Moment of truth awaits Cotto, Margarito
NEW YORK – The hate spews out of Miguel Cotto with each breath he draws. The World Boxing Association super welterweight champion does not have to speak a word about Antonio Margarito to convey his enmity for the man he unapologetically labels “a criminal.”
The level of malevolence between Cotto, the hard-nosed champion from Puerto Rico, and Margarito, the rough and rugged challenger from Mexico, may be unmatched in professional sport. It’s like the Yankees versus the Red Sox times 100.
Their public appearances have been shows unto themselves, tension hanging in the room each time either are within sight of the other. In a way, though, the vitriol has obscured the fact that their rematch on HBO Pay-Per-View on Saturday at Madison Square Garden likely will be one of the most ferocious bouts in a long time.
At the end of their first match in 2008, HBO Sports boxing analyst Max Kellerman called it “a modern boxing classic.” The aftermath has only added to the lure of the rematch, dubbed “The Battle.”
Margarito was caught with an illegal pad in his hand wraps prior to a Jan. 24, 2009, match with Shane Mosley at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Just six months earlier, on July 26, 2008, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Cotto built up a big early lead only to succumb to Margarito’s relentless pressure.
Cotto looked like the Elephant Man after the bout, his face a mangled mess of welts, bumps, bruises and abrasions.
“I never had swelled before in a fight,” Cotto said through clenched teeth, as even discussions of anything pertaining to Margarito seemingly anger him.
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Despite that, Cotto initially didn’t make any connection between his bout with Margarito and the incident with the hand wraps in Mosley’s dressing room. Cotto fought Michael Jennings in New York on Feb. 21, 2009, only a month after the Mosley fight, and refused to speak of Margarito’s wraps in the buildup.
But not long after the Jennings bout, Cotto received photographs of Margarito celebrating his 2008 win over him. And in one, Cotto noticed something on one of Margarito’s ungloved hands that gave him pause: A reddish brown stain, similar to the one that had been confiscated from Margarito’s wraps at the Mosley fight.
Suddenly, it occurred to him that Margarito had used the pad before.
“If you don’t know what a criminal means, you can look it up in the dictionary,” Cotto said to Margarito at the final news conference Wednesday. “It’s someone who uses a weapon.”
Margarito’s victory the first time was won with relentless pressure. Margarito is, at his best, not hard to hit and in the first six rounds, Cotto raked him with hooks and straight right hands as Margarito charged in.
Shot after shot landed, but Margarito never kept pressing forward.
“Margarito broke Cotto’s will in that first fight,” said Margarito trainer Robert Garcia, who did not work the first bout. “He just put the pressure on him and Cotto couldn’t deal with it.”
It depends upon your viewpoint whether you believe that Margarito’s pressure was aided by something outside of the rules. Margarito insists he was clean, and Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said he has no evidence to support claims that anything untoward went on in regard to Margarito’s wraps that night.
Cotto, though, having examined those photographs, is unconvinced.
“Of course he did,” Cotto said. “He had the plaster with him when he fought me.”
Artificially aided or not, Margarito clearly began to take control of the first fight by its midpoint. He kept boring in and throwing punches at Cotto that were doing damage and setting the stage for the latter part of the bout.
Margarito never does well against fast-handed boxers such as Mosley, who stopped him in the ninth round, or Manny Pacquiao, who delivered a frightful beating en route to a unanimous decision victory when they met in Arlington, Texas, last year.
Against aggressive fighters like Cotto, though, it’s a different matter. Fighters who like to trade rarely do well with Margarito.
“Let’s be honest: Margarito is no great boxer,” promoter Bob Arum said. “Everybody knows that. He takes punches so that he can land his own and he just wears guys down.”
That’s what happened to Cotto. Margarito took what Cotto dished out, and it was a lot, but he never stopped barreling forward. Cotto simply had nothing to keep Margarito off of him.
“He hits like a little girl,” Margarito said, dismissively. “Super flyweights hit harder. He will never beat me.”
Perhaps the difference in the fight will be what each man has left in the tank. Every fighter can take only so many punches and each has been in grueling fights since. Margarito, who absorbed a great deal of abuse from Cotto, lost virtually every round to Mosley in 2009 and was knocked out in the ninth. And Pacquiao pummeled him so badly that Margarito broke the orbital bone in his right eye and needed multiple surgeries to repair it.
Cotto was beaten up by both Margarito and Pacquiao, sustaining significant damage in each. There are serious questions whether either man can regain the level he was at in 2008.
But in 2008, it was like two different fights, Cotto’s boxing controlling the first half and Margarito’s pressure dominating the second half. Cotto said he graded himself a 15 on a 1 to 10 scale in the first six rounds of his first fight with Margarito.
“In the second half of the fight, I’d give myself a minus-20,” Cotto said. “I made a lot of mistakes, but I know what they are and I’ve fixed them.”
It’s a hard fight to pick, because it’s hard to know what to expect from either man given the miles on the odometer.
If you have to bet, the only safe belt is to bet on blood: Lots and lots of blood.
It’s going to be that kind of a fight.
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