Margarito seeks a clean win, redemption

Three years ago, Antonio Margarito knocked out Miguel Cotto to win the welterweight title and was the toast of boxing. How times have changed.

After having his license revoked following his next fight for trying to enter the ring with loaded hand wraps, Margarito was labeled a cheater and has become a pariah to many. Now he fights to restore his tattered reputation and overcome a long layoff, a severe eye injury and questions about what he has left after taking frightful beatings in his past two meaningful fights.

Before Margarito got his big break against Cotto, he had struggled for years to get a major fight. Many viewed the Mexican brawler as the most-avoided fighter in boxing.

Then he landed the fight with the Puerto Rican star in July 2008 and made the most of it.

After being outboxed through the first half of a tremendous action fight, Margarito continued to gain steam while Cotto faded. Eventually, Margarito pounded Cotto down and, with the champion's face swollen and pouring blood while his wife and children wept at ringside, forced him to quit in the 11th round.

Margarito was the new welterweight champ, but little did he know he had reached the pinnacle of his career, which is now in tatters.

He can gain at least some measure of redemption if he can defeat Cotto -- without a hint of foul play -- in a hate-filled grudge match Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET, $54.95) at New York's Madison Square Garden, which will be sold out and rocking with a largely pro-Cotto crowd of 20,000-plus as the Puerto Rican makes his second junior middleweight title defense.

"When he feels my first punch, he's going to be in real problems," Margarito said at Wednesday's final news conference, which didn't include the usual faceoff for photographers, for fear of an altercation between the bitter enemies. "I know Cotto's style and his style is perfect for me. He stands in front of me. I am a pressure-style fighter. That's what I do best and that's what I'm going to do on Saturday."

Whether Margarito still can do that remains to be seen.

In the fight following his epic win against Cotto, Margarito was a heavy favorite going into his first defense, against Shane Mosley, in front of a raucous and heavily Mexican crowd at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

What happened next has been well chronicled. In the dressing room before the fight, Margarito already had his hands wrapped, but Mosley's trainer, Naazim Richardson, didn't like the feel of one of them. He insisted that Margarito be re-wrapped, and when the wraps were cut off they were discovered to have been illegally loaded with knuckle pads coated in a plaster-like substance.

Margarito was re-wrapped, the show went on and he had his head handed to him by Mosley, who dominated and knocked him out in the ninth round.

A couple of weeks later, Margarito, who insists that he knew nothing about the illegal wraps, and trainer Javier Capetillo -- who took the blame -- had their licenses revoked by the California commission. Both were outcasts, having been involved in one of the most heinous crimes you can commit in boxing: tampering with the gloves or wraps.

Margarito cut ties with Capetillo and denied knowing about the illegal wraps, but few believed him, even though promoter Bob Arum, who also promotes Cotto, has steadfastly stood up for him.

That angered Cotto, who, for obvious reasons, began to suspect that if Margarito had tried to cheat against Mosley he must have also cheated against him.

Although Keith Kizer of the Nevada State Athletic Commission insisted that the inspectors were on top of things before the first fight with Cotto in Las Vegas, many believe Margarito got away with fighting with loaded wraps, which theoretically steadily hardened during the fight, allowing his punches to take an even greater toll on a tiring Cotto. Cotto has shown off a photo of Margarito during his postfight celebration that appears to show an unusual break in the wraps on his left hand near the knuckles.

In the two-plus years following the fight, Cotto (36-2, 29 KOs) never came out to make a public accusation against Margarito, but the dam burst as the promotion for the rematch heated up.
Finally, on the first episode of HBO's "24/7 Cotto/Margarito," Cotto got it off his chest.

"He used it, he used the plaster the night of the fight with me," Cotto said. "He looks and he acts like a criminal."

After Margarito had his license taken away, he sat out for 16 months before returning in Mexico for a low-level win in a poor performance. Last November, having been granted a license in Texas, Margarito was pummeled over the 12-round distance by Manny Pacquiao at Cowboys Stadium. It was an even worse beating than he took against Mosley.

Margarito (38-7, 27 KOs) suffered a broken orbital bone in his face and a right eye injury originally thought to be career ending.

