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Cotto-Margarito II: How Much Punishment Is Enough?

Before Saturday's rematch, a boxing writer reflects on his love for a violent sport

Call it “Exile on Maim Street”: Twice in a span of two years, Antonio Margarito was banished from boxing after an agonizing defeat.

Margarito’s chosen profession is a temperamental mistress that both saves and savages him. Like so many boxers, he accepts — and at times embraces — the physical pain. He will gladly take a punch in order to land one. And there is nothing more frustrating to a man like Margarito than to be held out of either side of that equation.

But that has been his reality. Twice.

Between January 24, 2009 and May 8, 2010, Margarito did not engage in a professional fight. It wasn’t the whipping laid upon him by Shane Mosley that sidelined him. It was the wrapping laid upon his own fists. In the Staples Center locker room before that fight, Margarito’s trainer, Javier Capetillo, was caught trying to load hardened inserts into the fighter’s hand wraps. The bout went ahead with Margarito’s hands wrapped properly, Mosley hammered him into a TKO defeat, and three weeks later the California State Athletic Commission revoked Margarito’s license. For 15½ months, Margarito did not box.

Those trials represented a complete reversal of fortune from where Margarito stood coming into the Mosley fight. He had become one of boxing’s hottest attractions and was climbing the pound-for-pound lists after handing Miguel Cotto his first defeat in a dramatic 2008 tilt. On that night in Las Vegas, Cotto soundly outboxed Margarito for the first six rounds. But Cotto’s facial features morphed curiously quickly once the Mexican pressure fighter began landing punches, and in the 11th round, a battered Cotto surrendered.

Margarito and Cotto will meet again Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, in part to answer questions about what really happened in Vegas. When they do, it will end another lengthy layoff for Margarito.

That’s because on November 13, 2010, after just two fights back from his time in the wilderness, Margarito was cast out of boxing again. This time it was another man’s fists that expelled him. Manny Pacquiao picked up where Mosley left off and battered the once-feared Margarito. By the fourth round, Pacquiao’s punches had raised a nasty welt under the former welterweight king’s right eye. From that point on, Pac-Man’s straight southpaw money punch couldn’t miss that glowing target, zipping in and repeatedly striking an already fractured right orbital bone. A cut opened up on the welt, the eye nearly swelled shut, and the beatdown continued. In the 11th, Pacquiao looked to referee Laurence Cole to stop the fight, but neither Cole nor Margarito’s cornermen complied.

Pacquiao eased up in the 12th. In his mind, he’d punished the most hated man in boxing enough. Margarito needed surgery to repair his orbital bone and nine stitches across two cuts on his discolored, lopsided face.

Villainous behavior sells in most sports, and nowhere is it more bankable than in boxing, where fans crave retribution against the athletes they hate. The defeated fighter feels pain — not just the pain of a loss, but actual pain — and people will pay specifically to watch it be inflicted. So a man like Margarito, who attempted to cheat (and is suspected to have successfully sneaked the plaster-like inserts into his wraps on at least one prior occasion), can reap financial reward as the black hat opposite a hero like Pacquiao. Margarito earned $6 million for the Pacquiao fight. Another seven-figure payday awaits after his rematch with Cotto.

That fight was supposed to happen in July, but with Margarito struggling to recover from two separate surgeries on his right eye, it was bumped back to September and then December. This month, the New York State Athletic Commission threatened to scuttle the fight, or at least force it to relocate to another state, because of Margarito’s continuing optical issues. The complications caused by the Pacquiao fight — Margarito’s worst beating in a 46-fight career not exactly constructed on a foundation of slickness and defensive savvy — continue to pile up.

Margarito will receive little sympathy. We’re talking about an attempted cheater whose entire career has giant “were his gloves loaded in that fight?” asterisks attached to each result. He committed boxing’s gravest offense. He paid for it. Then he paid some more. And he might continue to pay for the rest of his life.

When will he have paid enough?

