Cotto-Margarito defines rivalry

One of the best national rivalries in boxing, of course, is Mexico versus Puerto Rico. Many trace the birth of the rivalry to a 1934 bantamweight championship bout in which Puerto Rico's Sixto Escobar became the first world champion from the Caribbean island when he knocked out Mexico’s Rodolfo Casanova. Since then, there have been numerous memorable clashes between fighters from each country.

Among the most memorable are these epic battles: Puerto Rican Wilfredo Gomez's fifth-round TKO of Carlos Zarate to defend the junior featherweight title (1978); Mexican Salvador Sanchez's eighth-round knockout of Gomez to retain the featherweight title (1981); Gomez stopping Lupe Pintor in the 14th round in defense of the junior featherweight title (1982); and Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez's 11th-round TKO of Edwin "Chapo" Rosario to win the lightweight title (1987), then a defense against Hector Camacho (1992).

If you add Mexican-Americans to the equation, you can’t leave out Puerto Rican Felix Trinidad outpointing Oscar De La Hoya in their controversial welterweight unification fight (1999) and Trinidad’s 12th-round knockout of Fernando Vargas to unify junior middleweight belts (2000).

Although I covered Trinidad-Vargas, the most significant fights in the rivalry in my time on the boxing beat are the memorable bouts between Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto and Mexico’s Antonio Margarito.

"It's one of the best rivalries, and it's great to be part of the rivalry," Cotto said before the first fight. “This is another chapter, and it's good for us. We want to make this fight at the level of those in the past. Everybody knows about the rivalry. Now it is me against Margarito. This fight will add another shot to the rivalry."

Boy, did they.

The Cotto-Margarito fights had an intensity like no others, and that was even before anybody suspected that Margarito may have cheated by wearing loaded hand wraps in their first violent fight, an 11th-round knockout win for Margarito in 2008 in which he won a welterweight title in Las Vegas.

"If you put a Puerto Rican boxer in with a Mexican boxer, you will have a good fight," Cotto said before meeting Margarito for the first time.

Usually, that’s exactly the case, and Cotto and Margarito waged a thrilling fight, which had appropriately been titled “The Battle” in the buildup to the pay-per-view.

Much of the discussion in the prefight hype was centered on the great Puerto Rico-Mexico rivalry -- a Mexican and Puerto Rican have fought for a world title more than 60 times -- and the fight more than lived up to it.

"I have people coming up to me all the time to talk about it,” said Margarito, speaking about the rivalry before the first fight. “It's a thing of pride, which I feel myself. But the important thing is the fight between us. We'll be up in the ring and, yes, we carry our countries behind us and, yes, people come up to me and say, 'Hey, do this for the country.' I feel it. I say I will take this belt back to my country."

It was only well after the fact that Cotto and many others suspected that Margarito had worn loaded wraps in the fight because it was before his next bout, against Shane Mosley, that he was caught trying to enter the ring wearing illegal wraps coated in a plaster-like substance.

The stage was set, obviously, for an eventual Cotto-Margarito rematch. After Margarito had his license revoked and didn’t fight for 16 months, he came back for a tune-up fight and then got destroyed by Manny Pacquiao, but the lure of a second fight with Cotto was still there.

The second meeting, in December 2011, only deepened the rivalry between the fighters and the countries, given the overwhelming bad blood between Cotto and Margarito. This time they fought on Cotto’s turf -- New York’s Madison Square Garden -- where his fans were out in force. And in one of the most bitter revenge fights in history, Cotto hammered Margarito’s surgically repaired right eye and stopped him in the 10th round for a deeply satisfying victory.

The passion that Cotto, Margarito and their fans brought to the two fights -- built largely on nationalism, which has always been important in boxing -- was as good as it gets.