By Thomas Gerbasi
With enough false starts and questions marks in what has still been a solid professional boxing career - one that can raise itself to a new level should he defeat Saul “Canelo” Alvarez for the junior middleweight title this Saturday - you can’t mention Kermit Cintron’s nickname “The Killer” without more than a few caveats.
In fact, if anyone deserved that nickname, it was the man who provides the asterisks on Cintron’s 33-4-1 record, Antonio Margarito, a fighter who has enough names thrown at him these days, few of them complimentary.
It wasn’t always that way though. On his way up the ranks, Margarito was almost destined to earn the same respect and adoration shown to his Mexican countrymen Julio Cesar Chavez, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Erik Morales. The Tijuana native didn’t have the natural ability or technical skill of those aforementioned stars, but what he lacked, he made up for with guts, determination, and a relentless pressure that broke opponents. He wasn’t pretty, but oh, he was exciting.
And to this day, over a decade since he won his first title at welterweight, Margarito’s style hasn’t changed. He marches forward, takes a few shots, but eventually, he will wear you down and more often than not, beat you down. Only these days, a cloud follows Margarito wherever he goes, one that has been there ever since it was discovered that he was about to use tainted hand wraps before his 2009 bout with Shane Mosley.
That’s a well-deserved stigma to carry too. While Margarito continues to insist that he knew nothing of the hand wraps trainer Javier Capetillo was using that night, wraps that contained substances that when wet would produce plaster, the fact is that he was going into the ring against Mosley that night with the equivalent of rocks on his fists if not caught by Mosley trainer Naazim Richardson. And who knows how many times he actually did make it into the ring with the same or similar wraps. Did he batter Miguel Cotto into submission with illegal wraps? Did plaster covered hands bust Sebastian Lujan’s ear in half or knock Cintron out twice? There’s no proof that he did, nor is there any way to prove that now. There’s only the question mark…
Cintron’s used to having question marks follow him around too, making him more similar to Margarito than either of them would probably like to admit. But this is a different kind of stigma, maybe even worse than the one Margarito wears. It’s one where he has seen his heart questioned on more than one occasion, whether for the Margarito losses, his fall out of the ring against Paul Williams after which he couldn’t continue, or for his lackluster defeat to Carlos Molina in July.
Forgotten are his draw with current pound-for-pound list entrant Sergio Martinez, his win over Alfredo Angulo, or the simple fact that he has been taking the loneliest walk in all of sports as a professional for over 11 years, and still has the courage to walk up those four steps into a ring where there is an opponent trained to punch him in the face more times than he gets punched. But that has not stopped the whispers that occasionally turn into roars that if you push him hard enough, he’ll break. The two fights with Margarito didn’t help, and in fact Cintron’s 2005 and 2008 losses to his Mexican rival are often Exhibit A and Exhibit B.
In 2005, Cintron was an unbeaten rising star, while Margarito was saddled with the seemingly complimentary, yet anything but as far as fight scribes are concerned, tag of “rugged.” In this game, “rugged” means you can take plenty of punishment, but you’re never good enough to win the big one. But on this night, “rugged” was enough for Margarito. As I wrote that night, “After a fairly tame first round, Margarito slowly took away what made Cintron 24-0 with 22 KOs. First he took away Cintron’s power, with a solid beard that was virtually unmoved by the Puerto Rican’s heavy hands. Next he took away his vision by opening a cut over his opponent’s right eye. Then he took away his strength by outmuscling him on the inside; and finally, Margarito took away Cintron’s confidence with a series of knockdowns that finally put the 25-year-old away in the fifth round.”
Cintron, and the team that brought him to the big dance, Marshall Kauffman and Joe Pastore, were crushed, and being the butt of every “overrated” joke in this business didn’t help. Three years later, Cintron – with a new training team in place – suffered the same fate as in the first fight. This time he exited thanks to a Margarito body shot.
But what if it wasn’t just hard punching, relentless pressure, and a cast iron chin that did Cintron in that night? What if Antonio Margarito’s hand wraps were covered in the same substance found on his confiscated Mosley fight wraps?
It’s a question being asked by Miguel Cotto in the days leading up to his December 3rd rematch with Margarito at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and in Cotto’s eyes, there’s no question that his 11th round TKO loss in 2008 was aided by something more than fists in his opponent’s gloves.
