Saturday, January 17, 2009

Margarito Has Done it the Hard Way

Antonio Margarito is wrapping up his training camp ahead of next weekend's clash against Shane Mosley.

Nothing in life has come easy for Antonio Margarito.

He didn't arrive on the scene with a shiny Olympic medal dangling from his neck. He doesn't have the bright smile of an Oscar De La Hoya or a Ray Leonard. He doesn't speak English nor does he really care to. He could reside anywhere he wants, but he feels most comfortable living only a stone's throw away from the dusty, drug-infested streets of Tijuana, Mexico's 'El Norte' neighborhood, where he grew up poor - idolizing the great Julio Cesar Chavez.

In a day and age when prizefighters only appear under the bright lights of the squared circle a few times a year, he is considered a throwback fighter. He's a 'hard man' as they used to say. A man with shoveling, non-stop punches he possesses a scythe-like left hook and a rapier of a right uppercut that separates men from their senses. He's a perpetual, relentless, whirling, Mexican machine who's not afraid to take some to give some. He overwhelms opponents with his heart and devil-may-care style. Because of it all, they've nicknamed him the 'Tijuana Tornado'.

He began fighting for money at the age of 15 and faced grown men twice his age. And just because he knocked out Miguel Cotto, Puerto Rico's favorite son, in his last fight, Antonio Margarito (his friends call him 'Tony') is not going to stop coming forward. He's not going to stop doing the things he has always done because he has never really been the favorite. His has been a life spent as the underdog. So as Saturday night in downtown Los Angeles grows closer, he's not going to grow cautious and fight like a man that has something to keep - instead of a man that has everything to lose.

Right after he forced Cotto into the hands of defeat, Margarito dropped to his knees with the realization that he had finally made it to the top.

When the World Boxing Association's welterweight champ steps through the ropes and into the ring against 'Sugar' Shane Mosley, he will so to a full-house that will mostly have come to see him. Anybody that knows anything about this game they call boxing will tell you that Mosley has never been able to sell too many tickets on his own. He's always needed somebody in the other corner to really make the turnstiles churn.

"I started boxing at the age of eight," says Margarito. "My father loved boxing and he took me to the fights when I was a little boy. From then on, all I wanted to be was a fighter. When my father asked me if I would like to become a boxer, I said 'Yes' and that's how it all began for me."

Seven years later he was a professional prizefighter. A boy in a man's world. To this day, it's the only job he has ever had.

In the late '80s and early '90s, Mexico was a boxing-crazed nation with one man that served as a heroic idol and a near mythic figure to most of the population. That man was the great Julio Cesar Chavez. It's the man that Antonio Margarito says made him want to become a fighter.

"When I was nine years old, my father took my brother and I to a boxing event in Tijuana," says Margarito as he recalls that day over two decades later. "My brother and I had our picture taken with Julio and it was one of the happiest days of my life. I got to meet my idol and have my picture taken with him."

And Margarito, an angular, nearly six foot tall 147-pounder with long arms, coal dark eyes, inky black hair and a sneer that can scare crooked men straight - says it is a picture that he still carries with him to this day.

Margarito extends a greeting to a young admirer, much like Julio Cesar Chavez did with him over two decades ago.

At first glance, Antonio Margarito would seem to be the type that is short on sentiment. Short on feelings. But he has a big heart. He is quick to smile and he's engaging and happy when approached for autographs by curious fans. Since he beat Cotto he's much more recognized in the airports and hotels. The same people that have sold out the Staples Center naturally gravitate toward him.

Most kids who grow up in the El Norte neighborhood area of Tijuana where Margarito hails from, usually don't make it too far from cardboard shantys that serve as their homes. His brother didn't. Manuel, also a boxer, fell victim to the violence in 1999.

A mystery that still remains unsolved, his brother was murdered during an apparent burglary in their hometown of Tijuana. Obviously it's a sensitive matter for Margarito and when he talks about the haunting memory of his brother his mouth twists uncontrollably, tears well up and his eyelids flutter. The love he has for his brother helps to inspire him and drive him forward and it makes him want to do as much as he can with the life that he has been given.

"My brother was my best friend and we were always together," he says in a halting manner. "When we were kids we'd go to the gym together and train together. He was always there with me. He's still here with me now, but just in a different way. He's in my heart and I wish so much that he was still here. I wish he could see all that I have been able to achieve."

Margarito called the win over Cotto "my sanctification" and said that since that hot July night in Las Vegas when he upset the undefeated Puerto Rican destroyer, he now gets the respect that he feels was denied him for the past 15 years.

His former promoter once dubbed him 'the most avoided fighter in the world' because of the reluctance of other top tier fighters to step into a ring against him. But Margarito says that has only made the journey from zero to hero that much sweeter. Floyd Mayweather, Jr., once the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, reportedly turned down over $8 million to fight him. Oscar De La Hoya also avoided him as though he had a contagious disease.

"It took a long time, yes, but I'm here now," Margarito proudly says of finally making his way into the boxing spotlight. "They can't ignore me and they can't deny me my place anymore. You have to remember that when I became a professional fighter I was only a boy. I was 15 years old. I remember all of those struggles and all of those hardships that I've had to endure over all of those years to get to where I am now. "

The bookies and the odds makers say that Antonio Margarito will likely beat Shane Mosley on Saturday night. In fact, there aren't many takers who give Mosley much of a chance at all. And that says something about how good Antonio Margarito has become. Mosley, although a bit past it, is a fighter destined for the hall-of-fame and he remains a handful for any fighter on any given night.

But for Antonio Margarito, a man who has lived life the hard way and has overcome the longest of odds, he is finally the favorite.

January 2009

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