Under the cover of night Sunday, Antonio Margarito flew on a Top Rank-chartered private plane from his training camp in Mexico to New York for the purpose of having his surgically repaired right eye examined Monday by a New York State Athletic Commission-appointed ophthalmologist to decide whether Margarito is medically fit to be licensed for his scheduled Dec. 3 rematch with junior middleweight titlist Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden.
Margarito will be on a flight back to Mexico on Monday night, and the NYSAC is scheduled to decide the issue once and for all at a 3 p.m. ET hearing Tuesday. Nothing like waiting until the last minute.
The NYSAC -- chairwoman Melvina Lathan, Edwin Torres and Thomas Santino -- has handled this whole sorry episode like a bunch of amateurs who have no idea what they are doing.
Margarito, as we all know by now, suffered a serious eye injury in his one-sided destruction at the hands of Manny Pacquiao last November. Margarito hasn't fought since and has had surgery to remove a cataract and get an artificial lens put into his eye. Normally, these procedures would disqualify any fighter from getting a license not only in New York, but several other states, including boxing leader Nevada.
However, nothing in the rules says that New York can't license Margarito, so Top Rank decided to put the fight on at the Garden and the commission subsequently asked for medical paperwork regarding Margarito's health, including his eye. That's normal boxing business.
What is wrong, and what stinks here, is that the NYSAC waited until the 11th hour to make a decision that should have been made months ago. Now thousands of people -- including ticket-buying fans and everyone else associated with the fight -- are in limbo and tens of millions of dollars are at stake when it never should have come to this.
Lathan claimed during Friday's hearing on the matter that Top Rank failed to supply the necessary paperwork in time.
She ripped Margarito's attorney, David Moroso, saying, "For the record, we wouldn't be here where we are today if we had papers that were asked to be submitted way before we got them this time. We asked for these exam papers, we asked that we get this process started back in September, I believe. … We asked that all the paperwork be given to us so that we would not be here today at this point right now. It did not happen that way. I suggested that [Margarito] get his medicals, suggested that he get his paperwork in so that he can get his license before anything happened, so that if for some reason he were not deemed qualified or fit to be licensed, then you could have alternatives available. But that didn't happen, and so here we are today in a position where we don't wish to be, where it's totally unfair for my commission to be put in this position. I'm just as pissed off as anybody else, to be honest with you."
Moroso countered, saying Margarito's paperwork was submitted to the commission in September and that there had been quite a few "informal discussions between your doctors and ours."
Whichever version you believe, it was up to the commission to give Top Rank a firm deadline by which any paperwork or exams were due so that it would leave enough time to make a decision, not risk forcing the fight out of town less than two weeks before -- and with the Garden already nearly sold out.
At Friday's hearing, Top Rank offered to fly a commission-appointed specialist to a midway point to meet Margarito so that he wouldn't have to disrupt his camp during the most important week of training -- the last week in which he will spar -- to fly all the way to New York. The commission said it would consider the option and then informed Top Rank that Margarito had to come to New York, which he did Sunday night.
Still, the fight might not happen in New York, in which case Top Rank is ready to move it to another venue on less than two weeks' notice. According to the promoter, Denver's Pepsi Center is the most likely alternative, and company officials were there Sunday. A venue in Phoenix and multiple venues in Texas and Mississippi are also being considered. These are all places where buildings are available and Margarito would be licensed without issue.
"At least with the NBA lockout, there are buildings available," Top Rank's Bob Arum told me by phone over the weekend.
This whole thing is a mess and it's because of how irresponsibly the NYSAC has behaved.
The fight was agreed to in July. The site was selected not long after that. And then there was a news conference in New York to formally announce the fight in late September -- a news conference that Lathan attended, where she had her free lunch and was one of the speakers. She lauded the fighters and Top Rank. At that point, there wasn't a hint of a licensing issue, either with regard to Margarito's eye or the high-profile illegal hand wrap scandal he was at the center of that caused his suspension in California.
Lathan's presence at the news conference amounted to the commission's tacit endorsement of the fight, even if Margarito was not officially licensed at the time. (By the way, it's normal for a license to be handed out the week of the fight, often just before the weigh-in.)
"I don't understand her," Arum said of Lathan. "She knew he had eye surgery before we even had a first press conference."
Do you think for one second that Arum, a brilliant businessman, would have spent so significantly on the promotion and made a deal with the Garden and HBO PPV if he hadn't been given assurances from New York that Margarito's license was in the bag? And it's not as though Margarito's eye injury and surgery were a secret.
So tickets went on sale and the Garden was quickly headed for a sellout and an approximate $3.4 million gate. And now New York is threatening to not give Margarito a license two weeks before the fight? The NYSAC is making the WBC look good.
I have no quarrel with the NYSAC wanting to make sure Margarito is healthy enough to fight -- which his doctors (including highly regarded ophthalmologist Dr. Alan Crandall, who performed Margarito's surgery, and Dr. Rolando Toyo, who has worked as an eye doctor for multiple pro sports teams) swear he is, even if some of the commission doctors have reservations. But if the commission was so concerned, why didn't it have Margarito submit to an eye exam when he was in New York in September rather than wait until the last minute for this dog and pony show?
The fight is going to happen whether it's in New York or somewhere else, so it might as well be New York. I understand the NYSAC is supposedly trying to protect Margarito, but part of a commission's job is also to protect the consumer. How do you tell thousands of people who have bought tickets, booked flights and hotel rooms and planned their lives around the week of the fight that it's being kicked out of town on less than two weeks' notice? It's like the NFL moving the Super Bowl at the last minute. Do you think this mess is going to make any promoter want to bring a big fight to New York in the future?
I have received hundreds of tweets from people who have made travel plans for the fight and are now being held hostage by an inept commission. Those people aren't happy and I don't blame them.
Pawel Wolak, a junior middleweight contender on the undercard, has sold almost $50,000 in tickets, according to manager Cameron Dunkin. Yet Wolak, who should be solely focused on training, is being hounded by folks asking about the ticket situation and possible refunds. British lightweight contender John Murray, who will challenge titlist Brandon Rios, has fans flying from England to New York. The commission needs to think about all of the factors involved -- medical, financial and consumer -- before it makes a decision that should have been addressed at least two months ago.
All along, it has sounded to me like the NYSAC was just hoping Top Rank would replace Margarito with another opponent. Vanes Martirosyan, another Top Rank fighter, was discussed as a possibility and even signed a contract to fill in if Top Rank wanted to make a change. However, this isn't some two-bit show. This is a major HBO PPV event and one of the biggest fights in boxing. You don't alter the main event on two weeks' notice, especially for a fight where the Garden is so significant because of Cotto's enormous Puerto Rican fan base.
So now the commission is faced with a choice: It can either do the right thing and license Margarito, who will fight somewhere else if necessary, or it can stamp itself as an all-time joke by allowing the fight to go to another venue, blow a massive economic windfall for New York and cause unnecessary problems for all of those who incurred expenses and made travel plans.
"In all the years I've been in boxing, this is the most incredible experience I've had,” said a frustrated Arum.
He's probably telling the truth.