This Saturday night marks the return of “The Tijuana Tornado,” Antonio Margarito, who faces the rugged Roberto Garcia in Aguascalientes, Mexico, as the headliner on Top Rank’s “Latin Fury 14.” It’s his first outing since he was dismantled in nine rounds by Shane Mosley on January 24th, 2009 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. But the loss wasn’t even the worst part of that night.
In the lead-up to that fight, illegal hand-wrappings were caught on Margarito, which eventually led to an indefinite suspension by the California State Athletic Commission for him and his trainer, Javier Capetillo.
Worse than getting knocked out, Margarito’s reputation was forever damaged. A man who was once thought as one of the most honest, hard-working fighters in the sport, was now thought of as a cheat. All his past accomplishments are now tainted. Everything he had done, to that point, will now be questioned. Was it his iron will that allowed him to capture three world titles and beat the likes of Miguel Cotto and Kermit Cintron - or loaded wraps?
It’s a fair question. In light of what was uncovered, just how legitimate is this career?
When asked if he doubts his own accomplishments, Margarito, through his manager, Sergio Diaz, answered without hesitation, "No, not at all. What happened was a big surprise for me. I’ve always been a clean fighter; I’m aware that Cintron and Cotto, they’ve been talking about me fighting dirty. But I’ve never fought dirty; I’ve always been a clean fighter and that’s something I’m going to prove, starting in this fight. I have a lot to prove. I feel I need to prove it to people and I’m going to show it beginning this fight."
Margarito makes it clear that he had no knowledge of any illegal activities that took place.
"As far as a fighter knowing what’s going on, I put my hands out there and I believe that the trainer’s going to do his job," he explained. "I give my full trust to my trainer. I put my hands out; I believe that the trainer is going to do what needs to be done by the commission law. And as far as what he does after that, I don’t know."
That answer will be met by a host of detractors, who believe that A) Margarito had to have known or B) he should’ve, regardless. But Robert Garcia, Capetillo’s replacement, says, "I’ve been wrapping fighters for years already, wrapped for [Nonito] Donaire, for Brian Viloria, Brandon Rios, everybody, and not one single fighter has ever asked me, ’What’s in the wraps? Let me see.’ Because they trust me. What I’m doing, nobody has ever hurt their hands. I guess I do a good job. Margarito’s liking it so far. Not one single time has he asked me, ’Can I see the padding? Can I see what’s in there?’ All the controversy is on Margarito, but me, as a former fighter and now as a trainer, wrapping hands, I never asked my coach, ’Let me feel the wraps. What are you putting on my hands?’ Hey, I’m there listening to music. It’s just the way it is."
But on the night of May 8th, expect Margarito to have the most heavily scrutinized hand-wraps in the history of boxing.
"Y’ know what? That doesn’t even come to my mind because I know I’m going in wrapping him. You’ll see the wrapping I do; everywhere I go, they always tell me that’s one of the best- if not the best wraps- they’ve ever seen," said Garcia, last week from his Oxnard Boxing Academy. "And Margarito, so far, likes it. I’ve already wrapped him the way I’m going to wrap him in the fight and he loves it. Every other day is different; I don’t use the same things that I do when it comes to the fight. But come fight night, people are going to be surprised. There’s no need to put anything illegal; I do a good job."
But the question marks do not surround Garcia, who has a pristine reputation; this is about Margarito, who, if he suddenly turns into a soft, Punch-and-Judy hitter, will have even more doubts cast about his résumé.
Does he still have heavy hands?
"Very heavy hands," said Garcia, who works the pads with him on a daily basis. "He has the power to hurt anybody. Physically, he’s a very strong person."
One of his main sparring partners for this camp was Bryan Brooks, who has moved around with Margarito since his days at the LA Boxing Club a decade ago. When you ask him if the Mexican still packs a punch, Brooks answers, "Margarito doesn’t need that. I don’t know who you want to point the finger at, but he’s such a tremendous body-puncher, a hard-worker, that I don’t think he needs that. So the controversy between that, he already has power. That right there is something I can’t comprehend."
There is a certain code among boxers. While they are there to do battle, there are ethics that are followed and maintained. You’d figure that getting caught with what Margarito did, was a severe breach of that code. So did a guy like Brooks have any concerns or reticence in working once again with Margarito?