In response, Margarito has lashed back, wondering why Cotto is “always crying,” and he’s done it on HBO’s 24/7 series with a disdainful and menacing look straight out of central casting. With his goatee, dark glasses (likely to cover up the remnants of the eye surgery he underwent following a 12 round pounding from Manny Pacquiao a year ago), and sneer, Margarito has not shown an ounce of remorse for the situation that has placed his whole career in question, and it doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. 24/7 shows him laughing and joking around with his training partners, a similar scene to before the Pacquiao fight, when he was caught with teammate Brandon Rios mocking trainer Freddie Roach for his Parkinson’s disease.
Now the world isn’t expecting Margarito to wear a hair shirt and flog himself in public until we’ve gotten our pound of flesh (well maybe some section of it is), but a little acknowledgement that something was wrong that night, and that he’s embarrassed about what happened would go a long way. Even Luis Resto, whose gloves were doctored by trainer Panama Lewis before his 1983 bout with Billy Collins Jr., one that ended the unbeaten Collins’s career and put him on a downhill spiral that eventually led to his death in 1984, was seen as a somewhat sympathetic figure, if only for a fleeting moment, in the documentary film “Assault in the Ring.”
But Margarito is no fool. He knows that the perception of him as a cheater – not just on one night, but on many nights – will never go away. So for better or worse, Margarito can always play the outlaw, the pariah, the guy you love to hate. And that’s all well and good because the villain always makes money and can always be brought back for a good payday long past his sell-by date. Ricardo Mayorga has made a career out of it, but even for all of the Nicaraguan’s pre-fight antics, he’s never been accused of what Margarito has.
What Margarito almost did was take the honor system that is still inherent in such a brutal game, and tore up that silent contract. When Bernard Hopkins nails an opponent with a low blow or Evander Holyfield scores with a headbutt on the way inside, it’s almost acceptable to their opponents because the option is there for retaliation. You hit me low, well I’ll catch you with one back when the referee’s not looking, and then everything is square. Had he left the locker room with Capetillo’s wraps, Margarito would have been saying ‘okay, this is a knife fight, but I brought a .45, and you won’t know it until I shoot you with it.’
Sadly, Margarito appears to be reveling in his status as the man with the black hat.
Meanwhile, Cintron will continue to battle the doubters. As he approaches Saturday’s bout with the unbeaten Alvarez in the champion’s native Mexico, there is little attention paid to the fact that the 32-year old may become a two-division world champion and be the first to pin a loss on the record of “Canelo.” Instead, Cintron is the foil for the superstar on the rise, the latest “name” he can put on his record on the way to megafights in 2012 and beyond. And in the midst of what should be a celebration, there are still questions about the shadow that will likely follow him for the rest of his career.
“The only fighter that ever hurt me and cut me was Margarito,” said Cintron during a media teleconference this week. “The only fighter that I’ve seen hurt Cotto bad and where he got cut bad was against Margarito. It’s a weird situation that we both fought Margarito and we both ended up the same way – busted up. You never know.”
So does he think Margarito fought him dirty in 2005 and 2008?
“I honestly don’t know,” said Cintron. “I have no proof to show that he used plaster in my fights. Only he knows. I’m a clean fighter, I go in there as a clean fighter, and I go in there to do my job, which is to put on a performance and try to come out with victories. It sure made him look bad after he got caught. Were there a lot of questions in my mind about it? Yes. But I have no proof that he did use plaster. I believe if you’re caught once, what makes you think that he hasn’t done it before?”
There is no proof, so now there is only the reality of today’s situation. And the reality right now is that Antonio Margarito is still fighting, still collecting big paydays, and is likely to do so for the next couple years. Kermit Cintron may be fighting in his last big championship fight this Saturday as the B-side against a young fighter being prepped to follow in the footsteps of Chavez, Barrera, and Morales, just like Margarito once was. But with a victory, he will be a player again, and one step further away from his own negative stigma.
So who’s better off? The Outlaw or The Killer? There is no black or white answer, only shades of gray, an idea that probably suits Margarito best. As for Cintron, there may never be peace in his mind until he gets his answer, and that day is not likely to ever come.
The Outlaw wins again.