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Protest All You Want, Pacquiao-Margarito Is a Serious Fight

12
Nov

A confident Antonio Margarito flexes at the weigh-in for his showdown with Manny Pacquiao. The 5-foot-11 former welterweight titleholder weighed in at the contracted limit of 150 pounds, almost five and half pounds more than the 5-foot-6 Pacquiao weighed in at on Friday. Controversy has hyped Saturday's event at Cowboys Stadium but fans and media may actually get a competitive fight. Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank

Note: This is the cover story of the December issue of THE RING magazine, which is on newsstands now.

Controversy is one hell of a multi-tasker. It attracts, detracts, and distracts, often all at the same time. And controversy has been multi-tasking overtime from the moment promoter Bob Arum let slip that Antonio Margarito, boxing’s dirtiest, rottenest scoundrel, was on the short list to challenge Manny Pacquiao, boxing’s most beloved superstar.

Before long, that short list got so short that it wasn’t a list anymore, the state of Texas demonstrated how far its reputation for resistance has slipped since the Alamo days, and Pacquiao vs. Margarito became official for November 13. And that’s when the controversy kicked into overdrive.



The controversy attracted attention, with the very same boxing writers and fans who were most fervently opposed to the matchup devoting the most column and message-board space to the bout. The controversy detracted from something that normally has no negatives attached to it, pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao putting his unique talents on display for the world to see. And the controversy distracted us from what will likely be the only story that matters on and after November 13: There’s a boxing match to be fought and it just might be a dangerous one for the best pugilist in the world.

Phrased another way: Don’t look now, but there’s a fight to analyze too!

It would be a bit much to go so far as to predict that Margarito, a fighter who was thoroughly dominated by Shane Mosley two fights ago and looked ordinary in his one comeback fight, is going to upset a man who regularly draws comparisons to the likes of Henry Armstrong. But Margarito doesn’t necessarily have to defeat Pacquiao to make an imprint. Not with the ongoing possibility of a Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather mega-fight looming over everything that happens in the sport.

In the November 2010 issue of THE RING, a letter from reader Brad Morris ran in the “Come Out Writing” section, suggesting that Mayweather ÔÇö who opened the door for Margarito by declining to fight Pacquiao ÔÇö isn’t outright ducking “Pac-Man” as much as he’s waiting for the right time to fight him. “Remember what Ray Leonard did to Marvin Hagler years ago,” Morris wrote. “He dangled a fight in front of him and then retired, letting Hagler get beat up in two wars with Thomas Hearns and John Mugabi. Leonard then un-retired and set the terms of their encounter from the ring size to the length of the fight.”

Morris might just be onto something. Pacquiao is one bad mutha these days. In his last five fights, there was only one round that all three judges gave to one of his opponents. He beat everything but the ability to curse out of David Diaz. He retired Oscar De La Hoya despite entering the fight as an overwhelming underdog. He scored a terrifying knockout of Ricky Hatton, who probably will never fight again either. He endured four thrilling rounds with Miguel Cotto to dominate the next eight and force a merciful final-round stoppage. And then he added Joshua Clottey’s name to the list of bigger, stronger men he handcuffed with his speed, skill, and determination. If you were Mayweather and you had a perfect record to protect, why would you risk it against this version of Pacquiao if you believed the same payday would still be available later?

Lost amidst all that destruction caused by Pacquiao’s fists in this recent run is that Cotto’s fists did some damage as well. And Pacquiao was more marked up than he should have been considering how rarely Clottey touched him. These are big, strong guys, welterweights and junior middleweights who aren’t exactly feather-fisted. Margarito fits that description also. It isn’t far-fetched to think that Mayweather ÔÇö as shrewd as he is lewd ÔÇö sees some potential benefits in letting Pacquiao have another fight or two and maybe burn himself out ever so slightly before making record-setting money to fight him.

“It seems as if that’s what Floyd’s up to,” conceded Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, who does still believe Pacquiao-Mayweather will happen eventually and said he’d prefer sooner to later. “But the thing is, inactivity is worse for a fighter than activity. Activity is going to keep Manny sharp, and Floyd’s going to get stale. No way you can stay ready. Being in the gym is not enough; you need competition.”