And what does it say about boxing fans that Margarito’s brutal punishment was precisely the outcome many of us were rooting for?

I didn’t follow boxing when I became associate editor of The Ring magazine in September 1997. I was a 22-year-old with the ring from my graduation cap still imprinted in my hair when I accepted the position. I took it because (a) it’s better than no job at all, and (b) I hoped it might lead to an eventual editorial role at Sports Illustrated or a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Maybe it’s unwise to admit this in a public forum, but the same company that published The Ring also published a family of pro wrestling magazines I’d read growing up, and I took the boxing job in part to position myself for a lateral move to the rasslin’ department. Such was my level of disinterest in boxing.

Then I attended my first live fight. Atlantic City. October 4, 1997. Some junior lightweight I’d barely heard of named Arturo Gatti seemed out on his feet after eating a barrage of uppercuts in the fourth round, then roared back to knock Gabriel Ruelas out with a thunderous left hook in the fifth. When he won, Gatti fell to his knees, as if in slow motion — triumphant, relieved, drained. I’d witnessed the Fight of the Year. On my first live boxing card. I was hooked.

It’s not that I disliked boxing as a kid. But ours was the last house on the block to get cable, and by the time we did, in 1992, it was too late. Since the mid-’80s it had been nearly impossible to be a fight fan with only rabbit ears atop your TV set. I’d seen Ray Mancini fight, knew who Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler and Larry Holmes were, and remember exactly where I was when I heard Buster Douglas had knocked out Mike Tyson. I was certainly aware of boxing. I just didn’t watch it much and didn’t have a formed or informed opinion on anything pugilism-related.

All my life, I’ve been a pacifist. Actually, first I was a wuss, and that led me to later declare myself a pacifist. I loved movie violence as much as the next guy, but real violence with real consequences? That was something that wasn’t going to slide right off of me.

After more than 13 years in the business — seven as an editor at The Ring and six as a freelance fight writer — I watched Antonio Margarito take the prolonged beating he deserved last November, and my feelings were as wildly conflicted as they were on my first days on the job. I found myself asking, “What’s a nice boy like you doing in a sport like this?” The humane decision would have been for Margarito’s corner to throw in the towel between the 10th and 11th rounds. But the man known as “Marga-cheat-o” had long ago waived his right to be treated humanely. In the 11th, ref Cole called timeout to take a close look at Margarito’s grotesque right eye, and HBO’s Max Kellerman scolded Cole, “The issue is not Margarito’s eye at this point; it’s his brain.”

From a purely sporting perspective, those last two rounds shouldn’t have happened. But they did, and Margarito was presented with the opportunity, at a potentially lethal price, to say he finished on his feet. And all those viewing were presented with a maximally heightened example of the moral dilemma that fans of violent sports rarely stop to consider.

Boxing can be deadly. The goal is to beat the crap out of your opponent. In a dangerous sport such as football, hurting people is a byproduct of trying to move or prevent the movement of the ball. In boxing, there is no ball. So as fans, we use professionalism as a buffer against the sport’s brutality: I don’t want to see anyone get hurt, but these guys are getting paid well and they understand the risk.

It’s a perfectly valid rationalization. Most of the time, boxing saves a life before it shortens or diminishes one. Take welterweight contender Devon Alexander, for example. Among a group of 30 kids with whom Alexander grew up in St. Louis, he says that eight are dead and 10 — including his own brother — have spent time in prison. What kept Alexander off the streets? Boxing. Go to any city and you’ll hear stories like this. Look at the bout sheet for any fight card and you’ll find several boxers with similar tales to tell. You can make the case, if you really want to, that a life of low-wage labor is preferable to a life of getting punched for pay. But you cannot reasonably argue that anyone who chooses to box for a living would be better off getting shot to death or getting his exercise in the prison yard.

