I’d gathered from many boxing fans that they were all quite sick of talking about Antonio Margarito and his loaded hand wraps, a multi-year saga that’s been debated endlessly over that period. So when Texas granted him a boxing license Thursday to clear the path for a November fight with Manny Pacquiao — which was all but a foregone conclusion — it didn’t seem to be cause for reopening the book on him. But now everyone’s talking about it anew, and it’s going to be an impetus for some mainstream media attention, so here we go again! Yaaaay.
For those of you just joining the story, here’s the background: In January of 2009, before Margarito’s welterweight bout with Shane Mosley, Mosley’s trainer raised questions about Margarito’s hand wraps, whereupon they were confiscated and later discovered to contain foreign substances that essentially added up to — without getting too scientific — plaster. Margarito had been considered one of the top five boxers on the planet prior to the incident; he was knocked out that night by Mosley. California revoked his license, and since states usually honor each other’s suspensions, he was effectively banned from fighting in the United States. Margarito took and won a low-level fight in Mexico at junior middleweight, then applied for a license in Nevada, which told him to go back to California, which again rejected him. Texas, though, approved.
Here’s some of the stuff people are saying about it in Margarito’s favor, and my rebuttals.
People who are opposed to Margarito getting a license are soft do-gooders. This isn’t an argument as much as a bit of playground mockery, with Margarito defenders decrying the “hand-wringing” and “crying” and using various religious-related metaphors depicting people opposed to Margarito’s relicensing as self-appointed priests of morality. God forbid anyone should actually care about boxers’ safety without being considered a self-important whiner. Oops! I accidentally slipped up in that last sentence and showed that I think I’m a saint and everyone who disagrees with me is Satan. Nah, I’d say most of us anti-license types really just genuinely think something wrong happened here and want to speak out about it. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else — I just happen to think this particular incident is a bad thing. And if the pro-Margarito camp can accept that I genuinely think it’s a bad thing, then surely I have a right to express my opinion as such. After all, they can’t stop saying how bad WE are. If you think there’s no judgment of moral superiority involved in portraying Margarito critics as “self-serving” and such, then I’m afraid you’ve got a double standard.
Margarito served his time, so he should be free to fight. Dickie Cole, Texas’ program manager of combat sports, took this tack, as have many others. It’s not accurate, nor would it be a good metaphor if it were. You see, California revoked the license of Margarito. This wasn’t a “here’s your one-year sentence, when one year is up you can fight in California again” situation. No, he merely got the chance a year later to try to get his license back. That’s very different. As for the metaphor — it’s true that people who serve jail sentences get a chance to start fresh when they get out of the slammer. But being a former felon comes with some restrictions of some fundamental rights, such as, say, voting. Most importantly, there’s zero likelihood someone who stole from a bank would ever be allowed to work in a bank after getting out of jail. It’s not that I don’t think Margarito shouldn’t be able to make a living (as though he never made a dime, by the way, when in fact he’s received millions of dollars in purses). I just don’t think he should be able to do it in boxing. He committed a fundamental violation, and his time should be over.
There’s no proof that Margarito knew about the bad wraps. This one’s true. There’s also no proof that he DIDN’T know trainer Javier Capetillo was loading his wraps, although it’s the case that no one has testified he behaved like he did. Overlooked in some of this is that, according to one account, at Margarito’s testimony last year, he “cited that he has always paid attention to how his hands are wrapped and claimed that Capetillo has been his sole hand wrapper during their 11 year career together.” OK, so maybe it just slipped through this one time, even though he always paid attention. A handful of trainers have said it’s possible, repeat, possible he didn’t know; far more people have said it is hard to imagine how he couldn’t have known. Later, I’ll touch on some reasons to doubt Margarito’s tale. But look, it’s secondary.
If he didn’t know, he shouldn’t be punished anymore. Short of a whistleblower coming forward and saying Margarito confessed to knowing about the wraps, we’ll never know what’s in his head. And that’s why the California regulations make a boxer responsible for his equipment and what goes in his body. It’s why you can be penalized for failing a drug test in virtually any sport, regardless of whether you “knew” about it, because it’s too easy to claim someone else than the athlete did the misdeed; it can’t be proven or disproved in most cases. I’m not saying whether Margarito knew or not shouldn’t have any impact on the lenience or severity of his punishment. What I’m saying is that it’s secondary, because he’s the one ultimately responsible for a terrible misdeed, whether he knew or not. It’s that misdeed, for which he is responsible, that demands a harsher punishment than one year.
