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Antonio Margarito and the Hard Road to Texas

(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)
(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)


Former WBO, IBF, and WBA welterweight titleholder Antonio “The Tijuana Tornado” Margarito Jr. is no stranger to adversity. Point in fact, adversity is where he lives. Born in Torrance, CA but raised from the age of two in Tijuana, MX, where he lives to this day with his childhood sweetheart Michelle, Antonio grew up the second child of three girls and two boys. As a boy, he worked alongside his father selling lighting or sold newspapers on his own.

 

“I was never a street fighter or anything like that,” Margarito told me from his training camp in Oxnard, CA, where prepared for his November 13 WBC junior middleweight bout with Manny Pacquiao. “Maybe as a kid, I had a little fight here and there with friends but no, I helped my dad selling his lamps. And I also used to sell newspapers.”

 

It was a simple life made happier by his father Antonio Sr.’s love of boxing. It was through that passion for the sport that Saturday night would forever have a whole new meaning for Antonio Jr. 

 

“I grew up watching boxing because my dad was a very, very big boxing fan and I would watch fights with him every Saturday on TV,” Margarito recalled. “Whenever there was fights live in Tijuana, my dad would take me to watch the fights.”


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To grow up in Mexico in the mid to late-‘80s was to grow up in the era of one of the all-time great Mexican fighters, the “Lion of Culiacan,” Julio Cesar Chavez, 107-6-2 (86). By 1987, Chavez was a rising super featherweight king when young “Tony” and his older brother Manuel met their hero by chance.

 

“When I was nine, I remember hearing about Julio Cesar Chavez all the time. That’s when he was very popular. And my dad took me to some fights in Tijuana and he was there watching the fights live,” said Margarito.

 

Growing up in Tijuana, there was no other fighter for Tony, who had begun his amateur career the previous year.

 

“I started boxing when I was eight,” My dad saw that, when I used to see boxing fights on TV, I would get really excited. So he started taking me to the boxing gym.”

 

Chavez was to the young Margaritos what Elvis was to kids in the ‘50s, the baddest Mexican in the world and there he was.

 

“Since I started boxing, over and over, I’d watch his fights,” Margarito grinned. “He’s been my idol. Chavez was everybody’s idol. Everyone idolized him. Everywhere he’d go, people were just crowded up around him. When I met him, I was sitting up in the stands very high and he was down there ringside. So I found my way through the chairs and the security and he sat me on his lap and with my older brother and took a picture with both of us.”

 

Born with a natural aggressive pro mentality, Margarito finished his amateur career with a record of 18-3 and turned pro in January 1994 at the age of 15 for the simplest of reasons: he needed the money. His signature high-pressure storm-of-punches style was something Margarito exhibited from the very beginning. However, he wouldn’t learn what it is to stop a man until his third fight, a fourth-round TKO over Victor Angulo. It’s a feeling Margarito has experienced 26 more times since then.

 

“It feels good that the work did pay off,” Margarito explained of stopping an opponent. “I love it when I see my opponent down and he doesn’t make the count. But at the same time, it feels kind of bad that you are hurting somebody else.”

Midway through 1996, Margarito’s late-teens trial by fire saw him to an 8-3 record with 5 KOs. That third loss was a ten-round unanimous decision to Rodney Jones. While it marked the last time Antonio Margarito would lose in the ring for eight years, outside the ring, the word “loss” would take on a much harsher meaning.

Tony would rattle off eight wins in a row by the time he was set to face Buck Smith as the co-feature to Paulie Ayala vs. Saohin Srithai Condo at the Will Rogers Coliseum on October 23, 1999. Tragically, on October 22, 1999, Manuel Margarito was murdered in his home. The crime, thought to be a robbery gone wrong, according to Margarito’s manager Sergio Diaz, is still unsolved. The loss is one that defines Margarito’s spirit. While he would not discuss the death of his brother, his actions do.

Many fighters would bow out of a fight in those circumstances. For others, the pain might be too much. But for a fighter like Margarito (who took flush shots and kept coming to win by knockout twice against Kermit Cintron, fought through a wrist and ankle injury to outpoint a prime Joshua Clottey, lost his title in a classic to Paul Williams, came back and then endured epic punishment at the hands of Miguel Cotto before stopping him in 11, only to suffer a ninth-round knockout loss at the hands of Shane Mosley), quitting during adversity is not an option.