At the same time, you can’t use the perils of not boxing as an excuse to ignore the sport’s perils. Newsflash: The human head is not intended to be punched. Very rare is the man who enjoys a lengthy career in boxing and comes away with no damage to his mental capacity. Sometimes it’s just a barely noticeable slurring of speech; sometimes it’s full-on pugilistic dementia. And it isn’t always predictable based on the number of punches a man has taken. If it were, Jake LaMotta wouldn’t have made it through his 80s with reasonable lucidity, and Wilfred Benitez wouldn’t have lost most of his short-term memory function before his 50th birthday.

At its worst, boxing is the most unwatchable sport in the world. (At least among sports that are, without debate, actually “sports” and not just activities that you can do sitting down or while smoking a cigarette.) But at its best, there’s no other sport that quite compares.

OK, that’s an opinion, but it starts to feel like a fact when you sit down and watch the Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy. Or the Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez battles. Or Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo I. Or Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor I. Or Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns. Or Ray Leonard-Hearns. Or George Foreman-Ron Lyle. Or the Thrilla in Manila. I could fill another thousand words just listing the amazing fights that are more rewatchable from start to finish than any Super Bowl, any March Madness game, any Masters Sunday.

And it’s not just the high-contact, high-plasma, multiple-knockdown punchouts that offer a taste of the magic. Bernard Hopkins’ winning the light heavyweight championship of the world at age 46 earlier this year was magic. The first glimpse of Mike Tyson emerging in the arena, the white towel with the hole cut in it draped over his chest, was always magic. Joe Louis’ knocking out Max Schmeling in half a round was magic, as was your grandfather’s misty-eyed delivery as he told you the story. Mixed in with the blood and brutality is beauty — not just in the form of the grace and technique exhibited at the highest levels, but in the honor and respect shown between combatants. (Well, at least those who aren’t loading their gloves.)

I realize that I’m perceived as a freak of nature by virtue of the fact that I’m under the age of 40 and I love boxing. But the older I get, the less I find myself to be such an anomaly. People may say that “boxing is dead,” but at every fight I attend, press row is loaded with young writers — most of them working for websites and showing up because they desperately want to be there, not because their editors made them go. The crowds aren’t lacking for young faces, either. Kellerman and I aren’t the only guys under 40 who know that Cristobal Arreola is a heavyweight contender and not a budding porn star. I trade tweets and e-mails every day with 18- to 34-year-olds who have discovered the magic that boxing offers. These are people who will have my back when I say that, at its best, boxing can’t be touched.

As journalists, we’re trained to keep a professional distance from the athletes we cover. But there were moments early on when I slipped; when you’re 23, it’s hard not to feel a little puffed up when Fernando Vargas greets you with a handshake-hug or Ivan Robinson picks up the phone and says, “What up, E?” But by the time I’d seen each of them absorb a punishing defeat, the lesson had fully taken hold: You can like the athletes you cover, but it’s dangerous to let yourself care about them. Especially if they’re boxers. It may be uncomfortable to discuss, or even to think about, but these are people who engage in sporting events that sometimes end in death. Since those early missteps, I’ve developed some solid relationships with boxers, but nothing that went beyond cordial, nothing that could really be construed as friendship.

I’ve been lucky enough never to witness a ring death.1 I should have been there in 1999, the night Stephan Johnson died in Atlantic City, but for whatever reason, that was the one major East Coast fight I skipped that year. I could have been aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid in 2001 when Beethavean Scottland was killed, but I chose to stay home. For years I attended nearly every meaningful card at the Blue Horizon in North Philly, but by the time Francisco “Paco” Rodriguez died there in 2009, I was married with two little kids, and my standards had changed for which fights were worth a night out.

So I’ve never stood witness to the very worst result boxing can produce. But I’ve seen more ring deaths unfold on television than I care to recall. I know they almost always come as the result of an accumulation of punishment, not a single punch. As spectacular and horrifying as Pacquiao’s second-round knockout of Ricky Hatton was, fighters don’t get killed or permanently debilitated that way. But what Pacquiao did to Margarito in Rounds 9, 10, and 11? That was worrisome.