Obviously, Mayweather doesn’t share that philosophy, announcing “retirements” and “vacations” more often than he announces fights these days. He fought once in 2010, once in ’09, and not at all in ’08. Mayweather's serious legal problems, four felonies and four misdemeanors stemming from a domestic incident involving the mother of three of his children in September, may keep him out of the ring for the first half of 2011 (provided that he doesn't see jail time, which is possible). However, his long stretch of inactivity wouldn’t necessarily rule out a super-fight with Pacquiao late next year. Mayweather doesn’t think he “needs competition.” But Pacquiao thrives on competition.

And the question becomes, can Margarito provide the same sort of competition that Cotto did, inflicting damage and giving the Pacquiao fans a good scare before their hero takes over?

There are plenty of observers who say no. Many of the same folks who insisted De La Hoya was too big and Cotto was too big have finally accepted that size isn’t everything and have now perhaps swung too far the other way, declaring Margarito’s size and strength utterly inconsequential.

Ultimately, though, what kind of chance you give Margarito probably depends on how much of his 38-6 (27) record you believe was built honestly and how much was built dishonestly.

Not to dwell too heavily on the controversial elements of this fight that many fans are tired of hearing about, but the facts must be quickly addressed: Prior to Margarito’s January ’09 fight with Mosley, his then-trainer, Javier Capetillo, was caught trying to load gauze inserts soaked in a sort of plaster-like material into his hand wraps. Margarito, fighting with legal wraps after Mosley trainer Nazim Richardson spotted the attempted cheating, got slaughtered by underdog Mosley. And then all of his past accomplishments were called into question. His 11th-round knockout of Cotto, in which Margarito fell behind then started hurting Cotto with almost every punch, while making his face resemble a side of beef that Rocky Balboa had just pounded on, looked especially suspicious.

But we might never know the truth. Margarito continues to plead ignorance. For now, all we have is speculation. Margarito had to know what was in his hand wraps. This couldn’t have been the first time Capetillo did this. They’re logical theories. But that’s all they are. By the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation’s loose standards, there wasn’t sufficient reason to deny Margarito a license. So, like it or not, the man now known to many as “Marga-cheato” gets to be the B-side in one of 2010’s most lucrative fights.

If you think Margarito without loaded gloves is the equivalent of the mighty Samson shorn, maybe you view him as nothing but a big, tattooed punching bag for Pacquiao to tee off on. But there is an opposing viewpoint worth considering here, if you believe there’s some chance that Margarito’s wins over Cotto, Clottey, Kermit Cintron, Sebastian Lujan, Antonio Diaz, a young Sergio Martinez, and other world-class foes were earned legitimately.

Here are four reasons to think Margarito can at least be competitive against Pacquiao and do some of Mayweather’s work for him:

1. Margarito wasn’t himself against Mosley: Whether he was a knowing cheater or Capetillo’s na├»ve puppet, the guy got busted for loading his gloves about a half-hour before entering the ring. How do you bring your A-game at that point? How do you focus fully on the task at hand? That was the only one-sided defeat Margarito has suffered in the last 14 years; the other losses were a narrow decision to Paul Williams and a questionable technical decision to Daniel Santos in Puerto Rico. It may be that we’ll never again see Margarito perform as badly as he did against Sugar Shane.

2. Margarito dwarfs Pacquiao: No, size doesn’t matter as much as the uninformed observer thinks it does, and certainly it doesn’t matter at all if the bigger guy can’t lay a hand on the smaller guy. But still, it was hard not to gasp at the size differential when the fighters posed for staredown photos on the press tour. Pacquiao’s eyes line up with the bottom of Margarito’s mullet. The 5-foot-11 Margarito tipped the scales at the contracted 150-pound limit at the weigh-in on Friday. He didn’t have to come all the way down to the welterweight limit like the weight-drained De La Hoya did for his bout with Pacquiao, who weighed in at a surprisingly light 144.6 pounds for Margarito. If it turns out Margarito can indeed punch hard without plaster in his mitts and if he manages to score even one of two flush connects, who knows, size and strength might play a role just when public sentiment on the subject has finally swung the other way.

3. Margarito has everything to prove: We’ve been over the fact that Margarito’s record is now littered with asterisks. If he doesn’t win at least one significant fight post-Mosley, then his legacy will be that of a cheater who never really beat anybody.

“There’s a lot of negative people in the business that just don’t believe him,” Margarito’s new trainer, Robert Garcia, said at the Los Angeles stop on the press tour. “This is the time for him to prove everybody wrong, show that he’s a real fighter and show that he doesn’t have to cheat to win fights. And this is the perfect fight, the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world.”

