Who needs Dali or Dada when you have boxing—the last American surrealist outpost—to fill all of your bizarro needs? The strange and sordid road to the rematch between Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto reaches its end tonight at Madison Square Garden when the two meet over a scheduled 12 rounds to put their extraordinary vendetta to rest.
For a few strange moments it looked like the New York State Athletic Commission would put the kibosh on the entire distasteful affair, but their attempts were so Strangelovian that they somehow achieved the opposite effect. Years have passed since the NYSAC was a regular laughingstock. Overrun by corruption, incompetence, and cronyism, the NYSAC hit rock bottom in 2001 when Beethaeven Scottland died after injuries suffered in a bout against George Jones Jr. The negligent Pataki administration soon cleaned house, and boxing in New York has been relatively trouble-free since then—at least, as trouble-free as boxing can manage to be. But over the last two or three weeks, the NYSAC resembled the sad comedy of errors of the 1990s. There are many theories for their odd actions. Some of them are conspiratorial in nature, and, since this is boxing, there is likely some truth to such charges. But what scenes the NYSACconcocted in its collective delirium, with its private huddling, its “do over” mentality, and its open mic unnoticed to all but the public. There was Edwin Torres, state Supreme Court judge, yes, but also the author of Carlito’s Way, alongside Chairwoman Melvina Lathan with her recriminatory tones ultimately wiped out by laryngitis. In the end, Margarito was pronounced to have undergone “beautiful surgery” and allowed to fight. So many tax collectors in New York breathed a sigh of relief simultaneously that a small twister tore up and down state streets from Oswego to Far Rockaway.
In the glittering city where Glamazonians stalk the sidewalks in three-inch heels, trust fund babies grip their Frappuccinos with knowing hipster glee, and a studio apartment on Spruce Street goes for nearly $4,000 a month, Margarito-Cotto II is a genuine throwback to the gritty Weegee era—blood, violence, and a fevered crowd on hand to witness all. This is ugly stuff and it will only get uglier once the opening bell rings.
With his satanic goatee and an unkempt hairdo reminiscent of something out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, Margarito has embraced the role of cartoon villain in this promotion with aplomb. All Margarito needs is a pitchfork and a skullcap with devil horns to complete the image. A surgically-repaired eye—eerie in its misshapen socket–has even left Margarito resembling a bit of an ogre. He might as well have trained in Castle Dracula. Now, Cotto, who believes Margarito used tampered gloves against him in their first fight, is set up as Van Helsing to hunt down a fighter whose very participation in a morally dubious pursuit might even give the dullest Tweeter cause for some pause. And thousands of Puerto Ricans will be at Madison Square Garden hoping for revenge, because boxing is the only sport in the world that can concretize abstract notions thrown around willy-nilly by athletes all over the world.
Precisely how these two men will fare in the ring is unclear. Both fighters are clearly past their best. Margarito, in particular, looks like he is in serious need of the Rest Cure. Incredibly, Margarito, 38-7-0-1 (27), has not looked good in a ring since he beat Cotto in 2008. Since then, he has been obliterated by Shane Mosley, went 10 ragged rounds with Roberto Garcia, and was tortured by Manny Pacquiao in a gruesome public vivisection in Texas last year. To this day, it is impossible to understand how ringside physicians, referee Laurence Cole, and trainer Robert Garcia failed to halt the beating Margarito took from Pacquiao.
Still, Margarito has never had a style based on skill or finesse. A wade-in marauder, Margarito has overcome most opponents by combining stamina, workrate, pressure, and power with an anvil of a chin. Of course he might have added something a little darker to that potent mix over the years, but no one will ever know for sure. As for Cotto, now 31, he no longer resembles the sharp boxer-puncher of 2007. He is easier to hit and his reflexes appear to have slowed considerably. Never the best defensive fighter, Cotto, 36-2 (29), has taken serious punishment over the years from Ricardo Torres, Margarito, Joshua Clottey, and, in particular, Manny Pacquiao. Even a completely washed-up mauler like Ricardo Mayorga managed to shake Cotto a few times last March in Las Vegas.
If Cotto has lost more than just a step, then his defensive lapses may be the tipping point against Margarito. After building an early points lead by sticking and moving in their first fight, Cotto succumbed to the overwhelming pressure Margarito put on him, along with dozens of thudding blows from gloves and wraps that may or may not belong in a lab in Quantico. For Cotto, there is no real alternative course of action in the rematch. He must look to score points from the outside, keep away from the ropes, and give Margarito angles when the “Tijuana Tornado” gets close.
But Cotto, Caguas, Puerto Rico, is still physically overmatched by Margarito, who is taller, has a pull in reach, and will no longer have to suffer the weight-draining ordeals of the past. Unless Margarito, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, has seen the hairline crack Shane Mosley inflicted on his jaw turn into a fault zone, he ought to be able to withstand whatever Cotto throws at him. After all, the same accurate shots that failed to short-circuit Margarito in 2008 are even less likely now to work for Cotto, who has proven little at junior middleweight.
While Cotto does his best Nijinsky act in the ring, Margarito will be looking to grind him down to a standstill little by little. Whenever Cotto winds up stationary or with his back to the ropes, Margarito will be there, churning both hands—uppercuts, body shots, and hooks on the inside. Now 33, Margarito has always been slow on his feet and sometimes his blows are delivered with all the speed of a drawbridge opening, but he is tenacious and practically indefatigable. Margarito, it is certain, will make the ring a crucible for as long as he can.
If ever a fight called for the ring announcer to step forward and announce “All bets are off,” Margarito-Cotto is it. There are enough supercharged asterisks in this fight to light the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center for the rest of winter. Simply put, anything can happen. Even the concept of sport—pure athletic competition—might pop up somewhere in Madison Square Garden, where it will be three o’clock in the morning—the real dark night of the soul—as soon as the opening bell rings.