"Nah, I didn’t have any reservations at all," he said, a week-and-a-half ago. "Like I said, I’ve been working with Margarito for years; I know it’s hard work. At one point in time, I was probably one of the only guys to give Margarito work, so I’m accustomed to his hard work ethic. So no, I didn’t have a problem with that."
But putting that aside, the bottom line is he took a horrific beating from the fast hands of Mosley, who gave Margarito his first knockout loss. A chin that was thought to be unbreakable was bent and mangled. This coming off a very physical fight against Cotto. In that fight, while he came out victorious, there was a heavy price to pay.
"I had a bad night," is the way Margarito explains his decisive defeat to Mosley. "I felt very, very weak. I came in a little overweight; I suffered making weight. I definitely felt weak going into that fight. It just wasn’t my night." But here’s the thing, Margarito is not a stylist; he doesn’t finesse his way through fights. If he has lost his ability to walk through oncoming fire, well, then there isn’t much else to draw on.
Brooks states, "He has a lot left; some fighters, they get knocked out like that; they come back ’shot’ fighters. I don’t see that in Margarito. He’s still hungry, still has a hard work ethic, still is a good puncher." But that’s with 14-ounce gloves and headgear. What will be telling is how Margarito reacts inside the ring on Saturday against live bullets. Helping his cause is that this fight is taking place at junior middleweight, which seems to suit his big frame.
One thing that remains intact is his effort in preparing for combat.
"I wasn’t around before but if I see any fighter training the way Margarito does, the way Margarito runs and watching his weight the way he’s doing, I would say, ’This is his first title fight; this is his first big fight.’ He’s had many of those already, three-time world champion. He still trains; he still runs like if he was fighting for the title for the first time. It’s unbelievable the way he’s training. I don’t see anything wrong with him," said Garcia, who during his days inside the ring, captured the IBF junior lightweight crown. "Nothing but positive things in his head. He’s physically ready; last week, he weighed 155 after training and the fight is scheduled for 154. So he’s already on weight; he could easily fight at 147 for this fight."
In seeing Margarito at the gym and in Dallas, where he attended Manny Pacquiao’s bout against Joshua Clottey in March, it’s clear that he remains extremely popular among the Mexican constituency.
"There’s no question; there’s no question; that is the case. He is one of the- if not the- most popular Mexican fighter," said his promoter Bob Arum, who says a sell-out crowd of over 20,000 will be attending this event, which is taking place during the San Marcos Fair, the largest festival held in Mexico.
But among non-Mexicans, there are many more detractors who are not willing to forgive or forget any past transgressions.
On that issue, Margarito says, "First of all, I want to say thanks to all my fans. They have been there from the beginning and I’m aware that I’ve lost some fans and I’m aware that those other fans who have never liked me are talking a lot. But I can’t worry about that. What I worry about is proving myself again. It’s going up there and showing that I’m a clean fighter and fighting. That’s what I have to do. I believe by doing that, I will win those fans back and that will change the minds of the other fans."
Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, but it certainly won’t help his cause if Margarito suddenly has the punching power of Manuel Medina.
"Of course, but that’s something we can’t worry about," said his manager. "But that’s one of the pressures Tony has on his shoulders that he’s carrying and I’ve spoken to him, ’Y’ know what? You don’t have to prove anything. You’re a three-time world champion; you beat everybody; you’ve always been a clean fighter.’ But he keeps repeating, ’I need to prove myself.’ And I don’t know if he thinks about it, but I think about it. If he doesn’t perform the way he’s going to be expected to perform, what are they going to say? Even though I know the answer, I don’t want to think about it."
But this really is about proving something for Margarito, who must validate his past success with future victories. And even then, it may not be enough. But his career will now be looked at in two categories: his time with Capetillo and the road ahead with Garcia in his corner. The two eras will be intrinsically linked and compared, ‘til the very end of Margarito’s career.
"I’m starting a new chapter in my career," admits Margarito. "I’m starting from the beginning and it’s time to show everybody that I’m a clean fighter, to get the doubts out of everyone’s mind, for those that believe I fought dirty. That’s where I want to start."
Regardless, he is just relieved to be getting back to his livelihood and doing what he does best.
"I’m very anxious to get back in the ring. I’ve missed it all. People say it was only one year but, for me, the year was eternal. It was longer than one year. I missed what I couldn’t do anymore and that’s why I’m happy to start this over again. I’m happy to get back in the ring again.".