California’s commission sucks. This one’s kind of my favorite, because it’s funny. A number of people have suggested California has no business persecuting Margarito, because its own house isn’t clean. Some have raised the failure of inspectors to discover the illegal wraps until Mosley’s trainer Naazim Richardson acted. Thomas Hauser reported in his piece that California has allowed 17 boxers on medical suspension elsewhere to fight in their state. (He also said: “California should stop trying to dictate how the rest of the country conducts business and get its own house in order.” I’m not aware of them trying to “dictate” to anyone, other than by not licensing Margarito, which usually means other states honor that ruling, and I can’t see why they should avoid making policy for themselves based on what other people might do in response. And no matter how poor their enforcement effort has been vis-a-vis other states, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to express their opinion to other states about what should happen with one of their cases.) Both the original failures of the inspectors, and the poor enforcement related to medically-suspended fighters — the latter of which is exceptionally troubling, given the portion of overall cases California’s responsible for — are things that California needs to fix. But what are they supposed to do? Throw their hands up and say, “Well, nobody’s perfect, right? We screwed up on those 17 boxers, and frankly Naazim Richardson is better than us. Hey, you’re free to go Margarito. We’ll hold you accountable the second we’re batting 1.000.” Hilarious.
Nobody’s ever heard of a sparring license, so it doesn’t matter that Margarito didn’t have one. People can’t let this one go. I’m not saying it matters much, but it matters some. Margarito was required to have a sparring license, and he didn’t — which undermined his argument that he knew what was going on with his team these days, which was central to his argument that he could be trusted to know what was going into his wraps. And people, including Hauser, are still getting it wrong: Under California’s rules, by my reading and that of others, a sparring license is only required for boxers who aren’t otherwise licensed. So it doesn’t matter whether Pacquiao has a sparring license, because he’s a regularly licensed boxer.
Margarito faced a Catch 22. Hauser brought this one up. But I honestly don’t know where he got his information. I can’t find any evidence in this play-by-play of the hearing by Scott Christ at BLH that the commissioners demanded Margarito apologize for knowingly loading his gloves despite his insistence that he didn’t know. It’s obviously the case that many of them doubted his story, but I also watched all the final statements, and narrated it via gchat to friend of the site nazarioz, and nowhere do I quote a commissioner as saying, “He needs to apologize for knowing he loaded his gloves.”
(This pains me to say but must be said: When Hauser is at the top of his game, he really is the best of the best, as he showed earlier this week. But it has literally been years since he wrote an article that affects Top Rank Promotions that I can find or recall that wasn’t sympathetic or outright advantageous to the company. I despise questioning people’s motives without hard evidence, but it seems like an exceptional investigative reporter like Hauser could find something that Top Rank has done in the last several years that deserved negative attention or scrutiny. I simply cannot trust any piece he does about Top Rank, because by all outward appearances he is completely biased in the company’s favor. In this case, it is very much in Top Rank’s favor for Hauser to be writing pieces explaining why Margarito shouldn’t be punished further, since an unlicensed Margarito means a lot less money for Top Rank, and, in fact, Top Rank’s Bob Arum and Margarito’s lawyer have repeatedly quoted from a recent Hauser piece on Margarito. I will always critique Hauser’s work based on the work, not the person, but this simply needed to be said at this juncture, because people are using Hauser’s name to instill credibility in their positions.)
Margarito’s re-licensing sets a bad precedent. One of the best reasons any California commissioner gave in rejecting a license for Margarito goes something like this: a mere one-year suspension may be a risk a boxer is willing to take if loading one’s gloves can result in a big payday afterward. Most top boxers only fight a couple times a year, anyway, and a big win can mean millions of dollars for one’s next fight. Even without a big win, Margarito is about to be awarded a shot at one of the two biggest stars in the sport, guaranteeing him a massive, career-high payday. What disincentive is there is for other boxers not to follow in Margarito’s path? There isn’t any. And, generally, I’m not fond of other jurisdictions not honoring another’s suspension. There are exceptions, but this isn’t one of them. In a big case like this, a commission should at least very carefully consider whether breaking from that tradition is worthwhile. Texas didn’t weigh it carefully in the slightest. Margarito paid $20 and there wasn’t even a hearing.
