Remembering The Battle: Miguel Cotto vs Antonio Margarito I



Remembering The Battle: Miguel Cotto vs Antonio Margarito I
Photo by Chris Farina for Top Rank

Miguel Cotto stood in his corner, facing his team, before turning around to confront his opponent, Antonio Margarito. “This is the reason to love boxing, no moment in sport matches this,” HBO's Max Kellerman stated before the start of the first round.

The crowd at the MGM Grand was anxious and excited about what would happen.

The best moment in sports can be those mere seconds before the sound of the first bell. It's in these moments that even fans watching from miles away get butterflies in anticipation of what will happen in the ring and how the fight will play out. The fight we've all been waiting for is now here.

Miguel Cotto would turn around with the sound of a bell, make the sign of a cross with his hands and commence the start of the battle.

For Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, this would be a night that would change both of their careers, one that will always live in infamy.

Miguel Cotto vs Antonio Margarito

2008, this hardcore Puerto vs Mexico tussle went down

Spence-Crawford is now upon us, just a few nights away. It has been compared to some of the most important fights in boxing and welterweight history. Leonard-Hearns, Curry-McCrory, Trinidad-De La Hoya, and Mayweather-Pacquiao, are all fights that Spence-Crawford is juxtaposed against. But, one fight usually isn't brought up anymore.

It took place 15 years ago, on July 26th, 2008, a fight that had all the ingredients to be remembered as one of the greatest welterweight clashes in history. The bout between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito delivered and then some on that promise—Mexico vs. Puerto Rico, two of the best in the division, and styles that guaranteed action.

But, the night of the fight was only the first chapter in the story of what took place inside the squared circle that summer night in 2008. It was events that unfolded afterward that changed the perception of Cotto-Margarito.


Cotto was one of Puerto Rico's most highly touted prospects coming into the professional ranks. As an amateur, he participated in numerous tournaments, winning gold and silver medals at the Pan-American Games. He was also a member of the 2000 Puerto Rican Olympic team in Sydney, Australia.

What started as a younger brother following in the footsteps of his older siblings as a way to lose weight turned into a lucrative passion that set him on a path that would lead him to become one of the pillars of an era of boxing.

“My brothers started boxing,” Cotto told HBO before his fight with Zab Judah in 2007. “Since I was the youngest I tried to do what they did. I was a few pounds overweight when I was eleven. And, aside from following my brothers, I used it as a method to lose weight.”

Puerto Rico, a place where boxing is still considered a major sport, has produced some of the most talented and elite fighters in boxing history.

Miguel Cotto would find himself, at least for a portion of his career, compared to Felix Trinidad. In some respects, Cotto would play the role of Larry Holmes to Trinidad's Muhammad Ali.

The former Olympian was more introverted than the loquacious Trinidad, and his demeanor would often turn off fans from Puerto Rico. It would take almost until the end of his career for fans to appreciate Cotto and show him the adoration he deserved.

“The public identifies a lot with them because they are their icons, their stars,” said Miguel Cotto. “Generation after generation, it has fascinated them. And we have had many great and excellent champions.”

With as much hype and expectations behind him as the late Hector Camacho, Cotto delivered on the promise of becoming the next Puerto Rican world champion.

In 2004, Cotto won his first world title at junior welterweight against former amateur conqueror Kelson Pinto, leading to a two-plus year reign and six title defenses, including a win over the man who defeated him at the Olympics, Muhammad Abdullaev.

It was a memorable run that was highlighted by some brawls, including his match with Ricardo Torres in 2005, which was only beaten by the first Corrales-Castillo match for the fight of the year honors.

However, it was when Cotto moved up to welterweight that the perception of him from boxing, in general, went from being a popular fighter to being viewed as potentially something much greater.

It began in late 2006 against fellow countryman Carlos Quintana. Some may forget that at this point in his career, Cotto was primarily a seek-and-destroy type of fighter.

His left hand was his sharpest tool, and when it came to the left hook to the body, he used it to punish and beat down his opponents. At times he looked like the Puerto Rican Julio Cesar Chavez.

“This is going to sound a little cruel,” Miguel Cotto told HBO in 2007. “It feels good when you connect a punch to your opponent and it causes pain.”

