One of the most intriguing story lines in boxing is a prizefight becoming more than just sport. When a boxing match turns into something more raw, more emotional, more resembling a real life confrontation, it becomes an amazing spectacle. So tantalizing is the prospect of a legally sanctioned bout between men that have a genuine grudge that countless promotions have been geared at creating the illusion of such a conflict where one does not exist. There has been no need to put on this type of show to sell the WBA light middleweight title fight between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito on December 3rd at Madison Square Garden.
The history between these two great champions dates back to a summer night just over three years ago. On July 26th, 2008 Mexican tough guy Antonio Margarito finally had in front of him the opportunity he had waited for his entire life. Considered the most avoided man in boxing, Margarito’s relentless aggression and seemingly preternatural pain tolerance had won him fights and titles, but had also created the impression that he was perhaps more trouble than he was worth. The common thought process among those in boxing at the time was that any big name fighter who could dodge a bout with Margarito in favor of one with a less dangerous opponent would likely do so.
Miguel Cotto was already a huge star, carrying the hopes and dreams of his rabid Puerto Rican fans on his shoulders every time he fought. He also was man far too proud to allow anyone to think he would avoid a fight with Margarito. Undefeated and rising up the list of potential challengers for the great Floyd Mayweather’s crown of best boxer alive, Cotto put all that on the line and decided to go to war.
What a war it turned out to be. Cotto’s superior skill and athletic ability allowed him to stick and move throughout the beginning of the fight. He appeared to win at least four or five of the first six rounds, but the trained eye could see a speck of trouble on the horizon. Despite all the clean punches he was landing, Cotto was not hurting Margarito. After landing blows that would decimate the body of a lesser man, Cotto would back up to see Margarito right back in front of him, smiling and fighting back.
Little by little, the pressure began to unravel the Puerto Rican star. For all his ability and effort, as the fight went into the championship rounds it was he, not Margarito, who looked beat up and desperate. Finally in the 11th round his fate was sealed. He took a knee after absorbing hard shots, desperately attempting to catch his breath. Boxing is not a sport that forgives even this slight amount of weakness. When he got back up from the canvas he found Margarito right back in his face, pounding him back into the corner. Cotto took a knee again and the referee had seen enough, stopping the fight and handing Margarito the victory of a lifetime.
The boxing community’s joy at having witnessed such a classic battle gave way to controversy and, in the minds of Cotto supporters at least, pure rage when in his very next bout Antonio Margarito was caught with loaded hand wraps. The idea that a fighter would attempt to put plaster under the layers of gauze covering his hands was revolting enough. The idea that he had perhaps done so before and gotten away with it caused his entire career, especially the victory against Cotto, to be called into question.
Since the hand wrap incident, Margarito (38-7-0, 27 KOs) has had his license revoked, at least in the state of California, and for the record denies any wrong doing. He claims he was unaware of the substance his former trainer was putting in the hand wraps, whether anyone chooses to take him at his word is their own decision. In his only big fight since returning, he was beaten to a pulp by Manny Pacquiao, much to the delight of many fans who have turned their backs on the once beloved champion. He did not, however, submit to Pacquiao and was rewarded for his courage in lasting the distance with a serious eye injury that threatened to end his career.
Cotto (36-2-0, 29 KOs) had his own trouble with Pacquiao in the time since that first clash with Margarito, being knocked out by the Filipino star in 2009. After seeing the way Cotto was reluctant to engage with Pacquiao after being hurt early in the fight, many thought he was simply not the same fighter he was before Margarito. To those who thought Margarito had cheated, it now seemed that Cotto’s entire career, not just one fight, had been robbed from him. The death of his father during this time period only added to what seemed like a downward spiral.
For a long time Cotto rejected the idea of a rematch, stating that he believed Margarito to be a cheater and that he refused to help him make another dollar. However after a couple confidence building victories the public interest and the money that brings, as well as a desire for revenge, brought him to the table. After some controversy over whether Margarito’s battered eye was healthy enough for him to fight, he was finally granted a license less than two weeks before the bout, and the fight is on.
Now we get to the part where Cotto gets to take revenge on Margarito, who robbed of his unfair advantages is no match for his old foe. What a happy ending that would be, and it is a narrative that most in the boxing community seem to have adopted.
However, things are often not quite as simple as they seem, or as fair as they should be.
With all the emphasis Cotto has placed during the build up about how the first fight was tainted by his opponent cheating, one might wonder if he has mentally accepted the way he lost that fight, on a knee in submission. Whether or not Margarito was packing some illegal help in his hand wraps, the fact of the matter is both men took a lot of punishment. Cotto gave in, Margarito did not. During a promotional interview with HBO broadcaster Max Kellerman, Margarito claimed he was willing to die in the ring to beat Cotto again. Cotto said he felt differently, that he family was too important to him to risk that much. As absolutely reasonable (and to be honest, sane) as that sentiment is, it is certainly not what anyone betting on Cotto wants to hear. You could almost feel the evil, Disney villain-esque thoughts that were running through Margarito’s head when Cotto showed him this slight bit of weakness. He knows that if he is able to batter Cotto to the point of serious injury again, Cotto will likely quit again.
What does Miguel Cotto have to do to avoid this fate? Well for starters, he could have retained legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, who he let go after two successful outings over unspecified differences. A less than stellar corner took some of the blame for Cotto’s loss to Pacquiao, and he may go into the Margarito fight with a similar handicap.
What’s done is done though, and Cotto will fight with the men in his corner he has chosen to be there. The type of game plan he needs to execute is similar to what he was able to pull off in the first part of the last fight. He needs to box, move, use his superior speed and not let Margarito get to him.
Unfortunately, Cotto is not the young man he once was. Time and in ring beatings have perhaps slowed him more than he would like to admit. Margarito on the other hand was never quick to begin with, and can be expected to plod forward with the same menacing style that won him the first fight.
What happens to Cotto mentally and physically when he takes a big punch in this fight? What if he is forced to face the fact that Margarito can hurt him with or without cheating? What if he finds himself bleeding and exhausted late in the December clash? Will he be able to summon the will to finish, perhaps drawing that needed bit of extra motivation from a desire for revenge?
If not, he will he once again finish the bout on the canvas, his nemesis standing over him in victory. Could even the cruelest sport be this cruel? It could, and in the opinion of this writer, it will.
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