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Dec 07

Everything in its right place

Ready to rumble

21,000 people sold out Madison Square Garden on Saturday to watch Miguel Cotto give Antonio Margarito his comeuppance, and there would be no other acceptable outcome.

A Margarito victory would have been catastrophic, as would have a run-of-the-mill boxing debacle akin to Bernard Hopkins’ aborted match against Chad Dawson a few weeks back. As such, with the exception of the first Mets game at Shea Stadium after 9/11, I’m not sure I’ve attended a sporting event where the outcome seemed quite so crucial.

The run-up to the fight was superb and full of intriguing storylines. During their Face-off moderated by Kellerman, Cotto pulled out an iPad to submit to the court of public opinion photographic evidence Margarito had cheated, while Margarito chose to argue the merits of being willing to die in the ring.

These two legitimately despise each other

On what I think was the best 24/7 ever, you had Cotto chillingly accusing Margarito of possessing the countenance of a hardened criminal, eliciting Margarito’s pretty hilarious retort (even if you despise him).

The temporary uncertainty over whether Margarito’s surgically reconstructed face and eye would even allow the fight to happen added another level of high drama, particularly if you had purchased tickets, not to mention airfare and a hotel room.

The fans that filled the Garden pushed their chips in against a basic sports maxim, which is that try as you might, you can’t control the outcome. You attend a fight like Cotto-Margarito II hoping to see a satisfying action fight, for sure, but more so in the hopes of drinking in the sweet vicarious catharsis of a vindicated champion avenging himself against a villain of the highest order.

Personally, I thought there was a good chance Cotto would win. Though Cotto was underwhelming in his several most recent fights, Margarito has looked markedly unimpressive since the hand-wrap debacle, even before Manny Pacquiao literally rearranged his face.

Their first bloodbath of a fight

The general thinking was that Margarito had indeed used illegal hand wraps underneath his gloves in their first fight, and that a resounding Cotto victory would prove that.

But what if Margarito hadn’t used illegal wraps in the first fight? Or worse yet, what if Cotto couldn’t get over the visage of Margarito prancing across the ring at him right before the noble warrior was forced to take a knee?

I thought Max Kellerman termed it well: The sword of Damacles hovering over the evening was a potential Margarito victory. This wasn’t like paying 10 dollars to see a movie that you know, or at least suspect, has a happy ending. The possibility that Margarito could gleefully flip the script loomed large.

My fiancée has taken an interest in boxing over the past couple of years, so I bought us tickets to the fight for her birthday. She had been to two cards in Atlantic City, but I thought it important that she experience what a sellout fight in the Garden looked and sounded like. I also wanted her to witness a great fighter’s moment of redemption.

But obviously, I could only guarantee half of that equation.

*****

Bob Arum cited a sellout crowd at the Garden as evidence that boxing (read: Top Rank) is alive and well, but that’s not necessarily true. Rather, it’s evidence that Cotto, the heir to Felix Trinidad’s throne, is a phenomenon among the Puerto Rican fans that made up probably 95 percent of the crowd.

Rios (mas) grandeCotto’s New York fan base is reminiscent in its ethnic pride of what Arturo Gatti used to draw in Atlantic City, where he was like a one-man Giants game. The Garden exploded during Cotto’s ring walk as if L.J. had converted another four-point play, and greeted Margarito with a firestorm of enmity.

The undercard had a number of very good fights, most notably Delvin Rodriguez’s masterful performance in a rematch with Pawel Wolak (who subsequently retired), and a washed-out Brandon Rios nonetheless stopping a tough-as-nails John Murray.

But the crowd paid the action little mind, with the exception of scant boos for Rios for being Margarito’s compadre. They directed the vast majority of their alternating worship and scorn at Cotto and Margarito, erupting whenever either was shown on the big Garden screen in between rounds. We saw several fights in the crowd between Cotto sympathizers and the few Mexican fans who delighted in channeling Margarito, brandishing flags and donning sombreros.

Neutral cornerIn effect, the Garden thematically became the modern day manifestation of the Colosseum, eager for Cotto to avenge his attempted maiming at the hands of the hated villain. The evening invited a desire for Cotto to leave Margarito bloody and perhaps blind, turn his thumb down, and ask us if we were entertained.

It became apparent that Cotto is not merely a beloved fighter, he was ostensibly a member of the family. And with such a charged atmosphere and so much passion invested, I couldn’t help but wonder with a bit of trepidation what would go down if Cotto were to lose.

As it turned out, Cotto was indeed a lot better than Margarito – not quite vintage, but definitely good enough relative to what his opponent had left. Cotto opened up a cut over Margarito’s right eye, targeted the eye until it closed and mostly battered him for 10 rounds.

For his part, Margarito was his usual zombie self, staggering forward and shaking off punishment, though the relative lack of damage to Cotto’s face indicated that his thudding blows were perhaps somewhat less so this time around.

Max and MiguelWhen the doctors wouldn’t allow a half-blinded Margarito to answer the bell for the 11th, the crowd around me seemed a bit disconcerted that their hero wouldn’t be able to cement his victory in the middle of the ring during combat. But that segued into a feeling of contentment with the growing realization that the situation was perfectly black and white: Cotto had won, which was far better than the alternative.

“I’m here with all my crowd and all my people. He means nothing to me,” Cotto insisted after the fight, as if one could simply make that so after so many years spent despising someone.

We went to Foley’s for a postfight “tweet-up,” at which everyone knows each other primarily by their screen names. There actually was little talk about the fight, animated passion replaced by a general feeling of contentment. Everyone’s shared burden cast aside, we were free to enjoy a few drinks and each other’s company.

*****

While I drove us back to New Jersey later that night, my fiancée expressed understandable mild disappointment in the anticlimactic nature of the conclusion of the fight. But we agreed that you rarely get explicitly what you want out of boxing, and that the end result truly was what mattered in this case, along with the experiences we’d had along the way.

Essentially, the fact that the fight happened at all given Margarito’s physical state was a victory in itself. That it was a good fight was icing on the cake, and Cotto’s triumph was the cherry on top.

And let’s face it, there are a lot of wrongs in life we don’t ever actually get to correct. If the main thing to take from Cotto’s great victory is that once in a great while, everything works out exactly the way it should, it’d be difficult to consider the evening anything other than an unqualified success.

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