In Antonio Margarito-Shane Mosley, on HBO Saturday night, we have the biggest fight of 2009 both to date and so far — there’s nothing else on the schedule as of now that touches it — and despite some growing sentiment Mosley has a chance, it may be a flat-out mismatch. When the idea of the bout was broached following Mosley’s rocky win over Ricardo Mayorga, a promoter unaffiliated with either fighter, the sharp and sharp-tongued Lou DiBella, quipped: “Margarito would put Shane in a pine box.”
I’ve gone back and forth on the idea myself. Even after Margarito, a big, prime welterweight (147 lbs.), crushed Miguel Cotto, I was saying Mosley, with his chin, speed, savvy and lateral movement, might be the man to dismantle boxing’s version of the Terminator. Then there was the Mayorga win where Mosley looked shaky. Then there’s the fact that Mosley is coming in to the ring with so many mental distractions it’s a wonder he doesn’t quit boxing and become a hermit. But then a great many smart writers give Mosley a real shot at winning.
So Mosley’s even either a live ‘dog or sure to be a dead one. But 18,000 people have bought tickets to find out, an eye-popping figure for a fight in the United States. And Mosley’s a Hall of Famer who even at his age still inhabits some pound-for-pound top-10 lists. And Margarito’s one of the most amazing attractions in the sport. And they’re among the top three welterweights on the planet, which means a lot, given that it’s probably boxing’s best division. And I expect it to be fun. (At least for a while.)
Mosley, at 37, undoubtedly has something left. The question is how much. The former lightweight (135 lbs.) great burst into the mainstream with a win in 2000 over Oscar De La Hoya. He’s a fighter’s fighter; despite his speed and boxing ability, he just has that instinct to brawl, and while he carried some of his prodigious lightweight power to higher divisions, it takes some bravery to be outgunned like he is sometimes and still trade blows the way he does. His run at the top ended two years after the De La Hoya win when he ran into old amateur rival Vernon Forrest, a tall, rangy foe who still had Mosley’s number from back in the day and beat him twice in a row. Winning a 2003 rematch with De La Hoya helped him bounce back, but running into Winky Wright got him another two losses in a row. From 2005 to 2007 he rebuilt his career with wins over folk like Fernando Vargas and Luis Collazo, and then waged a 2007 Fight of the Year candidate with the young, hungry Cotto. He narrowly lost.
It’s hard to pinpoint when or if Mosley began his decline. Some thought he didn’t look all that good following the Wright losses, and some saw signs of Mosley heading downhill during the Cotto fight. I saw the opposite, but the nearly year-long layoff after the Cotto bout surely didn’t help. Nor did fighting Mayorga at junior middleweight (154 lbs.), where Mosley has never looked really comfortable. I thought, even under the circumstances, Mosley would destroy Mayorga, who’s fun, moderately dangerous and sells tickets but had become a punching bag for the elites. Mosley had all kinds of trouble with him. To me, Mosley looked like a faded fighter. I could be wrong. Rust, Mayorga’s awkwardness, the unfavorable weight and Mosley’s clashes with his trainer-father Jack all could explain that night. But my skepticism about Mosley’s chances against Margarito begin with that fight, and continues with the ongoing father-son drama; unspecified marital problems with his wife-manager, Jin; and the louder volume of questions about Mosley’s steroid use since details have emerged about his testimony on his 2003 use (unwitting, Mosley says).
Margarito, at 30, even after his ring wars that date back to his teenage years, is, by contrast, better than ever. His 2008 was a Fighter of the Year-caliber campaign. I started as a skeptic of Margarito. He is slow. He has no defense whatsoever. I knew he was good, I just wasn’t a member of the small but vocal minority who thought he could be a major force in the sport. I’m now utterly convinced. He has arrived. His trademark style is a sight to behold: Every Margarito fight starts with his opponent connecting with flush punches that would kill an elephant, which he promptly ignores. As the fight wears on, his unbelievable volume of punches wear down those same opponents, giving them a helpless look that is vaguely amusing and sad. Usually, they effectively give up. It’s what he did to Kermit Cintron early in the year, who was clobbering Margarito with nasty business before Margarito’s work rate and chin caught up to him, whereupon Margs took over and caved in his ribs with one of those body punches that you can feel just by watching it. Cotto lasted longer in the summer, and dished out the most vicious beating of Margarito’s career. But Margarito, as always, was stronger in the end, and Cotto suffered his first loss, bloodied and unwilling to continue.
