Restaurant on Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, across the street from the Ringside Lounge, where Gatti was first introduced to boxing locally.

Gatti fought his entire pro career for Main Events Promotions, which ironically held a prime-time boxing card Saturday night featuring their latest star, another Jersey City resident named Tomasz Adamek, the IBF cruiserweight champion of the world. Adamek won his fight with a fourth-round technical knockout and dedicated his victory to the memory of Gatti.

“He wasn’t just important to me, but to all of boxing,” Adamek said after his win. “I met him at my manager [Ziggy Rozalski]’s daughter’s birthday party. He was a legend in boxing. This is a sad day for everyone who loves boxing. I’m going to miss him forever.”

After turning professional in 1991, Gatti worked his way up the ranks. He fought in a lot of local shows and in small venues, making a name for himself. In 1997, Gatti won his first world crown, capturing the IBF super featherweight championship of the world, defeating Tracy Harris Patterson in Madison Square Garden.

In the coming years, Gatti became a fan favorite in Atlantic City and especially on cable network HBO, which televised several of Gatti’s bouts, including the famed trilogy with Micky Ward from May, 2002 through June, 2003. Gatti lost the first fight to Ward, then came back to win the next two. He won the second fight despite fighting most of the bout with a severely broken right hand.

“He became a cult figure,” said Carl Moretti, who was the matchmaker for all of Gatti’s fights with Main Events. “He made the most appearances on HBO, and that made it all sweeter. People always looked forward to see him fight. There were 12,000 people there to see him. I doubt if we’ll ever see that again in these parts. People were just entertained by him. They knew that at the end of the day that Arturo was going to give then a great value for their entertainment dollar. I think they could relate to the effort he was giving every time he got into the ring. He attracted people of all colors, creeds, backgrounds. People who didn’t like boxing still loved Arturo Gatti. They just loved watching him perform. They fell in love with him.”

After a few tough losses, Gatti managed to make comeback and after comeback, much like he did in practically every fight.

Gatti eventually came back to win the WBC light welterweight championship over Jesse James Lejia in January of 2005, his second world crown, but lost the title to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. later that year.

Gatti’s last win came over Thomas Damgaard in Atlantic City in 2006, but suffered losses to Carlos Manuel Baldomir for the WBC welterweight title, losing a chance to capture his third world belt, and then his final fight, almost two years to the date of his untimely passing, on July 14, 2007, when he lost to Alfonso Gomez in Atlantic City.

Ironically, it was that fight when then-girlfriend Rodrigues tried to climb into the ring, screaming uncontrollably, wanting the fight to stop. She screamed at referee Randy Neumann that a very badly beaten Gatti “was close to death.”

“Stop this fight,” she yelled. “This is murder. If he dies, then the blood will be on your hands.”

After the loss to Gomez, Gatti retired.

“He didn’t handle retirement well,” Moretti said. “He wasn’t disciplined enough to handle it. I never expected him to live a long life and I wasn’t going to be totally shocked if something happened to him. But this way? It’s almost surreal in a way. The part that his wife was allegedly involved is shocking and the way he died is almost ironic. He was as tough as they come in the ring and he dies this way.”

Jersey City’s Mike Skowronski was perhaps Gatti’s best friend. Skowronski, now a respected boxing trainer and manager, worked in Gatti’s corner since his pro debut and the two were inseparable, especially in social circles.

“He used to come to my door and wake me up at 4 a.m.,” Skowronski recalled. “He used to do it just to bust my chops and wake me up. He did it almost every night. That’s just the way he was. That was Arturo. I’d give anything to have him do it again, but it’s never going to happen.”

Skowronski said that he hadn’t spoken to Gatti for three days prior to his death.

“I knew something was wrong, because every time I tried to call him, I got a weird busy signal,” Skowronski said. “In my heart, I felt something was wrong. I miss my friend already. He made me popular in Jersey City. I was so lucky to be part of his life for the last 20 years.”

Moretti was asked how he was going to best remember his friend.

“I don’t think it will be boxing related,” Moretti said. “I’m going to remember when we weren’t in the ring, when we were doing different things, like going to Coach [Bob] Hurley’s golf outing every year and playing golf there. It was always a great day. Or going out to dinner and just laughing. It didn’t have to involve boxing. Of course, I will remember the fights as well.”

