It has been three days since news broke that the California Department of Justice determined Antonio Margarito had ingredients of plaster of Paris in his hand wraps before he went out to fight Shane Mosley Jan. 24. I’d withheld final judgment, since only one news outlet reported it; since the report mentions the presence of two ingredients, sulfur and calcium, but not the third, oxygen — and readily available as that element might be, it’s unclear why the DOJ wouldn’t just call the substance plaster of Paris if it were plaster of Paris; and since the California State Athletic Commission has yet to remark publicly about the lab results.
For three days there has been only silence from the involved parties. But there is one regard in which that silence is most damning. Margarito, in a recent interview, would not discuss the lab report. Two different outlets have reported that promoter Bob Arum, whose defense of Margarito has had an air of religious fanaticism, declined to comment on the report. At first he said he hadn’t seen it. But surely he’s looked at it by now. And that appeal Margarito’s lawyers planned of his license revocation is nowhere to be seen or heard from.
All of this quiet leaves me with no alternative to conclude that the former #1 welterweight in the world, a man who’d become a hero to Mexican fans, a boxer who had ascended to the elite ranks of the best fighters in the sport, is guilty beyond defense. And even if, by some strange coincidence, this was the first time Margarito and his trainer Javier Capetillo loaded his gloves — Miguel Cotto’s face, above, is exhibit A in the unlikelihood of such a coincidence — it still ranks among the worst scandals in the history of a sport that has had its share. It is a scandal that has its heroes, like Mosley trainer Nazim Richardson, but that tarnishes many: Margarito, obviously, but also Arum, one of the most powerful figures in boxing for decades.
At minimum, Margarito and his team have tried to cheat once. This much we know. Comparisons to Billy Collins-Luis Resto are valid, since that, too, involved plaster of Paris according to Resto. But neither Collins nor Resto were at the top of the sport the way Margarito was prior to this scandal. Also comparable are the stories about Jack Dempsey loading his gloves with plaster of Paris prior to his destruction of Jess Willard. But many boxing historians question whether the tales were an invention of Dempsey’s trainer, a known provacateur. Margarito’s plaster of Paris use is confirmed. I’m not saying Margarito’s situation trumps them. I’m just saying it has nasty things going for it that others don’t, and that it’s in the class of some of the worst of boxing’s worst.
The thing is, it may be worse that we’ll ever know. I can make an argument that this was just a one-time thing. It goes like this: Margarito, having trouble making weight after over-celebrating following his career best victory over Cotto, felt he needed an edge just this once. The clumsy, fumbling manner in which Capetillo was busted suggests he wasn’t adept at cheating, and the clumsy, fumbling manner in which Margarito and Capetillo defended themselves after getting caught frankly makes them seem too dumb to be successful career criminals. The lack of punching power Margarito exhibited against Mosley is proof not of prior cheating, but only of his weight difficulties and difficulty connecting cleanly on a competent defender. His late-career power surge can be attributed to constant improvement; after all, look at the way he improved even after the Paul Williams loss, when he began starting fights faster instead of building up steam only for the end.
But I have to tell you, it was hard for me to even make the argument. The only thing I believe in what I just wrote was the notion that Margarito was weight-drained for the Mosley fight and that he indeed took it upon himself to fight faster early in fights after the Williams loss.
If you need evidence that Margarito and Capetillo could get away with this scheme despite their stupidity, look no further than the fact that the CSAC inspector on duty didn’t notice the illegal wraps. Richardson did. Maybe Margarito improved over time, but in six of his first 12 wins, he scored knockouts. Usually, that’s when a fighter gets the most KOs. Eight of those 12 opponents had losing records. Against elite competition late in his career — Cotto, Josh Clottey, Kermit Cintron, others — his knockout ratio is went way up, to 10 knockouts in his latest 12 wins. It is counterintuitive at best. Then there are all those reasonable assumptions about whether someone who cheated once cheated just that once. And just the appearance of Cotto’s face, which Cotto said was swollen for longer than after any other fight he’d been in, abnormally so. And the time Margarito ripped Sebastian Lujan’s ear half of his head with mere punches. And the way Freddie Roach pulled one of his fighters, Rashad Holloway, out of sparring with Margarito after suspecting Margarito’s gloves were loaded, with Holloway’s orbital bone being broken, his vision blurred and his face numbed after being hit with what he said felt like “a bag of rocks.” And the way most people who have long watched Margarito have always felt his punches didn’t look like they were that kind of devastating-hard.