 

Margarito went on to fight and defeat Buck Smith via sixth-round stoppage and continue on toward multiple welterweight title glory. The ring now had become more than a place to survive and make some money. Now it was a place of solace, a violent cocoon within which the burgeoning fighter could unleash his pain on another.

 

“I love boxing,” Margarito said when asked what he loves most about his sport. “I just love everything that has to do with boxing. Even when I don’t have any date or any fights, I am still in the gym because I love it.”

 

1999 was significant for Margarito for yet another reason. He married his childhood sweetheart, Michelle.

 

“I met her when we were both 13. We met in school. Two years later, we were boyfriend and girlfriend. Then, we got married at 21. So now we’ve been married 11 years,” Margarito said and then smiled and added, “No kids. Not your typical Mexican.”

 

Michelle is his constant companion. She is at every training session, every fight. She is his everything. It seems inexplicable that the couple would not have little Tonys running around.

 

“The reason is that I’ve always been in this sport and we travel a lot,” Margarito explained. “She’s always with me. And that’s why we haven’t. We’re planning to start after this fight.”

 

Adversity knocked on Antonio Margarito’s door loudest on January 24, 2009, the night he lost to Shane Mosley. Less than an hour before the fight, it was discovered by Mosley’s trainer, Naazim Richardson, and California State Athletic Commission inspectors that the knuckle pads in Margarito’s right-hand wrap (and the padding for what was going to be on his left hand) contained an illegal gauze insert that was later reported by the Bureau of Forensic Services to be “Calcium and sulpher (sic), two elements found in plaster of Paris, were found on the submitted gauze pad using an X-ray fluorescence [XRF] spectrometer. The elements calcium, sulpher (sic), and oxygen are found in plaster of Paris. These three elements are also found in substances other than plaster. Oxygen is not detectable by XRF.” The California State Athletic Commission determined, before knowing what the substances were, that Margarito was responsible for his former trainer Javier Capetillo’s actions, though they showed Margarito knew about the inserts. To date, no one has truly confirmed this. Capetillo and Margarito had their licenses revoked with reapplication possible in a year. His name tarnished and reputation in tatters, Margarito returned home to Tijuana with Michelle and contemplated his future. From the moment he left the sport, he saw the boxing world turn its collective back on him with one exception, his promoter Bob Arum, who has ceaselessly defended Margarito since day one.

 

It is an ironic fact that Bob Arum was the promoter for Billy Collins, who was severely damaged on June 16, 1983 by the beating he took at the illegally gloved hands of Luis Resto. Collins suffered career-ending injuries in the ten-round decision loss that many feel led to his untimely death months later. In that case, the New York State Athletic Commission was able to determine that Resto’s trainer, Panama Lewis, had removed more than an ounce of padding from the gloves. They also determined that Resto had to have known. Lewis was sentenced to six years in prison and Resto three for assault, conspiracy and criminal possession of a weapon. To date, Margarito nor Capetillo have been brought up on charges nor are there any plans for them to be.

 

Bob Arum, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is many things. An easy man to sway is not one of them. Arum’s support of Margarito, in light of his connection to Billy Collins- however you view a promoter/fighter relationship- is arguably the most compelling piece of information in this case.

 

“I believe Margarito implicitly,” Arum told me recently. “And this is before the concept of a Pacquiao fight arose. I truly believe as [former Chief Inspector for the California commission] Dean Louhis did, that Margarito did not know of these inserts in his wraps. I believe him. And more than that, they never demonstrated that he knew. This is America. You convict somebody based on the evidence, not something like, ‘He must of have known.’ How the f**k do you know what must he have known?”

 

It’s been nearly two years since that fateful night and, while in that time Margarito was forced to leave the sport, his passion for boxing never left him. He spent most of that year training in Tijuana, losing himself in the gym and waiting for the moment he could return to the sport he loves, reclaim his former glory, and restore his name.

 

“Only time will tell,” Margarito said. “I feel better than ever. So only time will tell. Hopefully, God gives me a few years more years to do what I love.”

 

Returning to the sport has not been easy. Margarito only has a license to box in Texas where he will face Pacquiao at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Fans are divided about the bout, though a tide of support seems to grow every day. For Antonio Margarito, the lessons he has learned and the people who supported him though it all only have served to reinforce what is most important in life.

