Friday, August 1, 2008

Duel in the Sun

Their future is so bright they've gotta' wear shades. Challenger Antonio Margarito (left) and WBA 147-pound champion Miguel Cotto are smiling now, but things are going to turn serious once the two square off in "The Battle" at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

On Saturday night, soon after Michael Buffer hits the final note on what will surely be another stirring introduction, the timekeeper will strike the bell for round one and the gong will slice through the 100 degree heat of the Las Vegas night. Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito will be ready to rumble.

Over the past few months, Cotto and Margarito have been asked thousands of questions from scribes in San Juan, newshounds in New York, listeners in Los Angeles and correspondents in Canada.

But one final question is going to be asked inside the ring set up in the middle of “The House That Tyson Built” and once Cotto and Margarito move toward one another in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, it will then be time to answer one question for themselves.

The question, of course, is “How much do I want this?”

Simply put, Cotto versus Margarito, Puerto Rico versus Mexico, aptly billed as “The Battle” is that type of fight. Both men will be tested and when the smoke clears on this desert shootout one of them is going to have passed the ultimate test.

“I’m here to fight the big names, the real fighters in my division and Margarito is one of them. I know this is going to be a great fight,” says the poker-faced, 27-year old Cotto of Saturday’s collision between the the world's top two weltwerweight gunslingers.

Cotto, of course, has scorched a trail through two weight divisions, is the undefeated star of the welterweights, is ranked in the top five of the pound-for-pound lists and everything he has accomplished over the past seven years is at risk in this standoff.

Twenty paces away, in the other corner, hailing from a dusty Tijuana, Mexico barrio is the stereotypical story of a once poverty-stricken fighter that has used his fists to fight his way up and out. He speaks no English, has a menacing sneer, has won a slice of the welterweight pie two times and he is the most dangerous type of an hombre that exists.

A gangly, angular welterweight with inky black hair, stringy arms and a face framed with a pencil thin goatee, Margarito began fighting grown men for money when he was just a boy of sixteen. If you see him on the street walking around at over 170 pounds you would never guess that he is able to squeeze his broad shoulders into the suit of a 147-pound assassin, or that he has knocked out twenty-six men.

A confident Margarito stands in front of a bus in Las Vegas the day before he and Cotto get it on inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Margarito, though, is not without flaws and he appeared relatively ordinary in successive fights against the unheralded Joshua Clottey (in a fight he won) and then he was outpointed over twelve rounds by Paul Williams. It is these fights that Cotto supporters point to when they talk about Saturday night and it is here where they see their best hope for Cotto to return to Puerto Rico as the victor.

But like a virtual tornado, Margarito has stormed back from the Clottey and Williams struggles to viciously dispatch Golden Johnson in one round and then knock out Kermit Cintron in six rounds in their rematch. For those that see weakness in Margarito - he comes into this fight riding on the coattails of two of his most impressive performances.

Although some question Margarito’s ability, there is no mistaking the fact that he is a top-flight talent. This is one of the best match-ups that could have been made in all of boxing. It is also a fight that revives and continues the longstanding rivalry between Puerto Rican and Mexican fighters. It’s a fact not lost on the expressionless Cotto who perked up a bit when this subject was broached.

“I believe the Puerto Rican - Mexican rivalry means a lot,” he says. “Not just for me, but for all the Puerto Rican fans and all of the Mexican fans, and I think, all of the boxing fans in the world. The Margarito fans and the Miguel Cotto fans have the chance to maintain the rivalry. That’s because the way the ancestors of us have made the fights between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. I think that we have in our hands the privilege to write another chapter with this fight.”

Cotto is the overwhelming favorite to come away with the victory. In a recent poll of nearly 60 boxing writers and media members from around the world, (including this one) only seven picked Margarito to win. That should not be seen as a slap in the face to the “Tijuana Tornado” but more of an acknowledgement that Cotto is perceived as the type of special talent that comes along only once a generation.

