By Kieran Mulvaney
On most occasions, a professional prizefight is not a resolution to a personal dispute; the confrontation is professional, fueled not by hatred but the desire for greatness, titles and money.
Chris Byrd, the former heavyweight belt-holder, once expressed to me that his approach to boxing was that, on one level, it was little different from tennis. When they were on court, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi wanted only to annihilate each other, he explained. But once the match was over, there was no reason for them not to be friends. Similarly, he offered, boxing was not violence but sport, albeit with gloved fists rather than racket and ball.
Occasionally, however, the personal intrudes on the professional, and when it does, it only whets our appetites even more. Emile Griffith may have entered the ring in 1962 consumed with rage over an epithet directed at him by Benny ‘Kid’ Paret, a rage that would ultimately have tragic consequences. More recently, the epic three-fight series between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera was fueled by genuine mutual hatred, and Fernando Vargas never even attempted to disguise his loathing of Oscar De La Hoya.
All of those, however, pale in comparison to the antipathy between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito.
There are those who question whether this Saturday’s contest should be taking place, whether Margarito should ever have been allowed back into the ring after the discovery of tampered wraps on his hands prior to his January 2009 bout with Shane Mosley; and whether, even if accepting that he has served a sentence of sorts for that most despised of boxing sins, he should be licensed to fight after surgery to his eye and orbital bone following the brutal pounding he suffered last year at the fists of Manny Pacquiao.
Were anyone entitled to object on the first count, it would be Cotto, who is now convinced that his brutal 2008 stoppage loss to Margarito was the result of the Mexican carrying plaster in his gloves. For more than two years, the man from Caguas seemed firm in his stance that he would do nothing – given his growing belief that he had been grievously wronged and as a consequence nearly severely harmed by Margarito’s actions that night – to help his foe earn another cent in the ring. But that conviction has wavered in the face of a $5 million payday and an apparent sense that the damage to Margarito’s eye (which required removal of a cataract and insertion of an artificial lens, and that gave the New York State Athletic commission pause before relenting and agreeing to sanction the fight) gives him a golden opportunity at redemption and revenge.
“My dog is more of a person than him,” he says calmly. “I don’t feel any respect for him. I’m going to take advantage of his eye, like he took advantage of the plaster.”
“F*** Cotto,” spits Margarito in return. “If he thinks I had plaster, it will hurt like I was using a plaster.”
In the real world, it’s the kind of talk that prompts adults to seek a way to calm things down before somebody gets hurt. But this is boxing, and it’s too late for that. Hurt – perhaps serious hurt – is a given. And because this is boxing, on Saturday night, in front of a packed crowd in New York and an eager audience around the world, two men will fight a very personal and very real battle on a very public stage.