Moretti said that Gatti was so beloved by millions, but the boxer never truly appreciated the idol worship he had.

“He never grasped just how big he was,” Moretti said. “Not just in this area, but around the world. People would see me all over the place and tell me that their favorite fighter was Arturo Gatti. It didn’t matter where they were. But Arturo always stayed true to his roots. He loved being here. Maybe he didn’t want to be bigger than he was. He’d rather hang out with his local friends.”

“He never understood why people loved him so much,” Skowronski said. “There were millions of people on HBO who loved him, but there were the others who lived here, where he lived.”

Referee Neumann said that Gatti was a rare breed.

“I never saw a crowd show so much love for someone like the way that the crowds flocked to Arturo’s fights in Atlantic City,” Neumann said. “I mean, they were so into him and the crowds were electric. He just fought his heart out every fight.”

Neumann said that it was tough for him to stop Gatti’s last fight, simply because of Gatti’s incredible ability to come back in fights.

“I couldn’t stop that fight, simply because he was Arturo Gatti,” Neumann said. “He was much more dignified to go out that way. He had to be counted out. When he fought, you never knew if he could come back. He looked beaten and still came back.”

Don Elbaum has been a veteran of the boxing game for more than 40 years. Now working for Main Events, Elbaum vividly recalled Gatti’s intensity.

“In boxing, nothing ever surprises me, and with Arturo, he lived a fast life, but you just didn’t expect it,” Elbaum said. “As a fighter, if you looked up ‘heart’ in the dictionary, you’d see Arturo’s picture. I always used him as a prime example. I have young fighters coming up and I tell them that if they want to be a champ, if they wanted to be a contender, then they had to have the heart of Arturo Gatti. I always used him.”

Main Events president Kathy Duva was saddened by the loss of her company’s No. 1 attraction.

“People said that going to one of his fights in Atlantic City was like going to see a Grateful Dead concert,” Duva said. “It wasn’t a fight. It was an event. You would see the same people coming all the time, like they were old friends. There was a certain electricity when he fought in Atlantic City and we’ll never see that again. He was really entertaining, but it was a lot more than that.”

Added Duva, “This is an unspeakable horror and there are no words to express this tragedy. He grew up with us. He fought every one of his professional fights with us. He was so unassuming and I don’t think he ever understood just how much people loved him. Other people loved him more than he loved himself.”

Pound4Pound Promotions’ John Lynch of Union City, who was Gatti’s personal attorney for more than a decade, was devastated by the news of Gatti’s passing.

“This is a huge loss for the boxing community,” Lynch said. “He epitomized heart. That’s exactly what he was. The boxer with the biggest heart. Nothing was going to stop him. It’s a tragedy, because I feel he had a lot more to give to boxing. He would have been a great analyst for television. He was so well loved. He could have given back to the sport. He would have been great for the sport. I don’t know what it was about him, but he was so beloved. He fought hard and lived hard.”

And unfortunately, died hard as well – at an age where people aren’t supposed to die.

“I knew he wasn’t going to be the guy who lived until he was 90,” Skowronski said. “He lived a fast life in everything he did. But I didn’t expect he would be gone at 37 and gone this way. They don’t make them like him anymore. That’s my buddy, the one I’ll miss. I’ll miss everything he did. His heart, his determination stood out. He wasn’t overly skilled, but he made up for it with hard work. He’s just gone too soon. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.”

Apparently, his best friend wasn’t alone with those sentiments. Funeral services are still pending and more than likely will take place in Gatti’s native Canada, but whenever a service is held locally, you can be rest assured that people from all walks of life will come back and pay tribute to one of their own.

Arturo Gatti might not have been born in Hudson County, but he certainly was one of us. And Gatti will forever will be that way, one of us, one of Hudson County’s shining stars. He put professional boxing back on the local map and for that we all have to be forever grateful.

The next one comes days after a memorial service in Jersey City, on the very same day that Brazilian police ruled the incident a suicide. HUDSON REPORTER, AUG. 1, 2009

The boxing community has always been a very tight one, much closer than people might imagine.

One might think that the world of pugilism would only encourage antagonistic and ballistic feelings. But it’s so far from the case.

Boxers always come to the defense of fellow boxers. Trainers, promoters, managers, even writers, they’re all part of the boxing family. You enter the boxing family, you’re a member for life. It’s the way it is.