Cotto would dismantle Quintana over five rounds administering such a grueling beating that it seemed personal to capture the WBA welterweight title.

2007 was a game-changing year for the Puerto Ricans. He would make a mandatory title defense against Oktay Urkal in March of that year and then head into a pair of fights at Madison Square Garden that would define the prime of his career.

Cotto and Madison Square Garden Relationship Takes Off

The first fight came in June 2007 against former undisputed welterweight champion Zab Judah. By the time Cotto retired, he had fought at the world's most famous arena a total of 10 times, but none matched the atmosphere of his bout with Judah.

Reminiscent of and arguably eclipsing Felix Trinidad's bout with Willliam Joppy in 2001, Miguel Cotto produced a rabid fanbase of over 20,000 fans to the Garden, making for one of the loudest and most attentive crowds boxing has seen.

Cotto would stop Judah in the 11th round, but his next bout at the Garden put fans on notice.

In November 2007, Cotto faced off against “Sugar” Shane Mosley.

No longer in his prime but still highly rated as one of the top welterweights, Mosley was viewed as the biggest challenge the Puerto Rican had faced yet.

Against Mosley, Cotto won a close unanimous decision that forced him to showcase a vast skillset.

He brawled when needed, boxed on the back foot, overcame adversity, and demonstrated impeccable timing with his jab.

Cotto-Mosley, from a Compubox standpoint, was as close a fight can be, with both champions landing an equal amount of punches. More importantly, the Mosley victory set Cotto on a path to be thought of as one of boxing's elite.

Fans didn't just want to see him in exciting fights, which he was always in, but against the likes of Floyd Mayweather and others.

“The Mosley that Cotto beat was as good as anyone Felix Trinidad fought,” boxing historian Cliff Rold told Ring Magazine. “That motivated version of Shane was way better than David Reid, Yory Boy Campas, or Oba Carr.”

Following the Mosley win, there was a different sense of how Cotto conducted himself. It felt that he knew how good he was and was as confident as ever in his abilities.

Heading into facing Margarito, he was the number one ranked welterweight and rated as the sixth-best pound-for-pound fighter by Ring magazine.

Margarito's Road To Cotto

The road for his opponent was much more arduous.

Like many boxers, Antonio Margarito got his start in boxing through his father. An avid fan of the sport, the Tijuana fighter was brought to the gym as early as eight years old.

An amateur career lasted only a short time for Margarito as he turned professional at 15 years old, and this decision shaped the type of hardships he would face.

“I only had 21 amateur fights before turning professional at 15 years old,” Margarito told HBO on an episode of Ring Life in 2010. “At the time I felt ready, but I look at 15-year olds now and I think, ‘Man, I turned pro at 15?' Because, I was fighting guys who were 25, 30 and 32 years old.”

Margarito had to be a tough kid so he could only be a tough man

Margarito, who didn't have strong promotional backing, was forced to take on tougher competition during the beginning stages of his career. There wasn't a matchmaker guiding him from one level to the next; it was all done by trial and error.

There were some misfortunes, but Margarito made the best of his situation, gaining experience and turning him into a fighter that would prove to be resilient to a fault.

Along the way, he scored a stoppage over future lineal middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, a win that would only see dividends years after it took place.

Before getting his first world title shot, Margarito garnered three losses. The title shot in 2001 against Daniel Santos was almost like another defeat as an accidental headbutt in the first round ended the fight as no contest against Daniel Santos for the WBO welterweight title.

The following year in March 2002, he received another opportunity against Antonio Diaz for the vacant WBO 147-pound title stopping him in 10 rounds. Margarito would hold on to the title for upwards of five years, defending the title seven times.

He would become known as the division's boogeyman for a while, scoring wins over fighters like Kermit Cintron, Andrew Lewis, and Joshua Clottey.

One defense against Sebastian Lujan resulted in the Lujan's left ear being partially detached in a gruesome affair.

In the fight with Clottey, Margarito would set a then Compubox record, throwing 1675 punches against the Ghainian en route to a decision victory.

In this era, there were some demands for Margarito to take on Floyd Mayweather, who both held titles at welterweight. Mayweather, however, had other plans.