4. Pacquiao is more distracted than ever: Pac-Man has always been more than just a boxer. For a while, the pool halls were his mistress. Then it became making movies and recording albums. And though he’s never let those things cost him a victory in the ring, the distractions are more serious now. Pacquiao is a congressman in his native Philippines. That’s not a hobby or a brief project-based job. It’s a real commitment ÔÇö and by all accounts, Pacquiao is really committed to it. He’s not just happy to have won the election. Congressman Pacquiao recently made a speech about the importance of getting funding to fight the human trafficking problem in the Philippines (in the last seven years, 800 cases have come under investigation, but due to the absence of a budget, only 18 have reached the conviction stage). And he made a push to set up his training camp for the Margarito fight inside the premises of the lower house of Congress in Quezon City so that he could devote maximum time to both jobs (though the idea was ultimately abandoned after House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said it wasn’t a good idea).

There is precedent for Pacquiao failing to give certain fights his full, undivided attention. Lax training nearly got him knocked out against Oscar Larios in 2006, and he half-assed it against Jorge Solis in ’07 because he knew he could afford to. Could the same thing possibly happen against Margarito, an opponent whom the sports books installed as about a 5-1 underdog?

“No, we’re going against a bigger, stronger guy and Manny’s not going to take him lightly,” Roach said. “You know, Larios and Solis were mediocre-type opponents. This is not a mediocre-type opponent. This guy’s world-class; he’s a lot bigger man. We’ll have no problem getting Manny motivated for this fight, none whatsoever.

“Manny’s always been a multi-tasker, he’s always got something going on during training camp. He’s trying to do his best as a congressman. But he does understand that what he does best is boxing. He has not lost sight of that yet.”

Certainly, Pacquiao’s comments at the various press stops suggest he’s not looking past Margarito. He’s said he expects a tougher fight than Clottey gave him (no great stretch there) and that Margarito’s height and reach advantages could present problems.

The comments that really drew attention, however, were the ones about Margarito’s cheating scandal and continued insistence that he was Capetillo’s innocent patsy. “I don’t believe him,” Pacquiao said. “Of course he knew about [the hand wraps]. It’s his hands and he watches the taping.”

Many fans and experts were outraged that Pacquiao would give this opportunity to someone he believes was knowingly loading his gloves, but politician Pacquiao explained simply his stance on the matter. “He paid his dues by sacrificing and not fighting for one year,” Pacquiao said. “I hope he learned his lesson and will not repeat the mistake.”

There are those who remain vehemently opposed to this fight happening and can’t understand why Pacquiao, with his multitude of options, would elect to square off against Margarito. What they fail to accept is that “Money” Mayweather isn’t the only one who’s allowed to let the almighty dollar guide him.

Pacquiao vs. Joshua Clottey drew an announced crowd of more 51,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium and attracted more than 700,000 pay-per-view buys. Margarito is an exponentially bigger name than Clottey. Some experts have predicted a live crowd in excess of 70,000 at the same stadium outside Dallas for Pacquiao-Margarito, and others have estimated that the PPV, with the marketing power of HBO’s 24/7 behind it (something the Clottey fight didn’t have), could reach seven figures.

And though exact financials haven’t been disclosed, Margarito has little bargaining power right now, meaning Pacquiao can command a major financial imbalance in his favor. In a rematch with Cotto (another fight Arum claimed to be considering), Pacquiao probably wouldn’t get so lopsided a split as he will with Margarito, who would make just about any concession for a chance such as this. The Mexican needs the chance not only because a win would rehab his image, but also because a paycheck would come in handy. Let’s not forget all the legal fees incurred by Margarito (and/or the Bank of Bob Arum) in 2009 and 2010 while very little money was coming in.

Pacquiao-Margarito is a marketable matchup, whether for all the right reasons or all the wrong ones, and the Filipino superstar won’t have to share too much of the profit with his opponent. Maybe Floyd Mayweather is waiting for the perfect time to fight Manny Pacquiao. But meanwhile, maybe Pacquiao has found the perfect time to fight Antonio Margarito. The risk of defeat seems minimal, the financial reward enormous.

Some have criticized, and will continue to criticize, everyone involved in the promotion, including the usually unimpeachable Pacquiao. But for the most part, those critics are just helping to sell the fight. Controversy tends to do that.

And maybe, just maybe, those fans who are lured in by the scent of controversy will end up seeing a real, entertaining, two-sided fight for their money. Imagine that.

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