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Arturo Gatti and Amanda Rodrigues on their wedding day. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Arturo Gatti and Amanda Rodrigues on their wedding day. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Arturo Gatti suicide skeptics evade boxer's dark truths Add to ...

To his Montreal crew, Arturo Gatti left home a hard-hitting teenager and returned a retired boxing champ with a big heart, the kind of millionaire who bought champagne for friends and condos for family.

Sweet, happy-go-lucky, quick to grab the check or hand out a loan, always in a hurry, often to get to the next party: This was Arturo Gatti to his Montreal friends and family.

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But the bars and gyms of New Jersey made Arturo (Thunder) Gatti, and it’s there the carefree Montreal story turns into something darker and more complicated.

In New Jersey, Mr. Gatti learned how to throw a punch like a pro and, more importantly, how to take a thousand of them and stay on his feet, mostly. It was in the Garden State he discovered painkillers and cocaine and hit booze with abandon, chasing women as if only they and the intoxicants could dull his physical and mental torment.

Each person who knew Mr. Gatti seems locked into contradictory versions of truth, but three weeks of court testimony, a private investigation, a meticulously researched book and a series of interviews make this much certain: Arturo Gatti was wrecked by a combination of booze, toxic relationships with women, too many blows to the head and an inability to face life.

The specifics of his death may never be resolved. After a raucous night out where he struck Ms. Rodrigues and was set upon by a mob, Mr. Gatti died from strangulation on July 11, 2009 after he retreated to his hotel suite in Brazil.

He did it, the wife did it, or someone helped her do it, depending on whose version you buy. Suicide remains the official verdict, but his wife, Amanda Rodrigues, the only other adult known to have been in the suite that early morning, remains under suspicion. She says she was sleeping while Mr. Gatti hanged himself.

“Bullshit,” said Erika Rivera, Mr. Gatti’s former girlfriend and the mother of his first child, Sofia. “He could get a little bit crazy, he was very superstitious, but suicidal? Never. He was a free spirit who loved life.”

While attention in Canada is focused on the dispute between Ms. Rodrigues and Mr. Gatti’s Montreal family over his $3.4-million estate, it’s Ms. Rivera in New Jersey who is pulling many strings.

When the lawsuit playing out in Montreal court seemed headed for settlement this week, it was Ms. Rivera, a 32-year-old chemical engineer and former go-go dancer, who brought discussions to a halt. She also launched her own wrongful death suit against Ms. Rodrigues in New Jersey, putting a freeze on the money and ensuring nothing will be settled for years.

Ms. Rivera, who wasn’t involved in any lawsuits before the summer, says she suddenly started getting legal documents in the mail that appeared to threaten her daughter’s trust accounts set up by Mr. Gatti. And there was one other reason she suddenly became involved, she said.

“I thought she’d be in jail by now,” Ms. Rivera said of Mr. Gatti’s wife. “And if she won’t go to jail, we’ll take away the money. The only way this gets settled is with her not getting one red cent.”

Ms. Rivera has a good job, designing explosives for the United States Department of Defence. She gets $4,640 in monthly child support from a $1.1-million trust set up by Mr. Gatti, and later approved by Ms. Rodrigues, and the little girl has another $350,000 set aside for her future. With a New Jersey lawyer acting for fees contingent on victory, Ms. Rivera plans to pursue the case until the end, whatever else happens in Canada.

Dark truths remain that Ms. Rivera and others refuse to accept.

Mr. Gatti spent a lot of years hooked on painkillers. Even his little brother Fabrizio, the unofficial guardian of Mr. Gatti’s image, says Arturo partied until the sun rose every second night of the week, when a man in his late 30s with a toddler and a new wife should have been home. He got into fights, with other bar patrons, and most of all, with his wife, Ms. Rodrigues, a petite woman who managed to blacken the welterweight champion’s eyes with her own shots.

Still, she was the only person who ever pushed Mr. Gatti into rehab, in Florida in December, 2007. It was his sister, Anna-Maria Gatti, who picked him up to escape before the program was complete. Big sister maintains to this day he didn’t need it.

