There’s been something of an evolution of the Antonio Margarito tale: What once was grotesque to many of us (and for some of it, it still is) has now become a dramatic storyline in advance of his rematch with Miguel Cotto Saturday night on HBO pay-per-view. If it was my call, Margarito wouldn’t have a license to box again after being discovered with loaded wraps prior to his 2008 bout with Shane Mosley. But that Cotto is convinced that Margarito used the wraps against him, too, has introduced an element of “Let’s find out if that Margarito win was for real” to the proceedings, and become a subject of nasty, angry exchanges between the two men. With the first fight such a classic, with both men a bit past their best and therefore matching up fairly evenly, with the controversy over Margarito’s injured eye nearly derailing the fight and with the victor hard to predict, this bout does have appeal for a lot of reasons — a lot to others, some to me.
There are still plenty of people who say they never will buy a Margarito fight because of what he did. Good for them; they’re voting with their pocketbooks. But after the last time Margarito fought, against Manny Pacquiao, it’s become clear that Margarito’s going to do big numbers even with the vocal campaign against him that I and some others waged. I therefore didn’t see the point this time. And while others disagree, Margarito’s obvious power against Pacquiao — some of which might have been due to a size differential, certainly — makes it seem less likely to me that he cheated more than once. Any cheating of that dangerousness is bad, but cheating once is better than cheating for the bulk of a career. Lastly, one other element of Pacquiao-Margarito that turned me off was that Margarito had done nothing in the ring to deserve a fight against the best boxer in the world. Margarito had more moments against Pacquiao than I thought he’d have, but it was a fight that ended up a one-sided thrashing. Margarito-Cotto II has more competitive merit.
About that “victor hard to predict” business:
These are two men who have made hard, hard livings in the boxing ring. Cotto has had wars with Ricardo Torres, Zab Judah, Joshua Clottey, Margarito and Pacquiao that are of the variety that shorten careers, and rarely has had an easy fight where he didn’t take a good number of flush punches. Margarito’s style of defense is “allow myself to get hit by every incoming shot,” and in three of his last four fights, he’s taken savage beatings: against Cotto in a win, against Mosley in a knockout and against Pacquiao in a fight that damaged his eye so badly it nearly ended his career and led to surgeries that make him now resemble Columbo.
The occasional fight between boxers past their primes with a great deal of hatred for one another (see: The Thrilla in Manila) have sometimes delivered classics and other times not (see: Bernard Hopkins-Roy Jones, Jr. II). That’s where we are here. It’s been hard for me to tell whether Cotto is fading badly or just a little; he’s not faced any opponents since Pacquiao who would prove it one way or the other, and struggling with Ricardo Mayorga like he did in his last fight is the kind of thing Mayorga has pulled off against a number of fighters. Margarito looked terrible against Mosley, but looked something like his old volume-punching self against Pacquiao; that might have had something to do with the match-up in both cases, though. But we haven’t seen Margarito in the ring since the Pacquiao beating, and while his sparring partners are singing his praises, you never hear a sparring partner leave the ring and go, “Yeah, he sucks. He’s going to get his ass kicked on fight night.”
On the most basic level, they are still similar to the fighters they were when they first met. Cotto is a boxer-puncher prone to getting dropped and wobbled. Margarito is a pure pressure brawler of negligible skill capable of absorbing jaw-dropping amounts of punishment in pursuit of his target. Cotto has abandoned a good amount of his body attack and appears more interested in working his jab these days. Margarito has, with new-ish trainer Robert Garcia, added the tiniest amount of subtlety to his all-out assault, but still can’t defend himself much and reverts to wildman pretty quickly when he gets hit.
My suspicion is that Cotto — by far the better boxer — has more in the tank than Margarito, but he’s got a few things going against him. Margarito’s body is more suited for the junior middleweight division than is Cotto’s. He switched trainers once more at the last minute before this fight, a bad habit he has that makes establishing consistency difficult. And mentally, I don’t like how much he’s talked in the lead-up to this fight how much he’ll be willing to quit should he fear his life is in danger. It’s not that his position is indefensible — hell, it’s downright smart — I just think that Margarito will come in with a psychological advantage as-is from the way he stopped Cotto last time, and Cotto talking up this stance makes me wonder where his head is at.
And I honestly think Cotto could have won the first fight if he’d done a couple things: Attacked Margarito’s body, and tied him up when Margarito got in close. All fight long, I kept yelling at Cotto, “You’re allowed to tie up your opponent within reason, Miguel.” Cotto obviously can fight his way off the ropes, as he showed for the bulk of the fight. But he couldn’t do it enough to keep the damage from Margarito’s up-close, non-stop combinations accumulating.
For all we know Margarito is too over-the-hill to seize the advantage over an opponent he’s gotten the better of, a la Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez IV, and for all we know Margarito’s first win WAS indeed fradulent. In that scenario, Cotto’s left hook targets Margarito’s damaged right eye and uses it to stop a fighter who’s a shell of the fighter we once knew. But I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on both counts and say he’ll seize the psychological advantage and exploit Cotto’s inability to use the correct tactics against Margarito and pull out a late stoppage win in a fight that is nearly identical to the first. I’m not sure which outcome I would enjoy less: confirmation that Margarito shouldn’t be in the ring, or a villainous character overcoming one of my long-time favorites.