Tomorrow night, in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito will reprise their once famous, now infamous, 2008 confrontation, and in so doing will produce what fight fans hope to be a spectacle capable of buoying up a sport too often dragged down by lame-duck fights and diminishing fistic returns. Margarito-Cotto II will have in its corner three elements that have at different times throughout boxing’s modern era contributed to some of prize fighting’s finest moments.
It will come as no surprise that a sport predicated upon “the laying on of hands,” as A.J. Liebling put it, should find at the nexus of so many of its most revered and revisited events the presence of a high degree of violence and drama. One such bout, the 1943 lightweight rematch between champion Bob Montgomery and Beau Jack, stands as a seminal moment in the history of both New York City boxing and sanctioned brutality the world over. On multiple occasions the proceedings pushed both men to points that put strain to the definition of intelligent defense, and by the end of the night both fighters were seen off with bruises and bloody-smeared mouths.
Over 17,000 fans saw Jack regain his lightweight crown that night, most of them drawn to Eighth Avenue by memories of the fighters’ first meeting, a similarly pugnacious affair that would set the tone for their classic later that year. In much the same way, thoughts of the 2008 shoot-out between Cotto and Margarito will no doubt not be far from mind for the over 18,000 fans who are expected to fill the Garden this Saturday.
The lead up to the fighters’ first encounter was marked by mutual respect, expressed on both sides by a dignified silence that, in retrospect, now seems almost a calm, knowing glance towards the violence that was to come. This time around, any such subtlety has been cast aside, both men opting instead for more blunt declarations of intent. Cotto, for his part, has pledged a Shakespearian route to vengeance, claiming the role of Cornwall to Margarito’s Gloucester and thus taking aim at the Mexican’s newly repaired right eye. Margarito, on the other hand, has been less precise in forecasting Cotto’s anatomical distress: the Caguas native will leave on a stretcher, says the challenger; the details are, apparently, unimportant.
Should the intensity of action portended by such threats come to pass in the ring Saturday, it will not have been borne purely of a fortuitous style match-up. As with so many marquee pairings throughout the years, the role narrative has played in granting this fight the opportunity to be something fans can be truly proud of should not be overlooked.
The “Thrilla in Manila” carries a level of name recognition today that few fights can match. But its position within the public’s collective consciousness may not have been possible were it not for the narrative of both personal hatred and political acrimony that framed those fourteen unforgettable rounds. This is true on two levels. Would an international audience, so captivated as it was, be nearly as interested in a contest waged merely to determine the heavyweight champion of the world, and not, as it is somewhat hyperbolically remembered as having done, the fate of two colliding world views? And would either man have been capable of forcing their bodies to the brink in the manner they did without the impetus of a blood feud?
A similar force will be pushing at the backs of Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito. Cotto will carry to the ring the belief that the man in front of him is guilty of having jeopardized his health in a bid to illegally bolster his own chances of victory — a heavy charge in a sport that, even when contested fairly, provides ample opportunity for tragedy. Margarito, on the other hand, will be shouldering the bitterness of seeing his life’s work cast in suspicion and his character demeaned. One is fighting for vengeance, the other for legacy.
For both men, then, the stakes could not be higher. The sting that comes from a blemish to one’s record or the loss of a sanctioning-body trinket can be easily forgotten. The pain of losing to a man guilty of taking your life in his hands or of seeing the product of a career’s worth of labor washed away in a matter of minutes – not so much. The result of Saturday’s fight will echo in the back of one man’s mind well into the future. It’s a fate Joe Frazier knew all to well, a fate both Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito will be fighting to avoid.
The final element that makes tomorrow’s fight so intriguing is not as easily measured. We know that the action is likely to be fierce because both fighter’s histories in the ring suggest that should be the case. Similarly, we know the degree of personal animosity that exists and all that’s at stake because the fighters have expressed as much. It’s what we don’t know, however, that adds that final touch of intrigue to an already promising fight.
More than any other sport, boxing dwells on the path taken rather than the destination sought. The result of a great fight is often less important than what produced it. Such was the case in 1981, when Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns met at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Leonard’s dramatic 14th-round knockout of Hearns, spurred on by Angelo Dundee’s emphatic declaration, “You’re blowin’ it son!” has become boxing lore. But equal in significance is the reversal of roles that dictated much of the action up to that point: Hearns, one of the foremost power punchers of his generation, boxing and finessing his way through the fight, and Leonard, the Olympic gold medalist and ring technician, looking to brawl.
This great moment speaks to an important aspect of boxing’s appeal. Beyond the thrill of seeing two men exchange blows, there also exists the intrigue of seeing exactly how one man responds to the other in the heat of battle — not just physically, but stylistically as well. This is a cerebral attraction. When two fighters step in against each other, the number of shapes a fight may take are countless. The decisions fighters make—the adjustments they employs and the tactical decisions they opt for—can be as significant as the action they produce. In the run up to an event, fans will repeatedly see the fight acted out in their heads—millions of fans going through the same process, each seeing the fight play out a different way.
Match-ups between fighters possessing stylistic dexterity provide fertile ground for this type of suspense. Saturday’s match-up involves only one fighter whose skill-set allows for options in his approach, but the route he finally chooses could well trump any other single factor in determining whose hand is raised at the end of the night. Three years ago Miguel Cotto made the wrong choice. A conservative hit-and-run strategy fell apart when the Puerto Rican’s early success failed to have the taxing effect on Margarito that Cotto was hoping for. An exhausted Cotto, expending too much energy for too little pay off, was helpless to resist Margarito’s onslaught.
Cotto’s dilemma heading into Saturday’s fight is no less vexing than it was when he first met Margarito. Unlike two years ago, Cotto will be aware of the risks inherent in a more passive approach. But the weaknesses that kept him from meeting Margarito in the center of the ring in Las Vegas—among them, a questionable chin and unreliable stamina—will also be following him to the ring in New York. It’s a tactical riddle that Cotto will have to solve if he is to attain victory he so badly desires. Thirty years ago, Thomas Hearns made the decision to box what was then one of the sport’s most gifted ring technicians and it shaped the way he and the fight would forever be seen. The choices Miguel Cotto makes will be every bit as integral to tomorrow night’s legacy.