Defending the Realm

Miguel Cotto vs. Antonio Margarito, the barbarian at the gates of boxing.
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Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I was shocked when Antonio Margarito was caught attempting to place plaster inserts into his hand wraps before his 2009 welterweight title fight with Shane Mosley. No matter what the cranks tell you, things like that don’t happen at the highest levels of the sport. There are still hometown decisions and bent referees, but gone are the days of high-profile dives or gloves doused in blinding chemical agents. I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised that the exception was Antonio Margarito.

I’d never been a fan of the Mexican slugger. Margarito is an exponent of what I like to call “caveman boxing.” He has poor balance and throws wide shots. He doesn’t move his head and has no natural defensive abilities, relying instead on overwhelming his opposition with non-stop aggression and an inhuman ability to absorb punishment.

I had seen him fight many times before, most memorably against an Argentine fighter named Sebastian Lujan. It was a showcase fight—designed for Margarito to look good—but surprisingly competitive early.

In the tenth round, though, Lujan’s left ear began to peel off the side of his face. It was hard to tell whether Margarito was targeting it or if it was just his natural propensity to throw wide punches, but the ear kept getting hit. Blood spurted and the ear flopped to its own gelatinous rhythm. Almost comically, the referee was blocked from seeing that it was held on only by the bottom of the lobe, the connective tissue on the side of the skull clearly visible.

The groaning crowd and television viewers had a perfect view. I’d never witnessed anything like it before, and when the referee finally saw the carnage the fight was off. It looked sort of like what you see at a kebab restaurant, when the man behind the counter puts his long sharp knife to the lamb gyro and the meat gently folds off.

***

It’s not certain that Margarito was using illegal handwraps against Sebastian Lujan, or against Miguel Cotto, whom he will fight for the second time this Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Margarito defeated Cotto in 2008, the biggest win of his career. He knocked out the favored Cotto late in the fight after losing most of the early rounds. Cotto didn’t seem to be getting hit with huge shots, but he was battered and weakened. He couldn’t take what Margarito was giving him, and in the eleventh round he took a knee and they stopped the fight.

I didn’t even watch the fight live because I was certain Cotto would defeat his crude, artless opponent. Cotto was undefeated, a prince, the heir to the prestigious legacy of Puerto Rican prizefighters. He was a skilled and precise boxer-puncher with an educated jab and a booming left hook. Cotto was a bit fragile at times, and not particularly fast, but he was well-schooled and considered one of the top talents in the sport, a threat to pound-for-pound kings Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. He should have beaten Antonio Margarito that night.

People think that boxing is about strength and power, but it’s not really, not when it’s done right. They call football the beautiful game, but boxing is the “sweet science,” the “fine art of bruising.” Grace and quality are what make special boxers special. The marriage of beauty and brutality should not come naturally. Yes, strength matters, but so do talent and discipline and precision. When Antonio Margarito draws his hands back to throw his wide power shots, it’s an invitation for a fighter like Miguel Cotto to throw his short and straight punches. When Margarito lunges forward with his awkward footwork you expect the superior craftsmanship of Cotto to turn him and make him pay.

A. J. Liebling wrote, “If the animal could beat even a fair fighter, it meant that two hundred and fifty years of painfully acquired experience had been lost to the human race; science was a washout and art a vanity.”

It’s important that science be victorious. It’s important that education be rewarded. It’s important that the matador slay the bull. We can have our rooting interests, but when it’s a matter of talent, discipline, and craft derailed by a brutish smashing machine, people for whom the sport matters are all undone. Chaos triumphs and the flesh-eaters complete their conquest of the earth.

***

When Miguel Cotto steps into the ring on Saturday night, he’ll be attempting to right history. Cotto has returned from that awful evening fairly well, winning four of five fights. Like nearly everyone else, he took a bad beating from Manny Pacquiao but he has since captured a belt in the junior middleweight division, his third weight class.

Something seems different, though. Before the Margarito fight, Cotto was known for his
steely imperturbability, his stone-faced and unsmiling demeanor. He would get hit—hurt
even—but he’d keep coming; a menacing 147-pound Boricua terminator.

It’s not like that anymore; whether it’s merely our perception of him that has changed, or his fragile boxer-confidence has been dented, he is now vulnerable in a way he never was before that night.

Margarito hasn’t escaped unscathed either. That night was the pinnacle of his career. It has been disgrace and bad beatings ever since. He shows no remorse, denying any wrongdoing, and has happily accepted his role as the villain. Manny Pacquiao crushed Margarito’s orbital bone in his most recent fight, and it was thought for a time he would never fight again. After major surgery, though, he is back, his eye socket slightly misshapen. His long plastic face and sculpted beard make him more than ever a Bond villain. Or one of the merciless bandits terrorizing the citizenry from “The Magnificent Seven.”

When Margarito did whatever he did with those gloves, he defied history. It was Cotto who was supposed to prevail. That’s why even people like me, who love the sport for its craft and beauty and the bravery of the devoted genius want blood this time. We want revenge. I don’t really care much for humble champions or braggadocios titlists; I’m just looking for quality, for economy of motion and an educated jab. I want to see the deeper justice of clean punching.

Cotto was meant to meet the Pacquaios and Mayweathers. We were supposed to get a reckoning between unbroken soldiers of the sweet science, instead of an assassination carried out by a ragged tribal warlord. And now, the ascension will never happen for Cotto; he’ll never be quite what he could have been, what many boxing fans wanted him to be. We’ll ask him instead, one more time, to stay the barbarian at the gates, to defend the realm.


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Comments

Excellent piece.

Cotto is probably my favorite fighter. I like him in the ring and he seems like a good dude out of it. When I heard about the wraps during the Mosely fight I felt real anger. For that feeling Margarito unfairly marred what Cotto was on the verge it seemed of becoming. I think after watching the rematch there is no doubt. So fuck Margs, he is nothing, Cotto was definitely right about that.

"Chaos triumphs and the flesh-eaters complete their conquest of the earth."

That might just be my favorite paragraph published yet on The Classical. Wow.