In 2005, this reporter got to learn first-hand just how close and compassionate the members of the boxing family are for one another after the book, “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man,” was published.

It was quite evident how everyone in the local boxing community truly cared for one another, by the way they all embraced the author and welcomed him into their homes, their lives, their families.

Before the book was published, I was a sportswriter who every so often wrote about boxing. After the book was released, the boxing family opened its collective arms, from the old-timers to the up-and-comers, and presented a warm, lasting embrace.

That was the obvious sentiment and predominant aura of the memorial Mass that was held last Thursday night in Jersey City for fallen local boxing hero Arturo Gatti.

More than 1,000 people filled St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church on Kennedy Blvd. in Jersey City to attend the local services for the former two-time world boxing champion.

Some of the people in attendance included Academy Award-nominated actor Mickey Rourke, famed actor-stunt man Chuck Zito and a host of famed former boxing champions, including Chuck Wepner, Mark Breland, Bobby Czyz, and current IBF world cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek, who resides in Jersey City.

Incredibly, the memorial mass was held on the same day that Brazilian authorities ruled that Gatti’s death on July 11 was officially determined to be a suicide.

According to Associated Press, Brazilian police said Thursday that an investigation determined that Gatti hung himself. A Brazilian judge then ordered the release of Amanda Rodrigues, Gatti’s 23-year-old wife, who was being held until Thursday on charges that she killed her 37-year-old husband, who had called Hoboken, Weehawken and mostly Jersey City his home during his boxing heyday.

The news that Gatti’s death was ruled a suicide did not sit well with the people who attended the services.

“Arturo Gatti lived with passion and fought with passion,” said Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter and matchmaker who helped to arrange some of Gatti’s best bouts. DiBella was one of three speakers who delivered eulogies after the services were completed.

“Arturo Gatti loved life and everyone here knows that he loved life,” DiBella said. “He never quit once in his life and he didn’t quit in Brazil either. We can hope and pray that justice will prevail and we can find out the truth of what really happened to our friend.”

Czyz, a New Jersey native and three-time former world champ, also disputed the reports of Gatti’s alleged suicide.

“I think you can tell by the way he fought that he wasn’t one who was going to ever quit,” Czyz said. “Suffice it to say that I don’t believe what I heard today. It’s very difficult to believe, especially by the way Arturo lived and the way he fought. I know he wouldn’t have ended it that way. No way is it true.”

In bizarre turn of events, the Brazilian police initially said that Gatti was allegedly drunk and was found dead face down in bed with marks on his neck and a wound to the back of the head, probably caused by a blunt object.

The Brazilian police believed that Rodrigues, a native of Brazil who lived in Union City and worked as an exotic dancer at the Squeeze Lounge in Weehawken when she met the local boxing hero, allegedly strangled Gatti to death by using the strap of her purse.

However, that story changed dramatically Thursday – on the same day of his local solemn tribute.

On Thursday, the police released a statement that said Gatti was in fact found “suspended and hanged” seven feet off the ground, from a staircase.

Police issued no other details of the death last Thursday, making the strange series of events even murkier and darker.

Mike Skowronski was perhaps Gatti’s closest friend. The Jersey City native worked in Gatti’s corner for many of his fights and the two were inseparable.

“I heard the news that it was being called a suicide before it got out to the press,” Skowronski said. “And I think it’s disgusting. It’s just a shame. I know Arturo, and suicide was the last thing in his mind. I feel sorry for the people who truly loved him, like his Mom, his brother and sisters. It’s just so sad.

Added Skowronski, “Arturo is the kind of guy who would be fighting until the end, not the guy who would have given in. It’s just not him. Suicide is so far from the truth. It’s unthinkable that a fighter like him would have committed suicide.”

Maybe Gatti really didn’t kill himself...

Finally, the third article comes from July of 2007, right after Gatti lost his final fight in Atlantic City, a fight I witnessed like I did about 15 ohter times during Gatti's incredible career.

It wasn't supposed to end like this. We weren't supposed to see Arturo Gatti on his hands and knees, struggling to get to his feet against a nondescript hand-picked opponent like Alfonso Gomez, straight off the set of the TV reality show, "The Contender."

After all, this was Arturo Gatti, the local hero with residences in Jersey City and Hoboken, the boxing star who had the nickname of "Thunder" and provided thousands of thrilling moments during his championship career.

