Miguel Cotto slays his white whale

Once, while sitting next to a professional prizefighter as we looked down from the bleachers at two men swapping punches in the ring below, I mentioned that at times I found it strange the way boxing compels men who do not know each other to meet for the first time, beat each other up and then go their separate ways.

"When you're alone in a ring with your opponent," the fighter said, "the two of you become closer than any other people in the world."

Given the violence that brings it about, it is perhaps surprising that this closeness can yield to friendship: Witness, for example, Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti, who went life-and-death with each other over three fights before Ward retired and, ultimately, became Gatti's trainer. On the other hand, there are cases like Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, for whom every punch only added to the enmity they felt, and feel, for each other.

And then there is Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito.

"To the last, I grapple with thee"

There was a time when Miguel Cotto did not know Antonio Margarito, did not even know his name. Had their lives taken different paths, it likely would have remained that way. Even after the night of July 26, 2008 -- that brutal night in Las Vegas when Margarito overwhelmed Cotto, beating him down and out -- they were united as foes who had submitted each other to simultaneous trials of fire. The events of Jan. 24, 2009, changed that, turned Margarito from Cotto's conqueror to his nemesis, from the man who had defeated him to the man who, in Cotto's mind and the minds of many others, cheated and in the process might have severely harmed him.

Once Margarito was discovered, in the dressing room prior to his fight with Shane Mosley, to have worn illegal inserts in his hand wraps, everything changed. The severity of the beating he delivered in the second half of the fight, the way his punches were seemingly able to gather intensity as the battle unfolded, the state of Cotto's face by the time the towel was waved in surrender -- it all seemed to make sense. For a long time, Cotto would not be drawn into the matter, but in his own mind he was certain, and internally he seethed.

"From Hell's heart, I stab at thee"

After Cotto defeated Ricardo Mayorga in March of this year, he sat on the dais at the postfight news conference as promoter Bob Arum called Margarito to the stage. Arum was putting the pieces in place for the rematch, for the opportunity for the two men to score either redemption or revenge, for Margarito to beat Cotto again and make the case he neither had nor needed tampered wraps the first time; or for Cotto to reverse the result and assert the opposite. Margarito offered Cotto his hand; Cotto, contemptuously, shook it as casually and briefly as possible, unable and unwilling to look his tormentor in the eye.

For two years, as much as he may have wanted his revenge, Cotto refused to even consider it, refused to countenance the idea of helping Margarito earn one cent more. The lure of 500 million cents of his own helped change that, and as the date of destiny approached, Cotto's expressionless veneer finally cracked. He outright accused Margarito of cheating and endangering his life. And, pointing to Margarito's right eye, which had been badly beaten by Manny Pacquiao last November -- to the point that it seemed uncertain whether the Mexican would ever fight again -- Cotto chillingly threatened to target it over and over, unconcerned by the damage he might inflict.

"I will take advantage of his eye, the way he took advantage with the plaster," he promised.

"For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee"

Whether or not Margarito was fighting with illegal hand wraps in 2008, Cotto committed a number of cardinal errors that facilitated his defeat. Even as he piled up points in the early going, he did not commit sufficiently to his combinations. He backed up as much as he moved sideways. He came to rest too often with his back against the ropes, leaning forward as he did so. The net result was that Margarito was able to plow endlessly forward, churning uppercuts that eventually chopped Cotto down.

From the opening bell at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, it was clear that this time would be different. Cotto moved constantly, but -- with the exception of a period in the fourth and fifth rounds when it looked as if a 3-year-old play was about to be reenacted -- he did not allow Margarito to drive him backward, was not pinned against the ropes, was not open to uppercuts. He fired a stiff jab, followed often by three-punch combinations. And, importantly, when Margarito closed the distance, Cotto tied him up and pushed him backward. That was what Mosley had done, and it would be key to Saturday's fight: This time, unlike last time, Cotto was the physically assertive fighter. Margarito never had the chance to get into his rhythm, never was able to walk Cotto down, instead spent most of the night following and chasing, increasingly lunging with his punches and taking artillery in return.

And Cotto, true to his word, pummeled Margarito's eye.

Every combination, it seemed, ended with a hook to the eye. Cotto circled to his left, his opponent's right, normally the last thing one should do against a right-handed opponent but the direction that afforded him the greatest opportunity to zero in on that tempting, vulnerable target. Sure enough, soon that eye began to redden. Then it began to swell. Eventually, it closed completely, and although the desperate pleadings of the Mexican's corner bought him more time -- time in which the only thing he earned was more punishment -- Margarito's night was done. After nine rounds, referee Steve Smoger, on the advice of the ringside physicians, called a halt to the contest. Miguel Cotto had his revenge.

Afterward, Cotto, wearing a shirt and tie as if returning from the office, his battered and bruised face a reminder of exactly what his day's work had entailed, insisted that there had been nothing especially personal about the whole enterprise, that he had merely done his job. But everyone present knew there was more to it than that, as evidenced not only before the bout, but during it, as Cotto tapped the tattoo of his late father and whispered that revenge was coming, and in the immediate aftermath, as he turned away after watching doctor and referee declare the fight was finished.

"I'm just glad this this is all over, that it's behind me," he said. "Now I can move on."