What Margarito did was about the most dangerous kind of cheating a boxer could do in the ring. No conscientious fan likes steroids. But I’m not aware of any instances of boxers using steroids and sending someone to the hospital; performance-enhancing drugs in boxing appear to have more of an effect on a boxer’s stamina or ability to recover from injury. Tampering with gloves — now that’s something that’s done some damage over the years. Billy Collins’ career was ended by what Luis Resto and Panama Lewis did to Resto’s gloves that night in 1983. People who like the idea of Margarito being relicensed tend to say, “How come nobody complained this loudly about Mosley’s steroid use?” I’d answer that a great many people complained pretty loudly about it. But if the volume wasn’t as high, it’s because one kind of cheating has a track record of permanent harm that the other doesn’t as of yet.
Margarito and his team have never had a consistent story. Something people must forget when they decide to trust Margarito’s word is how inconsistent his story has been. Initially, his team claimed the wraps were simply balled-up gauze. Then they said his hands were just wrapped too tight. Then they said the offending material was old gauze that got humid and hardened. Then they said his hands were just wrapped too high. Then they said it was just an old insert, one that was harder because it was for hitting a sand bag. Then — this brings us to March of this year — they said the offending substance was hand cream. I don’t know about anyone else, but I consider all this very suspicious. At any rate, it doesn’t exactly fill me with trust. You can review all the excuses by clicking these links.
Margarito might have done this before. There is also sufficient cause for suspicion, albeit no proof, that Margarito might have loaded his gloves in the past, which would cast into doubt the notion that this was a one-time event he couldn’t have known about. There’s the fact that his knockout record took off extraordinarily later in his career, when he fought tougher competition; usually, knockout ratios start off high against crappy fighters and go down against elite opponents. Kermit Cintron, who’s twice fought Margarito, said his punches felt unnatural. It certainly isn’t normal for a boxer to punch another boxer’s ear off to the point it’s hanging off his head, which Margarito did to Sebastian Lujan. Miguel Cotto’s face was grotesquely swollen after Margarito beat him. At least one boxer who sparred with Margarito, Rashad Holloway, said he suffered a fractured orbital bone in sparring from a punch unlike any he’d ever felt before. Holloway’s trainer, Freddie Roach, was convinced that Margarito used illegal wraps during the sparring session. A photo that surfaced of Margarito after the Cotto bout showed Margarito wearing a hand wrap with a similar discoloration to the one found on the wraps before the Mosley fight, which led Cotto to believe Margarito’s gloves had to be loaded the night they fought. And in Margarito’s two fights since his illegal wraps were discovered, his punches have demonstrated nothing of the powerful effect they once did. There are counter-arguments to every single thing I just pointed out. But isn’t it worrisome that there’s so much of it? And if you have to explain away every single incident, how confident can you be that the more likely explanation is that he very well might have loaded his gloves in the past?
This will look bad for boxing. Pacquiao-Margarito will generate major mainstream media attention. Much of that attention will be focused on how Margarito, a confirmed cheater, is Pacquiao’s opponent rather than the opponent everyone wanted, Floyd Mayweather. Mayweather’s more to blame for the latter condition than anyone else, but Pacquiao, Margarito and Top Rank have no one but themselves to blame when the shitstorm of negative publicity comes down on them for making this particular fight instead. Maybe you don’t care what anyone else thinks of boxing. But when the sport has a more negative public profile, fewer people watch, and when fewer people watch, boxers make less money, and boxing people at HBO can’t justify their budgets, and that means less boxing and lower-quality boxing in the long-run. Here’s the forest. There are the trees. Pacquiao-Margarito will make decent money when it happens. But is what Pacquiao-Margarito gives boxing more than what it takes away? No chance.