NEW YORK -- The bad blood between junior middleweight titlist Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito heading into their grudge rematch is so fierce, so real and so palpable that Top Rank promoter Bob Arum did something almost unheard of at Wednesday's final news conference.
He refused the time-honored tradition of having the fighters pose face to face for the legion of photographers seeking the money image that would be splashed across their publications to publicize the fight.
With the intense bad feelings the fighters hold toward each other, Arum and his staff figured, why risk a physical confrontation? So Arum stood between them instead.
The fight at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET, $54.95) is a clean sellout that will draw about 21,000 -- mostly Cotto's Puerto Rican fans -- and a live gate of approximately $3.4 million. Those at the Garden and worldwide TV viewers won't be watching just to see what is expected to be another slugfest and the newest chapter in boxing's best rivalry, Puerto Rico versus Mexico.
They want to witness a score being settled and the ultimate grudge match in the sport. They will come to watch the emotional conclusion of a three-year saga that finally is reaching its boiling point.
"The first fight was a classic," Arum said. "I have a feeling that this fight will be much more intense, an outright war."
If you don't know what has caused the heat in this fight, you haven't been following boxing. In July 2008, Cotto was an undefeated welterweight champion, perhaps headed toward all-time greatness, when he faced Margarito in Las Vegas.
He was well on his way to beating Margarito, but he began to fade over the second half of the fight and was hammered into bloody submission in the 11th round. However, when Margarito (38-7, 27 KOs) was caught trying to enter the ring with loaded hand wraps before his next fight, against Shane Mosley in Los Angeles in January 2009, Cotto began to suspect what many were also thinking: that if Margarito tried to cheat against Mosley, there was a reasonable possibility that he had cheated against Cotto.
Although Margarito, whose license was revoked by California and who sat out for 16 months, swears he didn't know the wraps were coated in a plaster-like substance -- his former trainer, Javier Capetillo, took the blame and said it was an accident -- Cotto (36-2, 29 KOs) doesn't buy it.
He strongly believes that Margarito fought him with wraps that began to harden as their fight progressed. He believes that Margarito messed with his career and his life.
"Playing with the health of someone else, a human being, attempting to kill because he used plaster on his wraps, that is a weapon to me," Cotto said. "That is being a criminal in a sport. If we have another name for it, please tell me what I can use."
Those ill feelings toward Margarito are also carried by Melissa Cotto, Miguel's wife, who wept at ringside with their children as they watched Margarito pummel him in 2008.
"To see Margarito -- anger. It fills me with anger, because he played with the life of my husband," she said during an interview on HBO's "24/7 Cotto/Margarito."
Playing with the health of someone else, a human being, attempting to kill because he used plaster on his wraps, that is a weapon to me," Cotto said. "That is being a criminal in a sport. If we have another name for it, please tell me what I can use.
”-- Junior middleweight champ Miguel Cotto on Antonio Margarito, whom Cotto (and others) suspects used loaded hand wraps in his 2008 defeat of Cotto
When Cotto took the podium at the final news conference, standing not more than a couple of feet from where Margarito was seated, Cotto turned to him and said, "If you don't know what a criminal means, you can look it up in the dictionary. It's someone who uses a weapon. ... You are like a child. You are an embarrassment to boxing. I am going to slap you like a little girl."
Cotto has said he will target Margarito's right eye in the fight. That is the eye that was so badly damaged by Manny Pacquiao's fists 13 months ago that Margarito needed the year off, required cataract surgery and needed an artificial lens placed in the eye. Those factors nearly caused the New York State Athletic Commission to withhold his boxing license until it relented following a series of hearings this month and Margarito agreeing to an additional exam.
"The [California] commission said he has plaster in his hands," Cotto said. "I just think [of] the possibility he used it in the fight with me.
"Margarito is not a gentleman. He's not a man," Cotto continued. "For me, Rex -- my dog -- is more person than him.
"He doesn't have the same plaster in this fight and the result is going to be different."
When Cotto speaks about the issue, he doesn't raise his voice. He is measured and calm, seemingly allowing his hatred to simmer within, ready to release it Saturday night.
"I don't feel any respect for him, and I am going to take advantage of his eye like he took advantage of the plaster," Cotto said.
Margarito, seemingly embracing his villain role and constantly wearing dark glasses during the prefight media buildup in order to hide his eye, has no love for Cotto. He believes beating Cotto convincingly, without there being any questions about his hand wraps, would help restore at least part of his ruined image.
"He wants to take it personal, but I'm taking it very personal, too," Margarito said. "I'm a clean fighter. There was nothing illegal. And that's it. I didn't go into the ring with anything. I know I'm a clean fighter. Period. End of story."
He's sick of Cotto's accusations.
"I'm just getting tired of it," he said. "He keeps saying it, repeating it, that I'm a criminal. I'm tired of hearing it. It doesn't bother me. Just get up in the ring and fight."
If anyone is a criminal, Margarito says, it is Cotto. And then he referenced Cotto's 2009 physical altercation with his uncle and former trainer, Evangelista Cotto, who had thrown a brick through the window of his nephew's Jaguar and wound up in the hospital after Miguel beat him up.
"F--- Cotto," Margarito said during "24/7." "If they think that I had plaster, it will hurt like I was using plaster. And he will know it."
Arum has been promoting fights for more than 40 years, and he has promoted many for which the combatants detested each other.
The two bad-blood rivalries he promoted that stand out most to him are Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. But Arum, who turns 80 on Dec. 8, said the hatred that exists between Cotto and Margarito is by far the worst he has ever seen.
"Hagler and Hearns had built up an unbelievable hate for each other," Arum said. "I remember we had to break up a fight between them at a St. Louis press conference, and by the time they got in the ring, they didn't give a s---. They heard that bell and it was scary. They just wanted to beat the s--- out of each other, and they did. It was a short fight [three rounds], but probably the best fight I've ever promoted.
"Usually when these grudges occur, the fighters have the attitude that it's great for the business. With these guys, Cotto and Margarito, it's personal -- really, really personal. I remember before the second Ali-Frazier fight, there was a lot of animosity, but Ali justified it as a way to sell tickets. They didn't like each other, but they're doing some things to hype the business for the fight. But not this one."
It took far longer than usual for Arum to convince Cotto to accept the rematch with Margarito than it would have normally taken to make a deal. It wasn't because Cotto was afraid to face his conqueror again, Arum said. It was because Cotto didn't want Margarito to make a dime off of him.
Ultimately, the fight was made when Cotto was guaranteed $5 million plus a share of the pay-per-view profits, while Margarito will get $2.5 million and a smaller piece of the upside.
But the hatred, not the money, is at the core of the fight, Arum said.
"This is really beyond anything I've seen," he said. "Cotto firmly believes now, after what happened before the Mosley fight, that Margarito's gloves were loaded and that his well-being and career were affected. And Margarito knows that wasn't the case, as far as he is concerned, and he is really pissed off at Cotto. These guys really hate each other. No bull----.
"They just want to get their hands on each other. They don't care if anyone even comes to the fight."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.