Cynicism in sports is generally easy to assuage. You win or you lose. It’s close or it’s not.
Then there’s Antonio Margarito. When he returns to the ring, he’ll face a skepticism that isn’t so simple to overcome. The doubt has little to do with the fact few believe the Tijuana Tornado stands a chance in his Nov. 13 fight against the man considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Manny Pacquiao.
The final scorecard will answer any questions as to whether Margarito can hold his own against the Filipino boxer-politician. An upset – or even a decent showing – would go a long way toward silencing those who doubt that Margarito is capable of withstanding 12 rounds against Pacquiao.
It will take much more for Margarito to convince his detractors that he should even be permitted to step into the ring. Recovering from a scandal is challenging. It’s like taking on Pacquiao (51-3-2, 38 KOs). Many have tried, few have succeeded.
This meeting marks Margarito’s first major fight in almost two years. The hiatus was forced upon him after it was determined that his hand wraps were tampered with before his bout with Shane Mosley in January 2009. Tests showed traces of plaster elements, a substance that hardens during a fight to give a boxer the sport’s equivalent of brass knuckles.
California revoked his fight license for a minimum of a year and refused to reinstate him this past summer. Nevada also denied him. It wasn’t until Texas granted him permission to fight Pacquiao at the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington that Margarito managed to mount his comeback.
Margarito has maintained his innocence, claiming he never saw or suspected anything out of the ordinary. Many observers and boxing insiders, however, suspect Margarito’s team employed illegal wraps in previous fights.
It’s widely speculated that Margarito used similar inserts in his win over Miguel Cotto in July 2008. Pacquiao’s trainer Freddy Roach has said he believes Margarito’s wraps were also doctored when he knocked out Kermit Cintrón in April of that year.
But suspicions, like innocence, are hard to prove. Until either side produces irrefutable evidence, Margarito stands as boxing’s most polarizing figure – an unknowing victim to his diehard fans, a nefarious villain willing to do whatever it takes in the eyes of everyone else.
In an era where recent fights seem geared primarily to serve as the season finale of HBO’s “24/7,” Margarito is the ultimate character. Maybe this kind of drama is what the sport is looking for as it attempts to reconnect with a mainstream audience and contend with the growing popularity of mixed martial arts.
It’s no secret both sports are not only targeting, but also competing for the Hispanic audience. Cain Velasquez’s recent surprise victory over Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title has given MMA a Latino star and surge among that demographic. It's possible a win by Margarito could do the same for boxing, particularly among the Mexican community.
And no matter who's watching, it seems boxing wants to give its viewers more novela than fight. After all, in the lead-up to Pacquiao-Margarito, the bout seems almost secondary, a plot device simply to move the story along. It’s a reality-show peg to distract us from the fact that this fight should have been the fight – Pacquiao-Mayweather – but it’s not.
Still, a disappointment for the boxing world is an opportunity for Margarito. If betting odds are any indication, the Nov. 13 fight is expected to be an anticlimactic showcase with the ever-charismatic politician-on-the-rise poised for an easy win over a disgraced fighter who was either clueless or callous.
Margarito has nothing to lose – and everything to regain. Regardless of the fight’s outcome, even if Margarito stuns the world with a knockout in the first round to claim the vacant World Boxing Council super welterweight title, it will mark just the beginning of his journey back to boxing’s upper ranks.
Championships, even for underdogs, come easier than redemption.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist and chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force.