Margarito’s “I didn’t know about it” excuse has fallen off the radar, so that carries less water than it once did. But considering that his excuse already was so unbelievable, it’s less so in conjunction with the argument that this was the first time. Every fighter who’s ever spoken about this, and even weekend warriors writing about this on message boards, have said they know when their hand wraps have changed. They can feel the difference. That leaves two options: He’s was lying when he said he didn’t know, or else every single hand wrap he’s had over the course of his career has had plaster of Paris on his fists without him knowing.
I’d called early on only for a multi-year suspension, license revocation and substantial fine. But now that the incontrovertible evidence of loaded gloves is upon us, I’m feeling more like the book should be thrown at him than ever. All of the mitigating factors — the possibility that Margarito didn’t know, the fact that he didn’t get away with his scheme — have either fallen to the side or seem less mitigating than they did when this was theoretical. Margarito should banned for life. Capetillo should be banned for life. Maybe both will be banned for life, de facto, since they’ll have to reapply for their licenses, and it’s hard to imagine how they get them back. But officially issuing a lifetime ban would send the right signal to the boxing world that this kind of thing can’t be tolerated. And I’d like criminal charges to be brought against both. And investigations opened in every state in which Margarito has fought.
The individual losers and winners in this are numerous.
The biggest loser is Capetillo. He is the most red-handed. I recently raised questions about junior flyweight Giovanni Segura for employing Capetillo post-suspension. Anyone who Capetillo trains from here on out warrants skepticism. He’s that much of a pox upon boxing. Maybe he’ll keep getting business in Mexico, where regulators don’t appear bothered by much of anything, but he’s finished in the United States.
Margarito is not far behind. Every win of his career deserves to be questioned. It is extremely likely that the whole career is a mirage. And it’s a mirage built on the suffering of fighters he beat that probably would have gone on to better things than if they hadn’t had setback losses against Margarito. That he recently refused to talk about the lab results but laid out his future plans for a rematch with Mosley or Cotto suggests he may be out of his mind, too. That is delusional talk, barring a dramatic reversal of the evidence that you couldn’t write believably into “Days of Our Lives.” He may fight again in Mexico, but in the span of about six months, he went from very near the top of the sport to pariah.
Arum is a particularly galling case. He went so far as to accuse the CSAC of issuing the suspension based solely on the fact that Margarito was Mexican. Arum leveled charges of racism against public officials who did the right thing, and he did it in the service of defending a boxer who, were he to end up in jail for what he did, nobody would feel very sorry for him. Arum is one of the top two promoters in the sport now, and at times has been the most powerful of them all. I spend a fair amount of time criticizing Arum in this space because I think he gets a free ride from a lot of writers, although I also acknowledge when Arum does something well. But his defense of Margarito is one of the two worst stains on his whole career, second only to his admitted bribing of the IBF during the 1990s. That such a powerful figure in boxing would defend this kind of behavior is evidence of a sport that is still, in many ways, deeply dysfunctional. And you can say, “Well, he was just sticking up for his guy,” but when I’ve stuck up for friends who’ve done horrible things before, it was always with the acknowledgment that they did those horrible things or a strong conviction based on the facts that they didn’t. If Arum didn’t do a thorough vetting of the facts here prior to sticking up for Margarito, he was blind. If he did a thorough vetting of the facts and believed Margarito was guilty of something, he should have pressed Margarito to come clean then argued that Margarito deserved a less-harsh punishment for admitting his wrongdoing. If he did a thorough vetting of the facts and believed Margarito had done nothing wrong, he is an idiot — and I think we all know that, whatever Arum’s flaws, he’s a brilliant man, so this “if/then” doesn’t even make any sense. At least he’s stopped talking now.