Miguel Cotto is a popular fellow and his loyal fans will pay big bucks to have his "John Hancock" on a boxing glove.

“There’s going to be a lot written about this fight,” said promoter Bob Arum. It’s like an old-time throwback. This is like when Tommy fought Leonard and when Hagler fought Hearns. This really brings me back to the old days. It’s going to be a great night.”

Many, however, question Arum's wisdom in putting Cotto into harm's way with an animal such as Margarito, whom he also promotes.

“Miguel has never, ever ducked anybody,” says Arum of one his shining stars, the other two being Manny Pacquiao and Kelly Pavlik.

“One thing you always know about Miguel Cotto is that he is always in top condition and is always prepared to give 110% in the ring. He beat Zab in Zab’s hometown and he beat Shane Mosley. What more can I say?”

For Margarito, who is now on center stage and in the bright spotlight that a major pay-per view card will shine on him, it's a do-or-die proposition. This is his crossroads fight. Should he lose he remains without a title belt and anonymous to casual boxing fans. Should he win it propels him forward, likely onto the pound-for-pound rankings, and into the big money.

And despite his accomplishments and success in the boxing ring, Antonio Margarito does live a life of anonymity.

Let me relay a brief personal story to you. The morning after Oscar De La Hoya knocked out Ricardo Mayorga in May 2006, this writer was waiting in line for a car to the airport. I turned around and standing there in the same line, dressed in black from head-to-toe, was Margarito.

Not one person asked him for a photo or an autograph and this was Las Vegas mind you - the boxing capital of the world - where the night before nearly 15,000 boxing fans had just been milling about.

Once I arrived at the airport and had cleared security I was waiting for a flight to Phoenix, Arizona.

Coincidentally, awaiting for the same delayed flight was Margarito. As he sat quietly flipping through the pages of a boxing magazine, not a soul recognized that he was the then WBO Welterweight champion of the world. No one asked for a picture. No one asked for an autograph.

So for Antonio Margarito to go forward, this is a fight that he has to win.

“The time is finally here,” says Margarito of his struggle for his place in the sun.

Until now Margarito has been avoided by the marquee names of the sport; especially names such as Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. As a result, Margarito has also missed out on the really big money that comes along with fighting the really big names.

“I want to show everyone that I am still in the best moments of my career," says the 30-year old Margarito. "I don’t think this will be the most difficult fight of my career but I think it will be the most important. I believe it’s going to be a tough fight, it’s going to be a difficult fight. But I do believe I’m going to be victorious and I believe it will open a lot of doors for even bigger fights.”

What is certain is that winning or losing a boxing match can be a life changing experience. On Saturday night, Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito are going to be asked to give some answers to some difficult questions.

Whoever can provide the best answer to the question, "How much do I want this?" will be the victor of this duel in the sun. They will also be the one that happily rides off into the Nevada sunset like a heroic gunslinger in an old western.

July 2008


Anonymous said...

Great article. I know Kermit Cintron and saw both of his fights against Margarito. I know there are a lot of people who feel Kerm is a "limited fighter" but I offer this response.
WIthout his 2 losses to Margarito, he is 29-0 with 27 KO's! Other than the man of steel with the granite chin, he's demolished virtually every other welterweight around.
I feel Cintron is a very good fighter and after the Cotto fight, we now see just how great Margarito is. I hope he gets the credit he deserves. He is a true champion.
I also hope Margarito knows how fortunate he is that Cintron is a "MAN" who not only wasn't afraid of the rematch with him, but with a belt in hand...called out the strapless Margarito for the rematch. Without this act of bravery by Cintron...Margarito would not have secured the Cotto fight and would still be know as good...but not the Champion!
Keep up the great writing and coverage of this division! I also hope you and the other boxing writers will re-evaluate Cintron and his career. He'll be back in the ring on November 15th and will once again show...that other than Margarito...he's as good as you can find!

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