Gatti was supposed to thrill his faithful followers one more time, the ones who flocked to Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall last Saturday night to witness the fan favorite pulverize an opponent again. Gatti was expected to take a few punches along the way, then rally to a majestic victory in front of all the beloved fans who adored him for the last 15 years.

Even the next big payday was already lined up. After Gatti disposed of Gomez, there was a showdown planned with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. some time in November, back in Atlantic City where the local boxing fans migrated like the swallows flocked to San Juan Capistrano.

So this return to the ring represented simply a tune-up for Gatti, a chance to shake out the cobwebs from nearly a year's absence from the ring and the opportunity to line up another million-dollar paycheck.

There was only one problem. Gomez was not privy to any of those pre-arranged plans. He wasn't going to stand for the idea that he was a walkover, that he represented nothing more than a workout for the extremely popular Gatti.

All along, Gomez was certain that he could win the fight. He wasn't overly cocky, just confident. He watched tapes of recent Gatti losses to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Carlos Baldimir and realized that despite his less-than-stellar 16-3-2 record, Gomez had a height and reach advantage, not to mention an age advantage as well. "I was real comfortable with having him as an opponent," Gomez said after the fight. "I was real comfortable having him within my distance."

And Gomez, nine years Gatti's junior, displayed every ounce of being in control from the outset. He was the aggressor; he was the one with the fresh legs and faster jabs; he was the one who was going to send the local hero into retirement.

Gomez won the first round easily, despite the crowd chanting, "Gatti, Gatti, Gatti," throughout the opening round. Gatti rallied somewhat to take the second round, especially nailing one upper cut that seemed to hurt Gomez. But by the third round, the night belonged to Gomez. He landed two hard rights to start the third round, snapping Gatti's head back each time. Another stiff left jab seemed to hurt Gatti toward the end of the round. In the fourth round, Gomez took complete control, pounding Gatti several times with combinations. A series of right hands stunned Gatti and he had the appearance that he was going down. But Gatti had shown similar unsteadiness several times before in his career and managed to rally each time. The 9,348 in attendance were sensing a similar comeback, like their native son had done time and time again.

The fourth round ended with Gomez connecting three straight right hands to Gatti's head. It was Gomez's round in a big way.

Fear and hope

At that point, Gatti's wife ran out of the arena.

"I'm not watching any more of this," she said as Gatti's manager Pat Lynch tried to stop her from leaving. She didn't stop.

It was painful to watch someone so beloved and so brilliant for so long getting destroyed by a journeyman. It was almost like watching Willie Mays trying to chase after a fly ball for the Mets in the 1973 World Series or Patrick Ewing clanking his patented fade-away jumper while wearing an Orlando Magic pinstriped uniform.

But this was different to everyone in attendance, because no one thought this day would actually happen. Sure, everything has to come to an end, especially in professional sports, but when it came to Arturo Gatti, you just expected another comeback.

In the fifth round, Gatti gave the hometown crowd some hope. He connected with a stiff left that moved Gomez, then countered with one overhand right and three upper cuts. Gomez didn't seem to be really hurt by the flurry. He hit the two-time former world champ twice and silenced the crowd sensing the comeback.

Gatti hit Gomez with a left that ended the round and perhaps gave a glimmer of hope to the local hero.

In the sixth round, Gomez fired off eight straight punches of all varieties - and none connected. Gomez hit air on all eight, which caused Gatti to do a mini-shuffle, a la Muhammad Ali, and raise his arm in jubilation, much to the delight of the crowd. It was the last time they would cheer.

Right before the end of the sixth round, Gomez pummeled Gatti hard on three straight punches - two rights and a left - that staggered the weary champ and sent him back to the corner, knowing full well that he needed a knockout to win the fight.

It wasn't coming. The seventh round began with Gomez on the attack, sensing the victory. He continued to pummel the 35-year-old Gatti into frightening submission, hitting him seven straight times without Gatti retaliating. The barrage continued, with Gomez pounding one after another in downright scary succession. Sixteen, 17, 18, 19 times, Gomez blasted Gatti with not a hint of a punch coming in return.

Gatti couldn't even raise his arms to defend himself. The barrage reached 21 straight punches - which was six more punches than what Benny "Kid" Paret withstood in his fatal fight with Emile Griffith some 40 years ago.