o’s fans, amongst whom I counted myself after being a non-believer for years, are big losers here as well. He let us down. Of course, we almost surely never would have been fans if he was just an average fighter who didn’t triumph in the specific way he did. But if you liked Margarito, you feel betrayed now. The fans who defended him when all the evidence was against him may have loyalty going for them, but there’s loyalty and then there’s the kind of denial that is born more of a kind of zealotry than anything. I hope people who have been burned by sticking up for Margarito will realize it’s one thing to be a fan of a boxer, but it’s another thing to think a boxer is infallible. There are backers of Margarito and Arum in the press who have been stunningly quiet. I’m generally a big fan of Maxboxing, for instance, but in its own forums, Maxboxing has come under heavy fire for treating the Margarito scandal like, in the words of one reader, “a non-story.” There are too many boxing outlets and writers who have been far too slow to treat this whole affair like the sorry incident that it is, and I think that is born of a stubborn refusal to admit they were wrong about Margarito, or an unwillingness to turn on a source like Arum, whose temper is legendary.
There are some smaller losers in all this. One that comes to mind is Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission who was quick to defend his state as a place where it would be impossible to cheat the way Margarito did. Instead, Kizer should have — and still should — undertake an investigation, no matter how difficult it might be to prove anything, about what happened in the Cotto fight. Roach should have come forward with his allegations immediately, not waited until after Margarito was busted. What if someone had gotten hurt because of his silence? The other losers are hypothetical: anyone in the Margarito camp who knew this was going on and didn’t come forward before, during or after.
There is a class of folk who are somewhere between winners and losers. The CSAC did the right thing to revoke Margarito’s license, but its inspectors should have caught the initial cheating. Anyone who lost to Margarito, like Cintron and Clottey, has had his career permanently altered by those losses. But anyone who held those losses against them should no longer. They are losses that are now more excusable than ever.
Cotto is one of those who lost to Margarito, but he emerges, for me, as a full winner in this. There is little evidence that the loss to Margarito has done much damage to him mentally or physically. He may have lost a little steam on his career, but the turnout for his last fight, a “get-well” fight against a against a no-hoper, was pretty good, all things considered. Like the others, his loss to Margarito is now more excusable than ever. What gives him a little bit more of a “W” is the way he has conducted himself throughout this entire scandal. He has behaved in a way that commands respect. He has made no inflammatory, over-the-top allegations, responding with a simultaneous grace and firmness that has drawn raves. His threat to leave Arum is wholly understandable, and while there are skeptics that he could successfully promote himself on his own, Cotto would look like a patsy if he’d stood by a promoter who abandoned him in favor of defending Margarito.
Richardson is one of the biggest heroes. Not only did he bust Margarito and Capetillo, but he led Mosley to a knockout victory over Margarito. I hardly ever root for a fighter to get hurt in the ring, and never root for a fighter to get hurt badly. But Mosley dished out a little justice on Margarito’s noggin, and he did it with a big assist from Richardson. It is with some small measure of satisfaction that I view Margarito’s knockout loss. Anyone who beat Margarito under this cloud — Williams, even Daniel Santos — ought to look even better now, given that they may very well have overcome an opponent fighting them with weapons in his hands.
While some news outlets have underperformed, the Los Angeles Times, particularly Lance Pugmire, has done incredible work on the Margarito story. He has reported every development prominently and, more often than not, before all the competition. Some other reporters have had breaks in the story, too, like Kevin Iole, but Pugmire and the Times deserve special commendation.
There is a part of me that is nonetheless slightly thankful that this scandal hasn’t gotten much attention. If anyone was paying attention, they’d be pointing at it and screaming the old cliches about how boxing is corrupt. I’m not of the mind it’s any more corrupt than most other sports these days, but this scandal reflects very poorly on the sport as a whole. It has been my belief, though, that it must be called attention to, because in my own small way, I try to both tell it like I see it and shine sunlight on that which I feel needs sunlight, be it a good boxer who’s not getting enough love or a wrong that ought to be criticized. This scandal has reached the point where some of the caveats can be ditched. But as I’ve said before, there’s still a lot more we don’t know, and much more than we should try to find out. If the sport does this right, we’ll still be writing about what Margarito did for a while longer. And no matter what happens, it ought to be remembered forever as a black mark on boxing.