Margarito’s career definitely is on no decline, but it’s plausible it’s in mid-letdown. It’s not uncommon for a fighter to score a career-best win and then slack off a little. It’s the old “silk pajamas” problem. The “Rocky 3” problem. Margarito’s made it. He gets love from every Mexican he meets. Is the hunger to prove everyone wrong still there? I also do wonder if the Cotto beating didn’t take a little out of him. Margarito possesses punch resistance that is inhuman, but at some point, some day, it’s got to catch up to him, right? Jose Luis Castillo was never the same after the Diego Corrales fight, and it wasn’t just the ending that did that to him. It was the whole fight. And Castillo, coming into that fight, had the same kind of granite chin Margarito does.
I suspect the man who beats this version of Margarito — the super-charged version who learned his lesson about starting late following a loss to Paul Williams — has some of the attributes Mosley does. He’s obviously got to be able to take a punch, which Mosley can do, since he’s hardly even ever been in trouble. He’s obviously got to have considerable stamina, which Mosley has even without any steroid allegations, since he had enough left on his punches to knockout Mayorga in the final second of their fight. He’s got to have great lateral movement, which Mosley has shown when he decides he wants to outbox rather than outfight his man. Williams had all that stuff, and he still barely beat the slow-starting version of Margarito.
I also think being taller than Margarito helped Williams keep him at bay, too, and Mosley, who’s shorter than Margs, has had trouble with taller opponents. And I think excellent defense is vital with Margarito, which is something Joshua Clottey had when he gave Margs fits early in their fight. Eventually, Margs’ swarming style catches up to everyone, but you’re far better off against him if fewer of those punches are getting through. Mosley’s fighting instincts obscure any good defense he has, but you have to figure training with Nazim Richardson, the man in the corner of defensive master Bernard Hopkins, helps.
A major problem is, when I hear Mosley talk about his strategy, I don’t hear him saying that he’s going to stay on the outside, pick his spots, keep moving. I hear him saying he’s going to be on the inside, that he’s going to trade body shots, that he knows how to fight Mexican boxers (it’s got something to do with “pace”) and that he’s going to knock Margarito out. The margin of error with that approach is extremely thin. He’s already got so much going against him, and Margarito has so much going for him. It’s a little like fighting an alligator and deciding the best way to do it is to step directly into his mouth, rather than climbing on his back, staying out of the way of his weaponry and wrestling him until the struggle’s over. And the stakes are high for Mosley — he could take a career-ending beating, given the circumstances. Even if Margarito loses, he knows that Arum says a Cotto rematch is up next no matter what. It’ll make things interesting early on if Mosley goes the route of direct confrontation. But if it doesn’t work, it could get tragic really fast.
My prediction: Antonio Margarito by decision. Nobody’s knocked out Mosley before, so I don’t see Margs doing it. Nor do I see Mosley deciding to fight straight-on for very long. My prediction is that Mosley will go toe-to-toe a little bit, then realize it isn’t working and back off, as he did against Cotto. But Margarito won’t want to box Mosley the way Cotto did — he’ll just keep coming. Then we’ll get the traditional cat-and-mouse game we get from a Margarito fight.
Confidence: 80%. I think a Margarito knockout is more likely than a Mosley win. I just think everything will have to go perfectly for Mosley if he’s going to be victorious. He’ll have to be sharper than he was in his last fight. He’ll have to employ defensive accumen he’s never before employed. He’ll have to catch Margarito on an off night and have one of those B-Hop vs. Pavlik nights where he looks like the younger man. And he’ll have to resist the urge to fight rather than box. I don’t see all of those things happening. Maybe some. But not all. De La Hoya showed a great chin his whole career before Manny Pacquiao made him look old and his corner pulled the plug; Mosley may find himself in the same predicament.
My allegiance: Margarito. I continue to be torn over Mosley, whose in-ring bravery I admire but whose cover story about his steroid use taints his image as a classy, upstanding guy. I’m not Margarito’s biggest fan — I think he’s ducking Willi
ams, for instance — but he’s good television and a fighter whose style I can’t help but respect.