Cintron reloads for title shot after Margarito loss

Kermit Cintron has been here before. The first time, in fact, the stage was far grander than the one he will occupy on Saturday night.

On April 23, 2005 -- a beautiful evening in Las Vegas -- in an open-air arena in front of Caesars Palace, on ESPN's first boxing pay-per-view card, Cintron had the opportunity of a lifetime.

And he blew it.

Shane Mosley, former world champion at welterweight and junior middleweight and two-time conqueror of Oscar De La Hoya, was on that card, but he wasn't the headliner. Calvin Brock -- who, on Nov. 11, challenges Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight championship of the world -- was on the card too, but he wasn't the headliner, either.

No, both men were supporting bouts, warm-up acts for Cintron's challenge of WBO welterweight titlist Antonio Margarito. Entering the ring with 24 wins from 24 contests, and with 22 of those wins inside the distance, the murderous-punching Cintron was widely expected to give Margarito the fight of his life, and fans and media alike were anticipating a back-and-forth, pier-six brawl.

Instead, before five rounds had elapsed, Cintron had been knocked down four times, and the fight was over.

It was a terrible disappointment, but the man who calls himself "The Killer" is ready to recapture the luster he lost that night on the Strip. He has already made a start: He has won two bouts since Margarito, both of them stoppages, one of them a quality victory against durable opponent David Estrada, and on Saturday night he has a second chance at a world title, when he takes on Mark Suarez for the vacant IBF welterweight belt.

The fight is in Palm Beach, Fla., rather than Las Vegas, and is being streamed exclusively on boxing Web site MaxBoxing.com instead of being broadcast by ESPN, but Cintron will take it.

After all, however difficult the period following that painful defeat might have been, he's been through worse.

As a child growing up in Carolinas, Puerto Rico, Cintron could only watch helplessly as his mother lay in bed for months before succumbing to cancer. Financially ill-equipped to take care of Kermit and his two older brothers, his father sent them to live with their aunt and grandmother -- and then, when Kermit was still only 13, his father also died, of a heart attack.

Orphaned and living in Warminster, Pa., with his aunt and her husband, Benjamin Serrano, a middleweight boxer who compiled a record of 6-13-2, Cintron discovered sports -- but not, initially, boxing.

"My thing was football, wrestling, track, baseball," he said. "I did a little bit of boxing with my uncle, I used to just watch him train and messed around with the heavy bag, but that was the extent of it until my freshman year in college."

After deciding that wrestling, in which he competed in the nationals, wasn't going to take him anywhere, "I thought, 'You know, I'm going to try my hand at boxing.' I wasn't happy with what I was doing at school, so I dropped out of college to concentrate on my boxing, and I took that big risk in dropping out of school and doing something that I wasn't sure if I was going to like or continue."

Blessed with natural ability and a strong 5-foot-11 frame from which he generates punching power that has been likened to Thomas Hearns and his countryman Felix Trinidad, Cintron blasted through early opposition after turning professional in October 2000. Following several attention-garnering performances on ShoBox and ESPN, he stepped up to another level with his HBO debut in July 2004, against tough veteran Teddy Reid. It was a bout that was widely considered a toss-up, in which not a few prognosticators tipped Reid's experience to prove too much for the younger man. Cintron, however, jumped on his opponent from the opening bell and never let up, dropping Reid twice before the bout was halted in the eighth.

The win was not only Cintron's coming-out party, it earned him the interim WBO belt and a shot at titleholder Margarito. But victory had come at a price.

"After the Teddy Reid fight, I had hand surgery," Cintron said. "I went six, eight weeks with a cast on. I took the cast off and had to go through therapy and all that stuff, and my hand wasn't getting any better after a couple of months doing therapy, so I kept driving back to New York once a week to let the doctor know that my hand wasn't getting any better, and the doctor kept saying, 'It'll be better, it'll be better, just keep doing therapy.' So another couple of months went by and it wasn't getting better and I just got tired of it. So I went to another doctor who was closer to Philly. He showed me what the problem was, and he fixed it.

"My ligament was ruptured in the Teddy Reid fight, my cartilage was chipped. So he fixed my hand and found out that the bone on my middle knuckle wasn't getting any blood flow through it. My bone was dying. So he had to go into it and drill a bunch of tiny holes so the blood would start flowing in. And it worked."

"Physically I was there, mentally I wasn't. It was one of those days when I was just not in the fight. I forgot that I was in a world title fight. So my trainer just decided to stop the fight, because he knew I wasn't going to win and he didn't want me to get hurt."
-- Kermit Cintron, on losing to welterweight titlist Antonio Margarito

But the whole process had kept Cintron on the shelf for nine months, toward the end of which he was also experiencing personal problems. By the time the Margarito fight came around, he had, he said, been able to train properly again for only four months. "It wasn't a good time for me to fight. I should have not taken the fight. But my old management team was pushing it, and it just wasn't my night."

"He didn't have a bad first round; he may have won the first round on two cards, actually," said FightWriter.com's Graham Houston of the Margarito fight. "But then after that, he just fell apart. What [his management team] told me at the time was that they were taking a risk in that he hurt his hand and he hadn't fought in a while, and they thought in the gym the hand was fine. But I think in hindsight they felt maybe they should have had a fight in between, for him to use his hand in a real fight, to get his confidence fully back. But the fight [with Margarito] came up, it was a big opportunity, and I think they basically took a chance and almost hoped for the best, but of course it didn't work out.

"I think at the time, Cintron was going through a fairly confused time. He might have had situations outside the ring that were giving him problems. Looking at him, he didn't seem to have the confidence to throw really heavy shots, he seemed to be holding back a little bit, and then when Margarito started to really put the pressure on, everything went totally wrong for him."

"Physically I was there, mentally I wasn't," Cintron said. "It was one of those days when I was just not in the fight. I forgot that I was in a world title fight. So my trainer just decided to stop the fight, because he knew I wasn't going to win and he didn't want me to get hurt."

His stock having plummeted, Cintron sought to regroup. He eased to a third-round knockout victory over Francisco Parra in September of last year, and then in February, he stopped Estrada in the 10th of 12 scheduled rounds.

"He did restore some belief in people's minds against Estrada," said Houston. "He had a couple of rounds that were a little rocky; Estrada was coming on, and Cintron pulled himself together, fought back, and turned things around. So I think he made up some lost ground, but I think there's still some doubt in people's minds about him now."

The Estrada bout was Cintron's first under the tutelage of respected trainer Emanuel Steward, and he readily credits the veteran cornerman for, he says, making him a more rounded fighter.

"Manny and I clicked from Day One," he said. "Basically, working with him, he's changed some stuff about me. Before, I would just go in there and bang. He's got me boxing more, he's worked on my footwork, my balance, he's worked on my combinations, when to throw, when not to throw. It's been good. I needed a trainer like Emanuel Steward to get to the next level, and now I have the opportunity to take that step."

Cintron laughed when asked if he has been able to take anything from the Margarito debacle.

"I can say that I will never take a big fight -- especially after hand surgery and a nine-month layoff -- on four months' training. [But] I know now how it feels, being in a world title fight."

And, on Saturday, he will have that experience again, one that he hopes will end up very differently this time. But, far from sweeping his previous title challenge under the rug, he is carrying it with him into the ring against Suarez, and using it as motivation.

"My mind is on this fight like it's a rematch of the Margarito fight," Cintron said. "It's like he's giving me a second chance, and I'm going to take it."

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters, and TigerBoxing.com.