All totaled, Gomez connected on 40 of 62 power punches thrown in the seventh round alone. It was brutality, witnessed on national television.

Onlookers really feared for Gatti's life, because finally, there was no fight left in the kid who never quit. There was nothing left. Nothing.

People at ringside were yelling at respected referee Randy Neumann to stop the fight.

"I didn't think he was concussed," Neumann said after the fight. "I thought he was fighting back. I've seen him come back before. He always had a puncher's shot. I couldn't take that away from him."

When Gatti finally went down, the count began, counting down the brilliant Gatti's career. One, two, three...Gatti struggled to get to his hands and knees, but nothing more. Larry Hazzard, the New Jersey State Boxing Commissioner and a former referee, climbed into the ring and ran to Gatti's aid, stopping the fight at the 2:12 mark of the seventh round.

In that instant, boxing in Hudson County, as we knew it, died.

While Gomez climbed on the ropes celebrating his victory, medical professionals rushed to Gatti to see if he was fine. After a few seconds, he got to his feet and in true competitive, warrior-like fashion, wanted to continue fighting. Just like any other professional athlete, Arturo Gatti didn't want it to be over.

Nor did anyone else inside Boardwalk Hall. Frankly, nor did anyone else - period. Even the man who sent Gatti into retirement.

"I do feel bad for him," Gomez said after the fight. "This loss pretty much propels him into retirement. He's one of my all-time idols, with his heart, with the way he kept coming back. He helped to keep boxing alive. But I can't say I beat a stronger guy. He said he was going to box me, but I was the one who set him up with jabs. I hit him downstairs, I hit him upstairs, and it was just a matter of time before it ended. I really thought he was going to be a lot stronger."

Added Gomez, "This is the fight that every boxer dreams of and looks for. This makes me more of a contender. I now have a chance to get a title."

Gatti was nowhere to be found after the fight. He was taken to Atlantic City Hospital to have his lip stitched and to get examined for any possible concussion. He told HBO that he was officially announcing his retirement, and that if he was coming back, "It would be as a spectator."

A legend

Main Events president Kathy Duva addressed the media after the fight.

"We spoke with Arturo and he has decided to hang them up," Duva said, with tears visible in her eyes. "We support that decision 1,000 percent. His legend will live on forever. All good things come to an end, and we're sad to see this legend's career end."

However, in the minutes after, the boxing promotion group was celebrating the victory of up-and-comer Kermit Cintron , a victor earlier in the evening. Cintron represents Main Events' big paydays now. The changing of the guard took place rather rapidly, without much fanfare. Gatti was out the door and Cintron was in.

But an entire county saw its professional boxing hopes die with Gatti's career, because in reality, there isn't a real local contender on the horizon. Sure, there may be a rising star in the amateur ranks, but the number of local pro boxers is miniscule and the number of true contenders is non-existent.

That's why there was such finality when Gatti struggled to get to his feet. It represented an end of an era. Not only did it represent the end of Gatti's brilliant career, but it also represented the end of the influx, the injection of adrenalin, that pro boxing desperately needed in Hudson County - an area with a rich, storied and historic boxing tradition. Here's to hoping that some warrior picks up the torch from Arturo Gatti and continues with the same drive, determination and fervor. It won't be easy to recreate.

Now, is that a man that would have ended his own life?

As we thought all along, Gatti got into yet another drunken altercation with his wife. He apparently knocked her down in the lobby of the apartment complex they were staying in, then she came back to the room where he was hit in the back of the head with a blunt object, a blow that caused him to bleed profusely, and then strangled to death.

I have to believe that Amanda Rodrigues had to have help to strangle Gatti to death, regardless of how drunk he was. But she did it, she was involved and she was the culprit, not his own hands. Like we always knew from the very beginning, from the minutes after he was found dead.

I attended that press conference last week, but I already had a preconceived notion in my head that he was killed and she was involved. What bothered me so much was seeing the graphic pictures of Gatti's dead body surrounded in blood.

I want to remember the vibrant Gatti, the one who captivated sports fans _ and sportswriters _ for many years, the one who brought excitement back to New Jersey and Hudson County boxing.

I didn't want to see Gatti like that, but if it's done to reiterate a point, then so be it.

But there really wasn't anything different that I learned Wednesday that I either already didn't know or at least I summized.