The sister, Mr. Gatti’s manager Pat Lynch, his mother Ida, brother Fabrizio and Ms. Rivera all say they saw no signs of depression. They don’t believe he was ever really hooked on booze or drugs, or was capable of suicide. He was just happy and liked to party.

They deny Mr. Gatti complained frequently about depression to several people in New Jersey, and that he threatened to kill himself more than once. Jacques Pothier, a Montreal boxing writer who spent 13 months in New Jersey talking to Mr. Gatti’s friends, associates, bartenders, strippers and drug dealers for his book, Arturo Gatti: le dernier round, says Mr. Gatti once asked a friend to lend him a gun so he could kill himself. Mr. Gatti overdosed on drugs more than once, Mr. Pothier says.

The family also denies Mr. Pothier’s account that some of the epic binges took an orgiastic twist that sometimes involved other men. “Lies,” said Mr. Gatti’s brother Fabrizio, when challenged with some of Mr. Pothier’s dark evidence in court. “Ninety-five-per-cent lies.” Ms. Rivera chips in her own assessment: “He loved women. He loved strippers.”

Even in Mr. Pothier’s intimate account, the root of all that pain is unclear. It might have started with the sudden death of his father in a construction site accident while he was just a boy, or a violent and boozy home life, or a twisted family background. Mr. Gatti’s sister was once married to Dave Hilton Jr., the Canadian boxing champ who was convicted of sexually abusing their two daughters over many years. The Gattis are no strangers to the most sordid family drama. Ms. Rodrigues said it in court last week: “That family is not normal. It’s just not normal.”

But perhaps most obvious are the scars from 1,000 punches.

Mr. Gatti had many epic fights, but not all of them should have been so hard. Even en route to victory, he had a knack for getting pounded to a pulp even by washed-up pugs. By the time he retired, Ms. Rodrigues said Mr. Gatti could barely make a fist with his arthritic hands. After moving back to Montreal, he took monthly vacations to sunny spots because his joints ached in the cold. He had triple vision in one eye and blurred sight in the other, according to Mr. Pothier. The boxer was 37 when he died.

“You don’t take that kind of punishment without consequences, and it’s well known boxers use pills, and pills and concussions often lead to terrible depression in boxers,” said Mr. Pothier. “All you have to do is look at what’s happened to a few NHL tough guys over the summer to see the potential result of pills and that kind of violence. And life after sport is never easy for a pro athlete.”

For years, Mr. Gatti seemed to live free of consequence. There were brushes with the law for assault, domestic violence and drunk driving. He lost his driver’s licence but never served much jail time.

It was a life riddled with contradictions. He could be generous and cheap, he sought drama but avoided confronting problems, he loved and charmed women but drove them away with his jealousy and rage. In many ways he was the prototype of the self-destructive boxer with drugs and booze, but he still managed to stash away millions and set up his kids before carelessly guaranteeing it would be frittered away in legal disputes after his death.

Take the last will and testament. Mr Gatti changed it weeks before he died to leave everything to his wife, just as he was also preparing to divorce. This will is at the root of the Montreal lawsuit and fuels doubt about Ms. Rodrigues. She says the timing is coincidence, or perhaps that Mr. Gatti knew what was coming and was tired of his family taking his money. His family says his wife pressured him to sign in the first step of a scheme to get rich. But why would anyone refashion his will this way while he had a divorce lawyer on retainer?

Just months earlier, in a lawyer’s office in New Jersey, Mr. Gatti had made a show of pretending to rip up his prenuptial agreement with Ms. Rodrigues, in an apparent attempt to please her. As he tore a copy of the document, he winked at the receptionist, an apparent acknowledgment that the original was safely locked away. His family laughs off the act as typically Arturo.

“In both cases, he may have just been trying to get her off his back,” said Joe Lynch, Mr. Gatti’s occasional New Jersey lawyer and long-time friend, who also denies Mr. Gatti could be suicidal.

It’s clear there were times Mr. Gatti thought he was being a clever player, and other times when he was being played. Years later, it still isn’t easy to tell the two apart.

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