During his year off, Margarito developed a large cataract that was removed and also had an artificial lens placed in his eye. But he was eventually cleared by the world-renowned Dr. Alan Crandall, who performed the eye surgery, allowing Arum to set up the rematch with Cotto.

The New York State Athletic Commission, however, balked at giving Margarito a license. As a matter of policy (although not law), it does not license fighters with the kind of eye injury Margarito suffered.

But after multiple hearings, political pressure and an agreement from Margarito to break camp and fly from Mexico to New York for an additional eye exam by a commission-appointed ophthalmologist, who turned in a positive report, he was licensed only last week.

Margarito said he always expected to be licensed.

"I never believed they wouldn't give it to me," he said. "I was taking the same exams I had been taking for the last few months, which I had passed. There was no way they wouldn't give me a license, because I know the eye was fine. My doctor said it was fine. The thing people want to know is, why would I risk my eye? But I am fine. I would never get in the ring if I wasn't 100 percent."

All the drama from the fallout of the first fight and the theatrics surrounding the licensing for the rematch have fueled the promotion and turned it into a monster. Margarito has, publicly at least, embraced his role as the ultimate villain to Cotto's quiet good guy. He even made light of it when he was introduced at the final news conference.

"Here comes the criminal! Open the doors to the criminal," he said through a translator as he took the podium. "I've been called a criminal by the man next to me [Cotto]. I don't know why. I don't beat up my family. He can hit my eye as much as he wants. He hits like a little girl. Super flyweights hit harder. He will never beat me."

But what does Margarito have left after the past three years of turmoil, layoffs, disruptions in his camp for eye exams and the beatings from Mosley and Pacquiao?

Margarito said leaving camp twice -- including for the long trip to New York and back to Mexico at the height of his preparation -- was a necessary hassle. Weeks before the New York trip, he also missed a day of training in October to fly to Salt Lake City for an exam by Crandall.

"The first time, when I went out to Salt Lake City, it was not too bad," Margarito said. "I didn't want to come all the way to New York, but they insisted. It really disrupted my training. It was difficult getting there, but it had to be done. But I feel good, 100 percent. I think I'll be ready."

Said Arum, who flew Margarito to New York on a private plane for the exam: "The first trip was not as serious because it was Utah and not as deep into his training. But it was a much longer trip to New York, and it came at the worst possible time. It was not good. How much it took out of him, I don't know. But from our standpoint we had no choice."

As for the excessive punishment he has taken, especially from Pacquiao, Margarito, 33, downplays it.

"I feel it was a tough loss and I really wanted to win that fight because I worked so hard," he said. "But I've been there before. I've had tough fights and came back and won titles. I look at this the same way. I am really ready for this fight. I really think I will walk out with a championship on Saturday night."

Arum isn't sure, but he certainly isn't counting Margarito out.

"Yes, the beating from Pacquiao was a helacious beating, so I think the year layoff has been good because it has given his body a chance to heal," Arum said. "If Margarito was a normal fighter, it would be hurtful, but he is just a brawler. He doesn't have any real boxing skills, so the fact that he had a layoff probably doesn't really matter. He doesn't rely on timing. He gets in and bulldogs his opponent.

"I think he's a diminished fighter, but because of his style, it's not that important. It's the same two guys -- Cotto is the much better boxer, who can box the pants off the guy, but the question is, will Cotto wear down in the later rounds? He tends to fade down the stretch for whatever reason. Will he have enough in the tank down the stretch to carry him through?"

Margarito is determined to win and get back at least a portion of his reputation after being labeled, unfairly he says, as a cheater.

"To me, it's going to be a great satisfaction to beat him in his house," Margarito said. "I am coming to his house and I expect to beat him and take the title home, and people will believe I am clean. I have never done anything illegal, and this will prove it once and for all.

"To me, winning would be great satisfaction and allow me to shut up Cotto and all the people saying bad things about me. I want to make sure all the people who have been talking bad about me believe in me again. I am not looking to kill Cotto or hurt him. I am just going out there to win. I know that if I beat him, he's leaving the ring hurt. I just want a clear win. That is all I care about."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.