Here's to hoping that justice is served in this case and that Rodrigues will face the music for what we all knew she did two years ago.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Here's another version of ''You can't make it up''

Today, I had another reminder why I went to journalism school to become a sportswriter.

I covered the Colombia-Honduras soccer match at Red Bull Arena. Yes, this is the reason why I get paid the big bucks. I cover soccer games where I was clearly the lone English-speaking sportswriter in the building.

Anyway, I was amazed with the energy in Red Bull Arena. It was buzzing with excitement from followers of both teams. It was hard to tell who had more fans and they were definitely loud. Maybe it's because Red Bull Arena is a smaller venue with a rounded, confined roof. I don't know. But this crowd was far louder than any MLS game there.

The game ends in a 2-0 win for Colombia. I'm now sitting in the press room, waiting for the post-game interviews, when I realized I had one big problem.

I had no idea the names of the coaches for both teams. Not a clue. And I couldn't ask anyone, because I was the lone one to speak English.

Thank God for the IPhone, which is clearly the best invention next to toilet paper and grape soda.

I Google the name of the Honduran coach and find that. Easy enough.

I then Google this term "Colombian national soccer coach."

What popped up totally amazed me.

Apparently, the long-time coach, named Hernan Dario Gomez, nicknamed "El Bolillo," was removed from his duties as the Colombian head coach Aug. 9 because he apparently punched a drunken woman in the face "repeatedly" in a Bogota bar, after the woman apparently accosted the coach.

When we say repeatedly, El Bolillo bopped this woman a total of five times. Once to knock her down and four times when she was on the ground.

I got this all from a simple Google search, mind you. I'm sitting there waiting for the press conference to begin and I get this pearl of journalistic information.

This is what Gomez had to say after the incident became public:

"To confront the incident that happened last Saturday, that I have been tormented by since, I want to publicly announce that I am deeply sorry for what happened and the fact that I lost control in the way that I did....
Believe me, that this has made me very worried, and that I will take every and all measures necessary to make sure that this never happens again. As you know, I have always been in defense of women, whom I admire and respect. What I have done makes me ashamed because of my mother, my wife, and each and every one of the women in my family and in my country.

I'm still stunned by it.

So the press conference begins and I ask the interim coach, Leonel Alvarez, through an interpreter of course, how he felt taking over the team in such difficult times. The coach told me, "Buena pregunta," which meant it was a good question. Hey, inquiring minds always want to know.

He then told me that "El Bolillo" was the heart and soul of the Colombian team and that they dedicated the win to him. Sanchez, who was a great player during his heyday, said that it was "an honor to coach the team replacing El Bolillo."

Sure, it's always good to replace someone after they punch a woman in the mug five times.

You can imagine my surprise as this is all unfolding. If I didn't have to look up the coach's names, it never would have happened.

Here's what I wrote:

HARRISON, N.J. (AP)—Teofilo Gutierrez scored two goals, one on penalty kick in the first half and the other with his team down a man in the second, leading Colombia to a 2-0 victory over Honduras in an international friendly Saturday night at Red Bull Arena.

“This is the first step toward qualifying for the World Cup in 2014,” interim coach Leonel Alvarez said. “We’re building a team with good soccer players, but also good human beings. It’s a dream of mine to take this team further. It’s in the hands of the federation to decide who coaches. We’re just continuing the process.”

Alvarez took over the team after Hernan Dario Gomez, nicknamed “El Bolillo,” was removed from his coaching duties after he admitted punching a female fan in the face repeatedly in a bar.

“To take over the coaching position under those circumstances is never good,” Alvarez said. “El Bolillo is the heart of this team and we dedicated this game to him. There was no bigger honor to coach with him. On behalf of him and the entire country, we intend to move forward now.”

Gomez stepped down Aug. 8.

“He asked me to take it over,” Alvarez said. “He had a dream to take this team to the World Cup and when he sees this young team, he can see the passion and the hard work it will take to get it done.”

In the 24th minute, Gutierrez was pulled down from behind in the box by defender Victor Bermudez and referee Jorge Gonzalez called for the penalty kick. Gutierrez took the attempt and faked right, but touched it left and it went past goalkeeper Noel Valladares.

In the 72nd minute, after Colombia lost a player to a red-card disqualification, Gutierrez alertly knocked in a rebound off a shot by Dayro Moreno.

