HBO goes toe-to-toe with controversy

Manny Pacquiao will take on embattled boxer Antonio Margarito on HBO in November. AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano

NEW YORK -- Many fight fans, especially those in the New York area of a certain age who remember the loaded gloves controversy from 1983, when Luis Resto used gloves with the padding removed to batter Billy Collins mercilessly in a Madison Square Garden fight, are debating whether Antonio Margarito "deserves" the opportunity to fight Manny Pacquiao on Nov. 13 in Arlington, Texas.

A news conference to hype the junior middleweight showdown at Cowboys Stadium took place Wednesday at Chelsea Piers, and ESPNNewYork.com got the chance to delve into the matter with Pacquiao and HBO executives Kery Davis and Mark Taffet. HBO, a subsidiary of media conglomerate Time Warner, will handle the pay-per-view production duties for the scrap, which is being promoted by Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank.

Both Davis and Taffet are well aware of the potentially sticky nature of the Margarito situation and understand that the Mexican hitter is something of a controversial figure in the sport. Margarito (38-6, 27 KOs) was busted before his Jan. 24, 2009, bout with Shane Mosley, when California athletic commissioners, at the behest of Mosley trainer Naazim Richardson, removed hand pads from Margarito's gloves while his trainer, Javier Capetillo, completed the chore of wrapping the fighter's hands. The hand wraps were confiscated and sent to a lab for analysis.

The lab found that traces of a chemical used to make plaster of Paris were smeared on the wraps, and California commissioners later declared that the wraps felt unnaturally hard during hearings that resulted in Margarito being banned from boxing in California (and anywhere in the U.S., because of a rule of reciprocity between commissions). The commissioners said they felt the boxer may well have enjoyed an illegal competitive advantage if he used those pads in combat.

Margarito's license was suspended for at least a year. He laid low for a spell, fought once and won a decision in Mexico on May 8 against a journeyman boxer, then went back before the California powers that be to request a new license.

On Aug. 18, they turned him down, saying his explanation -- that he didn't know the wraps were anything other than regulation issue -- was not plausible. Capetillo told the commission that he put in the hand wraps by mistake, that they weren't meant to be used in a real fight, and that the onus of responsibility was solely upon him.

Some trainers will tell you that fighters could easily not know if a hardened pad was placed in their hand, while many fighters will tell you they surely would notice if a trainer were to put a foreign object in their gloves. In short, the jury is deadlocked.

Pacquiao (51-3, 38 KOs) told the media gathered at Chelsea Piers that he believes Margarito did in fact know what was going on. Still, he said, that shouldn't preclude the boxer from being given a second chance.

Pacquiao isn't just a fighter, he's a full-on politician, after being elected to Congress in his native Philippines in May. Pols have been known to hammer an opponent into the dirt to gain points or offer a somewhat warm and fuzzy bromide to appear to be a benevolent soul.

With Pacquiao, one gets the sense that neither tactic is in play; rather, that he's a decent sort who genuinely knows that none of us are infallible.

"He's just a human," Pacquiao said of Margarito. "He's not perfect. Give him a chance to fight back."

HBO executives are of the same mind. Davis, HBO's vice president of sports, told ESPNNewYork.com, "We are in the Manny Pacquiao business. We televise fights. I can't as a businessman say, 'I'm not going to televise this fight [because some suspect Margarito was complicit in the loaded glove scandal].' I'm not looking to send Manny Pacquiao to another network."

When asked if his team did their its detective work to determine if Margarito had knowledge of the attempt to cheat by Capetillo, Davis made it clear that his duty is to his bosses and fight fans. He's not interested in being a PI. "That's not my job. My job is delivering compelling fights. I'm not saying it's a no brainer [whether or not HBO should work with Margarito]. It's a brainer."

Taffet heads up the PPV department. He and Davis were virtually on the same page. "We are in the event business," he said.

"When Manny fights, we want to be there."

This will be the 11th PPV fight HBO and Pacquiao have put on.

Taffet concedes that the lingering odor from the loaded glove attempt will be in fight fans' minds. "We recognize there are issues and controversies that we can't walk away from," he said, "and we'll be addressing those on [the documentary miniseries] '24/7' starting October 23rd."

It was a plug as skillfully placed as any counter hook Pacquiao has ever thrown.

Certainly, no one at HBO is blind to the seriousness of the offense or the potential for carnage that can ensue when one fighter gains an illegal advantage. HBO showed the superior 2009 documentary "Assault in the Ring," which chronicled the Resto-Collins saga, informing or reminding fight fans how the Tennessee-based prospect Collins was pummeled by Resto, went into a depression and lost his life in a 1984 car crash. Resto, a Bronx resident, was fighting on that night with virtually bare knuckles and also admitted that tape on his hands was soaked in plaster of Paris.

Arum argued passionately on the L.A. leg of the press tour Tuesday that Margarito was being pilloried unfairly, that no evidence exists which points to his guilt.

Arum has a solid point.

On the dais at Chelsea Piers, Margarito didn't have the look of a man hiding a soul-shredding secret in his heart. He was quick with a grin, even when a fan in attendance yelled, "With a cast!" after Top Rank exec Todd duBoef cited Margarito's 2008 win over Miguel Cotto. Short of hooking him up to a polygraph -- maybe we could pitch this as an ESPN special? -- we will likely never know for sure if Capetillo was a lone gunman or there was a conspiracy of sneakiness.

So the debate will likely linger, like the cloud over Margarito's head, fair or not. We can traffic in speculation but our inferences cannot substitute for cold, hard proof. If evidence were to surface that Margarito willfully and knowingly cheated for the Mosley fight or before, we should re-examine proper punishment for him.

But until then, maybe it is best if we surrender to the knowledge that boxing is the fight business, as Pacquiao himself has. Two men in a ring, trying to knock the other's head off, so that they and those who promote and purvey sports entertainment can make money.

Michael Woods is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com and ESPN The Magazine and editor of TheSweetScience.com.

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