While it may have seemed like the future Hall-of-Famer didn't want to take on Margarito, the real dispute was between Mayweather and promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank.

Even then, Arum refused to put a filter on his thoughts on his former fighter leaving his promotion.

Mayweather ducks everyone who has a chance to beat him,” Arum said to Sports Illustrated in 2008. “Margarito was a serious risk- a crowd pleaser with an iron chin.”

Mayweather moved on from Top Rank, choosing to face Carlos Baldomir. Margarito was left to face another supposed boogeyman in Paul Williams. Williams, like Margarito, could take a punch and was high-volume.

Margarito fell behind after a slow start due to Williams's sheer punch output and ability to hit on the move. A late-round surge wasn't enough to cover the gap ending Margarito's welterweight title reign.

Fortunately for Margarito, he was provided with a chance to redeem himself shortly after, with a rematch against Cintron, who now held the IBF 147-pound crown.

The fight played out the same as their first encounter, with Margarito overwhelming Cintron and stopping him with a body shot.

With Miguel Cotto fighting on the same card himself, stopping Alfonso Gomez, the stage was set for the fight, Cotto-Margarito. One of boxing's favorite rivalries, Mexico vs. Puerto Rico, was again at the forefront.

In many ways, Margarito exemplified what one envisions when Mexican boxing is brought up. He had an iron chin and always fought with a ferocious will that didn't allow for any form of retreat.

Margarito Respected, But Not Revered

However, with fighters like Juan Manuel Marquez and fellow Tijuana native Erik Morales still around, among others who showed the same level of will along with textbook technical acumen, he wasn't the darling of Mexican fans.

                                    THE BATTLE

The match, dubbed ‘The Battle,' took place the evening of July 26, 2008 at somewhat of a neutral location at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Cotto entered as a two-to-one favorite, but for those picking his foe on that night, there were some prior vulnerabilities the Puerto Rican had shown that led them to favor Margarito.

At junior welterweight, Cotto was severely hurt in fights with DeMarcus Corley and Ricardo Torres. He also displayed some lack of conditioning when pressured in the later rounds in fights with Lovemore N'dou, and even in his most significant win, it was Mosley that was pushing the fight as the aggressor in the championship rounds.

However, most believed there was a level of separation between Cotto and Margarito. Although Margarito may have been a good fighter, Miguel Cotto was considered elite, and his class would ultimately show.

Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito fought on July 26, 2008

Miguel Cotto was favored going in

Cotto started the first roundabout as well as one would have expected. He landed combinations placing his punches at just the right time causing Margarito's head to snap back and forth. Cotto was a fighter that didn't use any spoiler tactics such as clinching, and other than a tendency to accidentally hit low while going to the body; he was a clean fighter. There was an aesthetic to watching Cotto's work, especially with the left hook.

Often that of a mere caveman stalker who used his face for defense, Margarito had more wrinkles to his game than most remember. He was getting hit quite often, but when he came forward, he usually did so with a jab. Also, there were numerous blows of Cotto's that were caught by Margarito's gloves that, allowed him to continue to move forward, almost unfazed by anything that landed on him.

Not allowing to make the same mistake he made against Paul Willaims to rear its head, Margarito stepped up the intensity in the second round. Cotto was fighting at a comfortable pace, almost at a jog, pausing to throw combinations when he wanted. Margarito turned the fight into a sprint.

Margarito landed a series of left hooks and uppercuts while Cotto backed into the ropes, visibly stunning and bloodying the Puerto Rican. The crowd roared as the boxing match was now turning into a fight. It was clear that Miguel Cotto would have to hurt Margarito to halt his pursuit.

While those in attendance and watching from their homes were jubilant at the action on display, one of the commentators for HBO unknowingly laid the premonition for the events of the remainder of the bout.

“How long can he (Miguel Cotto) keep going if Margarito takes those types of punches and keeps putting that pressure on?,” stated legendary trainer Emanuel Steward on commentary for the fight.

“I think Margarito's defense is doing very well. He's catching alot of punches and steadily applying pressure while he's blocking punches. Even though, I have Cotto winning, it looks pretty rough for him going down the stretch.”