Colombia dominated play from the outset and had many more scoring chances than Honduras and twice hit the left post with shots in the first half. Honduras had two good chances in the 37th minute, but one attempt slid wide right of the goal and Maynor Figueroa fired a shot from close range over the crossbar after avoiding three Colombian defenders in the process.

Figueroa was fouled hard from behind in the 55th minute by Colombian forward Adrian Ramos, causing Gonzalez to issue a red card against Ramos. Colombia played the remainder of the game down a man.

Colombian goalkeeper David Opsina made only two saves in the second half to gain the shutout.

“We have to start a game a little more aggressively than this,” Honduran coach Luis Fernando Suarez said. “We allowed them to keep the ball way more than we wanted them to. We respected the opponent way too much tonight and that was the bottom line.”

It gets better. Apparently, there is a member of the Colombian team who earlier this season saw the mascot of an opposing team, a live owl, make its way onto a field and the player kicked the owl to death.

I kid you not. There is video of this bastion of the Audubon Society booting the bird to kingdom come.

Now, my thoughts were immediately: Can you imagine if one of our major managers of coaches punched a woman in the face repeatedly?

Not saying that they would, but can you comprehend if say Joe Girardi or Rex Ryan did something like that? I just can't. It's too much to fathom.

I mean, Rex Ryan's wife posed for some racy pictures and it was revealed that he had a foot fetish and it was all over the papers. With his wife. Can you comprehend if any cold-cocked a woman, drunken or otherwise, FIVE times??

And then how about the bird thing? Dave Winfield inadvertently killed a seagull once in Toronto and it was the end of the world. I just can't picture that one either.

I have written some crazy crap over the last 30 years, but I don't know if it gets any crazier than this one tonight. And I have my lack of international soccer knowledge and Google to thank for it.

There's nothing better than the first day of college football season. I used to love the Kickoff Classic in the Meadowlands, because that was for me the official kickoff to the college season for many years.

But still, it was pretty exciting to see Utah State almost knock off the defending national champion Auburn. It was great to see my Oklahoma Sooners win in convincing fashion. It was football.

But did we really need to have two storm-related delays in the Notre Dame game against South Florida, totaling almost three hours? NBC must be pulling its collective hairs out with those delays.

And the much-ballyhooed Irish fall flat at home. It's not a good sign. They get back into the national rankings and then stink up the joint. Touchdown Jesus was even holding his nose before the deluge began.

But it was a good thing to see college football back and playing. Today, there were no hints of the Ohio State or University of Miami scandals. There were no talk of illegal payments and tattoos and hookers and paid abortions. Nope, today was strictly about the gridiron and that was very refreshing and long awaited.

There can't be a better story out there than Mark Herzlich actually earning a roster spot with the New York Giants, just two years after he was told he would never play football again and might lose a leg due to cancer.

When he first signed as a free agent, I really thought it was done as a nice gesture by Giants owner John Mara, as a favor to the kid for what he's been through. I never dreamed he could actually make the team. Maybe the practice squad, but never the final roster.

It was obviously more than a gesture, because Herzlich has proven he can play. It's the best feel good story of the young NFL season and has to give anyone who has ever had the awful news of being diagnosed with cancer hope that anything is possible.

God bless Herzlich and his determination. He's an inspiration to everyone.

This marks my 29th year of writing high school football previews. I have to make nearly a 100 phone calls to talk to coaches and write about their respective teams for papers all over the state.

I seriously don't understand the coaches who fail to return phone calls in a timely fashion. No matter what it is, it's publicity for your team, your players, your program. And at this point in the season, everyone has the same record. Everyone starts fresh, 0-0.

I had a handful of coaches this year not call me back to get the preview done. One coach had to be called 12 times!!!! C'mon guys, it's for your kids. Not you. Just listen to the messages and return the call. It's ridiculous the effort that had to go into doing this year's previews.

Sad to hear the news that former St. Peter's Prep standout Rashawn Jackson was released by the Carolina Panthers over the weekend. Jackson spent most of last season on the Panthers' practice squad and was activated for the last two games of the season as a fullback. The hope was that Jackson would stick with the Panthers for the entire season, but that hope ended Saturday.

You can read more of my work at (football previews of course), (football previews of course) and (football previews coming at the end of this week)...