A few weeks before the fight, Margarito upped his evil quotient by performing an impression of Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, suffering from Parkinson’s tremors. As the fight neared, Margarito’s goatee continued growing and his resemblance to Ming the Merciless became unmistakable. Again: evil personified. But the beard became a point of discussion beyond just its sinister superficiality. In boxing, a fighter is allowed only so much facial hair, as it can theoretically cushion the opponent’s blows. So Roach asked the Texas State Athletic Commission to make Margarito shave.

But Pacquiao stepped up and said to let Margarito keep his pointy goatee. Manny said he wanted to use it as a target.

It was the sort of cold and heartless decree we don’t normally expect to hear from the good-natured Philippine congressman-slash-boxer. And when he had the opportunity, Pacquiao chose not to back up his tough talk. He asked the ref to stop the fight in Round 11. He carried his opponent across the finish line in Round 12. When it came down to it, Pacquiao showed mercy. He’d done enough damage to satisfy his own personal bloodlust, and enough damage to ensure that Margarito would remember the occasion forever.

The Pacquiao-Margarito fight may have been satisfying to the public, but it wasn’t a great fight. Margarito-Cotto was. There was a classic swinging of the pendulum, a dramatic rally, a shocking conclusion. Violence overruled science as the 11 rounds of action wore on, and that’s how fans usually like it.

Both Cotto and Margarito have been diminished as fighters in the three years since. That means the punches should be landing at an even greater rate the second time around, given that defensive reflexes traditionally fade long before offensive firepower does. Saturday’s rematch at the Garden could be another classic, this time without the hand-wrap asterisks attached. But there are other asterisks in play. Will Cotto melt down emotionally if Margarito’s punches feel the same as they did in ’08? Will Cotto make it personal and risk everything for revenge? Will Margarito risk his own well-being to save his legacy and prove he can win with legal hand wraps? Will Cotto target Margarito’s right eye? Is that eye putting Margarito at a dangerous disadvantage before the first punch even lands?2

We live in a world where public figures who question the celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death are ostracized. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we live in world where a boxer with a busted moral compass can get mutilated and there will be those who say he got off easy. I’m not sure where I fall on that spectrum. In their first fight, Margarito very well may have used plaster wraps to break Cotto’s spirit and turn his face into ground chuck. I wanted to see Margarito lose to Pacquiao, and I wished it could have been arranged without a $6 million payday coming the victim’s way.

But I also stopped to think about the callousness of what I was quietly rooting for. I don’t believe that makes me better than anyone else. It just means animal instinct hasn’t completely taken control of me. It means I love this sport unconditionally but not unconsciously.

Part of me doesn’t want Margarito to ever fight again. Part of me is endlessly intrigued by the plotlines surrounding Margarito-Cotto II and by the potential for a legendary action fight. With the way these fighters’ styles mesh, that elusive pugilistic magic is in play. On the basis of that alone, when the bell rings, I will be watching. I know that much. And though members of the media are not supposed to root for fighters, I will be silently pulling for Cotto to exact revenge. I’m certain of that.

What I don’t know is what it will take Saturday night for me to decide that enough punishment is enough. Margarito is a disgrace to the sport of boxing. But he’s also a human being. I hope I never lose sight of that. I hope I continue to periodically ask myself that question, “What’s a nice boy like you doing in a sport like this?”

I’ll ask the question, and I’ll do so knowing that boxing, on its better days, will give me precisely the answers I need to hear.

Eric Raskin is a former managing editor of The Ring magazine. He co-hosts the twice-monthly boxing podcast Ring Theory and can be found on Twitter: @EricRaskin.

Previously from Eric Raskin:

Old Dogs: Bernard Hopkins, Dewey Bozella, and Their Separate Quests for Boxing Glory
Oral History: “Sugar” Ray Leonard vs. “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler
An Imperfect Path to Pacquiao-Mayweather
Klitschko vs. Haye: Why you should care

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Filed Under: Boxing, General topics, Science, Sports