The following rounds through six followed a similar pattern of Cotto landing the cleaner, more telling blows while Margarito continued pressing forward. There was a sense of dread from the side of Cotto as there was never a moment where Margarito looked hurt or unbothered. The sound of the bell-to-end rounds hurt Margarito more than any of Cotto's punches.

Stalker Margarito Coming On

An avalanche hurled down on Cotto in the seventh round as an uppercut followed by a left hook hurt the Puerto Rican again, but he never truly recovered this time. Margarito found his opportunity and knew that he only needed to continue stalking Cotto and that it would be a matter of time. He looked increasingly tired in each passing round, while Margarito became more energized.

“When the fight advance and advance, something tells me you are not ready, you're tired,” Cotto said to HBO, reflecting on the match. “All my energy and strength, I didn't feel anything.”

The amount of pressure from Margarito, along with the onslaught of blows, forced Cotto to take a knee in the 11th round. After he got up only to go back down just a few seconds later, Cotto's then-trainer, Evangelista Cotto, went up on the apron with the white towel to end the match.

Kenny Bayless stops the first Miguel Cotto vs Antonio Margarito fight

The home stretch was real hard to watch for Miguel Cotto fans

“I think that putting pressure on any fighter, well, I think that will tire him,” said Margarito of his performance against Cotto to HBO. It's not that he's winded; it's the pressure put on him.”

Cotto-Margarito lived up to the hype and then some. It delivered financially at the box office earning close to half a million PPV buys, and was considered one of the best fights of 2008.

“That is a modern boxing classic!,” Max Kellerman excitedly yelled at the end of the fight. And for some, it still is a classic, but the aftermath brought that into question.


                              THE AFTERMATH – PART 2

The victory over Miguel Cotto for Antonio Margarito was a dream come true, bringing him a level of superstardom and adoration he had never received.

Similar to when Roberto Duran first defeated Ray Leonard, perhaps Margarito allowed himself to celebrate too much. Margarito was set to defend his welterweight title against Shane Mosley in January 2009, and the events in the locker room before they stepped into the ring would change Margarito's career forever.

Margarito's trainer Javier Capetillo was wrapping his fighter's hands with four inspectors present, along with Mosley's trainer Nazim Richardson. It was found that a pre-made gauze ‘knuckle pad' was going to be inserted into Margarito's wrap.

Richardson asked for the pad to be inspected and was later described as ‘dirty looking' and harder feeling than expected.

Margarito's right hand was then examined, which was already wrapped with a similar hardened pad. Both pads were confiscated, and Margarito was forced to have his hands rewrapped which were approved by the inspectors in attendance.

Mosley would go on to decimate Margarito. He used a strategy of clinching to deter any returning fire from the Mexican. Richardson famously put it, “swim without getting wet.”

Nine one-sided rounds later, Mosley had gotten another career-defining victory to pair with his first win over Oscar De La Hoya at the same Staples Center. And for Margarito, the beating from Mosley was the least of the trouble awaiting him.

The Margarito Story Takes A Hard Turn

The California Athletic Commission would revoke both Margarito and his trainer Capetillo's licenses and suspend them for a year. Both could not participate in any boxing events in the United States for at least a year.

An inspection of the confiscated wraps found findings of calcium and sulfur on the pads leading to conclude that they were polluted with a ‘plaster-like substance.'

Wassup wit those wraps?

This, of course, is the abridged version to be explored further in the next chapter.

Thousands of miles away, watching was Miguel Cotto on the sidelines, wondering what really took place that night on July 26, 2008.

The defeat to Margarito was brutal inside the ring, but mentally it did damage to Cotto's confidence and passion for boxing. The loss brought up questions about his fandom in Puerto Rico and was seen as a massive disappointment.

“His (Cotto) stock went down big time after the Margarito loss,” said Puerto Rican columnist Jose A. Sanchez Fourier to Ring Magazine in 2009.

“He wasn't bad mouthed after the fight, he has everyone's respect, but people started viewing him as a fighter that was brought up carefully with very good matchmaking by a very savvy promoter.”

The events of the match with Mosley brought into question the legitimacy of Margarito's prior victories. If he and his trainer attempted to cheat against Mosley, why wouldn't they have against Cotto and others?

What comes into dispute is whether Miguel Cotto had anyone from his team inspect Margarito's hand wraps before their first encounter.

