Monday, November 21, 2011

Evaluating Margarito's Career

Antonio Margarito's career forever changed on January 24th, 2009, when a foreign substance was found in his hand wraps prior to his fight with Shane Mosley.  Margarito's hands had to be re-wrapped two additional times and he was delayed in making his entrance into the ring.  Perhaps the controversy surrounding the wraps created a psychological disturbance for Margarito and he was defeated before he walked into the ring.  Maybe his one-dimensional pressure style was tailor-made for Shane Mosley, a veteran fighter who had mastered the attacking Mexican style in the Southern California gym wars.  Or maybe, without the foreign substance, Margarito was just an ordinary fighter. 

The California State Athletic Commission ruled that the substance was consistent with plaster and banned Margarito for one year.  Margarito only survived boxing's death penalty because of his high-powered defense team, which was provided by his promoter, Top Rank.  Margarito's advocates were able to create enough doubt in the mind of the commission that the fighter was unaware of the illegal wraps, and had never used them previously.    

In any overall evaluation of Margarito's career, this last argument – that he unknowingly used the illegal wraps – is an irrelevant point.  The action happened, and it is irreversible. 

In the aftermath of the controversy, boxing observers have correctly raised questions about the legitimacy of Margarito's pre-scandal wins.  Were his impressive victories over Miguel Cotto and Kermit Cintron the product of his aggressive fighting style, or were they the direct result of banned substances in his wraps?  In addition, how far back should the cloud of suspicion be extended? 

Before the controversy, Margarito was thought of as a late bloomer.  He was the type of young, Mexican fighter who was thrown to the wolves to start his career, but he improved as he gained experience and received better instruction.  But that narrative now sounds quaint and may have been constructed on an utterly false premise.  

The specialness of Margarito in the ring, the late round rallies and the gradual deterioration of his opponents, could directly be attributed to or helped by loaded gloves.  Margarito's skill set is not unique in it of itself.  There are tons of pressure fighters who are nothing more than human piƱatas in the ring.  Many boxers can take a beating and press forward.     

In examining Margarito's accomplishments, one cannot legitimately demarcate a "clean" period from a "tainted" period.  To question all of Margarito's professional successes, title belts and memorable ring performances is perfectly legitimate and defensible.  In fact, the rational boxing observer must raise these concerns.  Why would a 30-year-old champion suddenly use illegal wraps?  If he were clean in his prior fights, wouldn't he have realized the potential risks associated with plaster in his wraps (both to his professional career and to his opponent's)?  Why would his trainer knowingly place illegal substances in his fighter’s wraps, especially if the boxer was unaware?  The ramifications of that action could lead to a lifetime ban for the trainer. 

Almost three years have passed from that infamous evening and yet these questions have still not been answered satisfactorily.  There are only two things that are known for sure about a clean Margarito: he has a world-class chin and an indomitable fighting spirit.  

He demonstrated a remarkable will against Manny Pacquiao.  He received enormous punishment and yet remained on his feet.  He never went into survival mode or stopped trying to win.  In addition, he hurt Pacquiao, with clean gloves, more than any of his recent opponents did. 

From that fight, it's clear that Margarito could handle himself in the ring at the sport's highest level.  However, not embarrassing oneself and beating elite opponents are two entirely different propositions.  Perhaps Margarito's brawling pressure would have stopped Cotto in any context.  Maybe it was his relentlessness, not loaded gloves, that forced Cintron to crumble psychologically.  Nevertheless, this is all speculative.  No one can accurately assess Margarito's real boxing aptitude – not with 100% certainty. 

Clearly, Margarito is on the downside of his career.  He suffered a detached retina and a broken orbital bone from his fight with Pacquiao.  These are serious injuries which have effectively ended many boxing careers.  Margarito has also been in a ton of ring wars and has taken an enormous amount of punishment throughout his career.  Perhaps his fight with Cotto next month (a fighter who is also on his downside) will shed light on what a 100% clean Margarito could have been.  Nevertheless, the questions about Margarito's career will always outnumber the answers.

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