A Grand Night at the Garden
Over 21,000 people filled up New York’s Madison Square Garden to the brim last Saturday night. Millions more watching around the world tuned in expecting a festival of pugilistic mayhem. Thanks to one of the best undercards all year, combined with a drama-laden main event, mayhem is exactly what they got.
Expectations ran high as the night kept closing in on the main event. Fans were granted a chance to see Delvin Rodriguez and Pawel Wolak try to settle things after their hard-fought draw this past July. The other high-profile preliminary bout pitted Mexican-American Brandon Rios against tough Brit John Murray. The main event, a grudge match that had been simmering for over three years, had fans salivating in anticipation and with good reason: Mexico vs. Puerto Rico, good vs. evil, redemption vs. vindication, skill vs. will: Cotto vs. Margarito II.
It is possible to find more than a single common thread running through all three confrontations. All six fighters showed gargantuan amounts of courage and chins that defy belief. They showed determination, grit and a complete disregard of pain. Throughout most of the evening, will mattered more than skill; strategy took the backseat, all-out warfare was front-and-center. Nevertheless, in all three fights, the guy considered the most skilled fighter going into the fight managed to emerge victorious. It is hard to remember the last time fans had so much fun watching three one-sided fights in a row.
Polish Pawel Wolak is a one-man panzer division in the mould of technically limited, but endearing, all-out fighters like Mickey Ward. His plan going into any fight is simple enough: go forward, always keep punching, and never, ever be distracted by random thoughts regarding defending one’s self. And so it took Delvin Rodriguez not much more than a round or two to find the optimal distance from which he was best suited to deal with Wolak’s onslaught. Delvin doled out plenty of punishment — jabs, left hooks, uppercuts — you name it and as the punches accumulated, Wolak’s face deformed into a swelled up target, making it even easier for Rodriguez to keep landing. Wolak kept coming forward, occasionally connecting with hard shots to Delvin’s body, but Rodriguez simply outworked him. He would punch in combinations, step back to get a little breathing room, and then go at it again. His efforts earned him a unanimous decision by a rather comfortable margin.
Brandon ‘Bam-Bam’ Rios has quickly earned a reputation as a Mexican Madman. He looks like the kind of guy who not only enjoys a good scrap, but actually takes pleasure in putting the hurt on others. His unpredictability makes him seem dangerous and even downright scary to us ordinary folk, but John Murray was more than willing to stand toe-to-toe against him. He lasted all of eleven rounds.
Bam-Bam failed to make weight the day before the fight, coming in almost one and a half pounds over the 135 pounds limit. In the week prior to the weigh-in he didn’t take any food and only drank 4 ounces of water, all for the sake of slimming down to shape. Having failed to reach the lightweight limit, he had to vacate his WBA belt. Murray had a golden chance to become a champ: he would be facing a guy who hadn’t had a meal in five days. Amazingly, this advantage wouldn’t be enough.
Bam-Bam came on strong in the first three rounds, landing punishing combos on Murray, hurting him visibly in the third. After taking somewhat of a breather during rounds four and five — thus making people wonder if his anorexic ways were catching up with him — Rios turned it up again in a memorable round six. With riveting combinations of left hooks and shattering uppercuts, he made a bloody mess of Murray’s shaggily bearded face. Murray seldom backed up throughout the fight and did tag Rios hard and often, but not as powerfully and as frequently as Rios hit him. With each passing round, Rios became increasingly enthusiastic about the beating he was putting on Murray, his gleeful expression like a child high on sugar playing his favourite video game. Murray’s face, meanwhile, resembled more and more a real-life Picasso. His lips were cut, his nose appeared to be broken and he had angry swellings around both eyes.
After his knockout victory, bigger and better fights await Rios in the loaded 140 pounds division, or he may elect to just skip jr. welterweight altogether and jump straight into 147 pound territory. For Murray, a trip to the hospital -and a significant medical bill- beckoned.
And so we reached the main event. A quick survey of experts’ and boxing writers’ opinions before the fight revealed the matchup was a tough one to pick. A slight majority favoured Antonio Margarito’s relentless pressure and bigger size; the rest considered Miguel Cotto’s comparative skill advantage and improved stamina as the determinant factors. Questions abounded. Could Cotto avoid running out of gas in the late rounds? Would he be able to hurt the incredibly tough Margarito? Would Margarito’s right eye hold up? Without plaster in his gloves, did he have the power to hurt the champion? All expected a gruelling fight, a struggle which would ultimately be decided by who wanted it more.
The first couple of rounds almost perfectly replicated their first fight back in 2008. Cotto outclassed Margarito easily, adopting a peripatetic style that saw him land quick, head-snapping combinations and then skilfully move out of harm’s way. Margarito, always a slow starter, looked even slower than in previous fights.
Tony’s supporters worried about the role his surgically repaired right eye would play in the fight. Cotto’s supporters expected “the Boricua” to tax that very eye. Miguel wasted almost no time in practicing his aim. He tried several powerful left hooks and jabs and both landed cleanly and frequently. The jabs were effective in damaging and swelling up Margarito’s eye socket, the left hooks shook Tony’s head from side to side. It was like Miguel couldn’t miss with the left hand.
Margarito had a decent performance in rounds three and four, closing the distance enough to land merciless body punches on Cotto. Whenever he made it a phone-booth fight, he seemed to get the better of his opponent. Genuine danger and the prospect of the tide shifting in Tony’s favor arose when Margarito fired away with uppercuts and sweeping punches in close quarters. Nevertheless, Cotto had learned from his mistakes from the first go-around. This time, he stayed disciplined and duly evaded the ‘macho-trap’ of fighting fire with fire. He reverted to his original strategy of fighting on his own terms, of dictating the pace of the fight and the territory in which it was fought. It worked brilliantly.
Miguel Cotto was practically pitching a shut-out by the time the ninth round ended. Margarito’s eye, at that point, was nowhere to be seen. The skin around his right-eye had swollen to a grotesque dimension, completely denying him any vision from that side. The ring doctor examined it, and determined that the fight must end. Miguel Cotto had earned a stoppage victory against his most odious foe, at the same time turning in the finest performance of his career.
If there’s any justice in the world of boxing, this will be Margarito’s final appearance in high-stakes fisticuffs. It is impossible to learn the truth about whether or not he cheated in fights before the Mosley debacle, but other truths can now be ascertained. Margo has now lost three of his last four, taking an honest-to-God beating in all three. He hasn’t significantly hurt anyone in a boxing ring since the first Cotto fight. The fact is, his punches used to hurt people in very unique ways — making Cotto cry tears of blood after their first fight, and almost tearing an ear off Sebastián Luján’s head. In short, ever since he was caught attempting to cheat, Margarito has showed nothing to prove he is a boxer of championship quality.
Boxing, reflecting the brutal side of life, ultimately metes out its own punishment. While it remains a travesty that Margarito could continue to compete and collect huge purses after being caught attempting to load his gloves, some measure of justice has been served. If nothing else, Cotto had the opportunity for revenge and he took full advantage of it in a fight that, while one-sided, lacked nothing for drama, action and suspense. In fact, all three feature bouts, offered fight fans plenty of action and drama, a rarity for pay-per-view pugilism. The boxing world, out of necessity, has become increasingly adept at making lemonade due to consistently being given lemons. After all the controversy surrounding Saturday’s show, it looks like boxing emerged a winner in the end. Who could have predicted that? – Rafael Garcia Quiñones