The State of Nevada Athletic Commission's basic instructions states that “A fighter's taping of the hands and placement of gloves must be observed by an inspector.”

The Nevada Rules for Unarmed Combat are more detailed regarding who should be present.

“1. On the day of a contest or exhibition, unless otherwise approved by the Executive Director or the Executive Director's designee, only the following people are allowed in the dressing room of an unarmed combatant:

(a) The manager of the unarmed combatant;

(b) The seconds of the unarmed combatant;

(c) Any representative of the promoter; and

(d) Any representative of the Commission who is assigned by the Commission, the Chair of the Commission, or the Executive Director to work at the contest or exhibition.

2. An unarmed combatant must have his or her hands wrapped and bandages adjusted in the dressing room in the presence of an inspector, the Executive Director, or the Executive Director's designee, and the unarmed combatants or their respective representatives. Either unarmed combatant may waive his or her privilege of witnessing the bandaging of his or her opponent's hands.

Both camps disagree on the nature of who was in attendance to witness Margarito's hand wraps before the first match with Cotto. Cotto and his team have maintained that nobody from their team witnessed Margarito's hands get wrapped, and if valid, this was a mistake that the team made regardless of whether any foul play took place.

“What I remember of that night during the hand wraps, Margarito's people did not sendy anyone to our dressing room,” stated Cotto's then assistant to Cotto Promotions, Bryan Perez, to HBO before a rematch with Margarito in 2011. “And Evangelista (Cotto's trainer) said, ‘if they don't send anyone, we're not going to send anybody there.”

Cotto himself concurred with Perez.

“No, we didn't send anybody to his locker room,” Cotto said to HBO. “Nobody was there from Miguel Cotto's team. I think they took advantage of that.”

Of course, Margarito's team remembers things differently.

Recollections Differ

“Someone from Cotto's team was in our locker room during the hand wrapping,” said Margarito's then-manager, Sergio Diaz. “In fact, we waited until someone from their team to came into our room. That's when I went into his room.”

Photos taken in the ring after the fight's conclusion also added to Cotto's suspicion. One of the photos looks like there is a hole in the wrap, and another appears to be a piece of string.

Most famously, this played out during an HBO-produced Face-Off segment where Cotto confronted Margarito about the look of the wraps.

Margarito and Capetillo have never changed their story and firmly stated that there weren't any nefarious deeds done before the first bout with Cotto. Capetillo, in particular, believes these are just excuses that are being overly dramatized.

“I've read where some think that I've been illegally wrapping Margarito's hands all the way back to the Sergio Martinez fight, and I wasn't even training Tony back then,” Capetillo said in an interview with Ring Magazine before Margarito's match with Manny Pacquiao in 2010. “He beat Miguel Cotto because has the style to beat Cotto. He'll wear Cotto down and stop him every time they fight. It has to do with styles, not punching power.”

Unfortunately, for both Cotto and Margarito, what occurred in July 2008 remains ambiguous and open-ended. There won't be a definitive answer that can be conjured as to whether Margarito truly cheated against Cotto. It's left to whether you believe he is innocent or guilty. Much like the scoring of boxing, it's a judgment call based on what you believe you saw take place in the ring.

“It's always going to be hard to tell or know what was used when Margarito fought Cotto because the handwraps are something that are not saved,” said Kenny Bayless, who refereed Cotto-Margarito I, to Ring Magazine.

“When the fight is over with, they take the gloves off, take the wraps off and they just usually throw them away. Unless they were able to have confiscated the wraps, which they didn't, because they didn't suspect anything. I didn't suspect anything. The only person that would know is Cotto, because he's the guy who's getting hit.”

Some fights are remembered by the action inside the ring. Others by the idea of what could have been. The first fight between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito has a mix of both.

One man had his victory forever etched with an asterisk due to his own ignorant actions, whether implicit or not. He had his reputation and accomplishments tarnished. The other persevered, moving on to greater heights and viewed by many as pseudo boxing martyr.

Cotto-Margarito should be remembered as a boxing classic. A fight that put forth two of the best in their respective divisions and was another chapter in a storied rivalry. But, one can't help but feel that the entire story was seen. And it may never be.