 

“My wife, my family, my boxing,” Margarito said simply. “In that order.”

 

Now, Margarito is trained by former champion Robert Garcia in his Oxnard Boxing Academy in Oxnard, CA. I took a recent trip to that camp to watch Margarito spar. What I saw impressed me. Margarito took on three different men for a total of nine rounds. Each man, a southpaw with varying degrees of speed and power, had good first rounds. However, rounds two and three were the problem, as Margarito overpowered them and pushed them to their limits. Yes, he still takes flush head shots or three. Yes, he is slow as an old guy on a very cold winter day. But little adjustments such as cutting off the ring better or more use of his non-existent jab were evident as he fought while the soft-spoken Garcia talked to him quietly from the corner ring post.

 

What’s more, the fighting spirit of Margarito has not waned while he has been away. What it appears to have done is grow.

 

“You see this, Pacquiao?” Margarito asked as he ripped off his sweatshirt following the session. “This is without steroids” alluding to the allegations that Manny Pacquiao might be using illegal performance-enhancing drugs because he refused to be randomly tested up to the day of a potential fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. “You think I f**ked Cotto up? Wait until you see what I do to you.”

 

The Margarito camp is one that appears to be relaxed and friendly. On the Friday I came to the gym, Halloween was approaching and the vibe was relaxed as the camp joked and asked each other what they would be.

 

“He should be the Devil,” someone said of Margarito, who sports a classic devil goatee and who, if you read his press clippings, is pretty much a devil in many boxing fans’ and pundits’ eyes.

 

“Who did Freddie Roach lose to?” Someone asked about the pro boxing career of Manny Pacquiao’s trainer.

 

“He had 13 losses,” I offered.

 

“13 losses. That means he is tough,” said Garcia. “He kept coming and coming.”

 

The moment is a stark contrast of respect when put against a video that surfaced this week, taken five weeks ago by Elie Seckbach, a videographer for AOL Fanhouse.com, who spends time gathering material in gyms across Los Angeles.

 

The video, released on Wednesday, just in time for the final press conference for this mega-bout, showed Margarito feigning fear, when asked what he thought of Freddie Roach’s prediction that Pacquiao would knock him out early. What followed was ugly; however, as Garcia pointed at lightweight prospect Brandon Rios and said, “There’s Freddie Roach,” Rios proceeded to imitate Roach, who has Parkinson’s Disease. All of them laughed.

 

The moment, a terrible lapse in judgment caught on tape, seems to have undone a lot of the goodwill Margarito and his team has spent so long building up. Even in a promotion where Freddie Roach called Margarito “an attempted murderer” and claimed Margarito had to have known about the hand wraps, well after telling Margarito personally he believed Margarito did not know, the joke was uncalled for. Even in a world where every thought is about the best way to hurt the man you will face in the coming weeks and wars of words are par for the course between camps, it was uncalled for. All three men would apologize to the media, Roach and anyone who was offended. Roach would accept the apology and, for the time being, all have moved on.

 

At the final event of the promotion, the weigh-in, amid a ton of whispers that the 5’11” Margarito would not make weight and was looking like a somber zombie, he showed up buoyant and smiling, weighing in at 150 pounds to Pacquiao’s 144.6. Margarito’s body and demeanor confirmed the idea that he had perhaps the best camp of his life.

 

All that is left now, amid those whispers, controversy, and gamesmanship between the camps, is the fight itself. Margarito knows that winning won’t take away everything he is accused of nor what he has endured in the months since that night at Staples Center. But one gets the sense that perhaps a win can, if only briefly, quiet the storm of criticism that now taints his participation in the world he has known for more than half his life.

 

“Boxing is one of those books that continues to be written and nothing is set in stone,” Margarito said. “I just go fight as much as possible and see how it plays out. Every time you step in the ring, everything is on the line. Your life is on the line. Everything is on the line. In every fight, your life is on the line. When you go in there, you try to do your best to win and put everything you can into it.”

 

If Margarito knows anything, it’s what to do when the bell rings. Saturday night, for 36 minutes or less, that’s exactly what he will do as he and Pacquiao shut out the world and go to war.

 

You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim or tune into hear him live on Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST when he co-hosts the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.



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