Thursday, June 08, 2023  |



Margarito: Willpower personified

Fighters Network

Antonio Margarito's greatest moment as a professional fighter came when he pounded then-unbeaten Miguel Cotto into submission. Photo / Tom

A dozen years ago, after Antonio Margarito lost a one-sided decision to future title contender Rodney Jones in Culver City, Calif., he was nothing more than what his promoter Bob Arum called a “top club fighter who would always make for an exciting match.”

The then-17 year old from Tijuana was game but not particularly skillful. And his record of 9-3 was hardly eye-catching. He seemed to be nothing special.

Today, to the astonishment of those who knew him when, Margarito is a monumental testament to willpower.

In little more than a decade, this mild-mannered Mexican with ordinary skills turned himself into one of the best and most-popular fighters in the world by the most mundane of means – an absurd work rate in the ring, a supernatural chin and sheer nerve.

Suddenly, he’s every man who ever dreamed of becoming a boxing champion, the people’s champion, especially among fellow Mexicans.

“I never thought I would have this many fans,” said Margarito, who defends his WBA welterweight title against Shane Mosley on Saturday in Los Angeles. “I always thought I had what it took to be a professional fighter. I always thought I'd win a world title. I thought I'd have my fans, but this … this is an extra for me.

“This is like nothing I ever imagined.”

He’s not alone.

Believe it or not, Margarito (37-5, 27 knockouts) began his pro career less than a year after fellow Tijuana resident Erik Morales.

Morales, who trained with Margarito for a time, was naturally more gifted than his friend and realized success far earlier in his career. He knocked out Daniel Zaragoza in 1997 to win the WBC super bantamweight belt, his first of six world titles in three weight classes.

Margarito had to slowly pound his way to the top, only gradually convincing the experts that he was more than that club fighter. He wouldn’t win his first world title until 2002.

Ricardo Jimenez, Spanish-language publicist for Arum, covered Margarito in various Los Angeles-area venues when he was a boxing writer for a local newspaper and Margarito was still a developing teen-ager.

He remembers a big, tough kid but nothing more. And then Margarito, still only 21, fought a hot-shot on the undercard of Morales-Marco Antonio Barrera I in Las Vegas.

“Sergio Martinez was this guy from Argentina, a guy everyone was talking about,” Jimenez said. “They were saying how good he was, that he was a great boxer, and that there was no way Margarito was going to beat him. In the fight, though, Margarito did what he always does. Pressure, Pressure. Pressure. And he knocked him out (in seven rounds). It’s still the only loss on Martinez’s record,

“I remember thinking, ‘This guy might really be something.”

Gradually, that became more and more obvious.

To this day, Margarito has no physical skill that stands out, aside from his curious ability to absorb a punch and perhaps natural stamina. He isn’t particularly graceful, neither his hands nor his feet are unusually fast and he doesn’t have one-punch knockout power.

As Jimenez said, he very simply breaks his opponents down with incessant pressure from beginning to end, the product of steely determination and perfect conditioning.

“He just keeps coming; it never stops. He wears you out,” said talented slugger Kermit Cintron, twice a victim of Margarito.

That’s how he’s always fought. Only now, at 30, you can add to his arsenal the fact he’s a mature, immensely strong man – so strong that he became that fighter no one wanted to face – with more than a decade of experience. Now, one could argue, he’s as good as Morales ever was.

He has the two spectacular knock outs over Cintron, “a damn good fighter,” Arum said. And, in the signature victory of his career, he made then-unbeaten superstar-in-the-making Miguel Cotto of Puerto Rico quit on his stool after 10 bruising rounds.

As a result, THE RING rates this one-time afterthought as the No. 6 fighter pound for pound in the world.

“Here’s the best way to put it,” said Josh Dubin, Cintron’s manager. “Margarito doesn’t blow you away in terms of being a technician. He doesn’t blow you away with his athleticism. He blows you away with sheer strength of will. That translates into the most-granite chin I’ve ever seen.

“ÔǪ In the second fight, I knew we were in trouble in the third or fourth round. Kermit loaded up and landed an overhand right that might’ve been the hardest punch of his career. Margarito was knocked back a bit, he smiled, shook his head as if to say, ‘Nice shot,’ and kept throwing punches.

“I said to myself, “Uh oh, we’re in for a long night.” This guy is something.”

Cintron, as gracious as any loser, put it more simply: “We need a doctor to check him out to see if he’s really human.”

To his fans, Margarito is very human.

He always had admirers among hardcore boxing fans; they love his action style. For most of his career, though, he remained a relative unknown.

Jimenez said Margarito would fight at some small venue in Southern California, spend a week at home in Tijuana and then resume training in obscurity. His fights generally weren’t televised and he didn’t mix with people much; thus, they didn’t know who he was.

However, as he continued to win – particularly on TV in the U.S. and in Mexico – the numbers increased.

He knocks out Antonio Diaz to win his first world title in 2002. More fans. He stops Cintron. More fans. He loses to Paul Williams but comes on strongly at the end. More fans. He knocks out Cintron again. More fans.

And then came the fight that put him over the top: Cotto. When a Mexican beats a Puerto Rican, it’s a big deal down south. When he does it the way Margarito did, it’s a huge deal.

The victory changed his life, probably for good. As Jimenez put it, “When he beat Cotto, it just exploded.”

“The difference is like day and night,” Margarito said of life after Cotto. “Before the Cotto fight, I might’ve had as many as 20 fans visit my camp. Now there's too many fans to count. On Saturdays, I might spend as long as two hours signing autographs and taking pictures with them after I train. In Tijuana, my wife and I used to love to go to the movies then go grab a bite to eat but ÔǪ those days are over for now. Now I'm mobbed by fans.

“I accept everything that comes with the fame. I feel extremely happy that I'm in this position to be appreciated by so many.”

The infatuation of Mexican fans shouldn’t be a surprise.

Margarito fights like Mexicans expect their champions to fight. He’s willing to take three punches in order to deliver one, the epitome of a macho fighter. He doesn’t run, he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t even box. He fights.

Just as important, he wins. Who doesn’t love a winner?

And then there’s that human element. Perhaps because he became so accustomed to being just another fighter, Margarito plays the role perfectly. He has the title belts and earning power of a star but behaves like the guy sitting next to you at the fight.

“I think the fans embrace him because of his demeanor,” Arum said. “He’s Mr. Every Man. The people can relate to that. He has no airs, no pretension. He’s a man of the people. Chavez held that mantel for a number of years. Then he became recognized as a star and started acting like one.

“Antonio doesn’t yet know what it is to act like a star. Maybe he never will.”

Well, if he does, he certainly has earned the right.

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]