Antonio Margarito will be fighting Saturday night thanks to the recent musings of the New York State Athletic Commission. The all-clear siren has sounded. All is suddenly right again in the closeted world of Top Rank.
The right eye is fine, and Margarito’s rematch with WBA super-welterweight champion Miguel Cotto is back on schedule at Madison Square Garden (HBO Pay-Per-View).
Too bad, though. I could have saved the NYSAC some time and heartache if they had just asked me about battered eyes. I would have told them it was safe for Margarito to fight again. His cataract surgery was last spring, or about the same time mine was. That’s plenty of time for the eye to heal, to see things clear again.
Why ask me? Because I know the wear and tear fighting puts on the eyes.
While it was Margarito’s right eye that was injured last year in his fight with Manny Pacquiao, it was my left eye that quit on me, surrendering to one too many punches thrown in one too many dark arenas.
At the time, it almost felt like a betrayal, a mutiny. One minute I was dreaming of titles, fame and fortune, the next minute I was eating breakfast while my fiancé told me about the career opportunities in selling life insurance. She was explaining all the benefits that come with regular paychecks and 40-hour weeks at a bank or in a real estate office, places where you won't bleed or bruise or cut too easily.
But I never really listened.
It was a right hand or a head butt or maybe a shoulder that did the damage, slipping in like a thief, doing the dirty work on my eye and then quietly slipping away unnoticed.
I still don't know how or exactly what round my retina became detached, but it struck a blow for an easier lifestyle.
For me, the world changed after that, moving from fight nights, big crowds, applause, newspaper clippings and long hours in the gym, to coffee and want ads in the morning. From sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday to suit coats and ties and 9 a.m. appointments on the fifth floor of corporate buildings.
The fight – which turned out to be my last – was in the early winter of 1979 in Omaha, Neb., a cold, simple, out-of-the-way place to end a career.
It was supposed to be an easy eight-rounder, a gift for a week of heavy sparring with a guy named Dale Hernandez who was fighting the main event that same night against Lennox Blackmoore.
But by the time my fight was over, I had banged up my right hand, was cut over both eyes and had suffered the detached retina, though I didn't know it at the time.
Despite the carnage, I won the fight, but only in the hard, simple world of figures and won-loss records.
Fight long enough and you learn to ignore the small aches and pains that come with the job, the little inconveniences. They’re with you all the time. They just change places once in awhile. And that's all the battered eye seemed to be, a minor injury that needed nothing more than a few stitches and a little time to heal.
But two weeks later, the black curtain in my field of vision was still pulled down in the corner of my eye. It was like trying to look through a window with the shade half down.
I was scheduled to fight again in Winnipeg, Canada and when I went back to the gym to start training again, I told my trainer, Jim Morgan, that I was still having problems seeing out of the eye. He wouldn’t let me work out that night and the next day I saw an ophthalmologist. Two days later, I had eye surgery for a detached retina, my doctor telling me my fighting days were over, that there was a strong chance I could lose sight in the eye if I damaged it again in the ring. Since I was already very near-sighted, there weren’t a lot of options.
So after 60 amateur fights and 22 pro fights spread out over 12 years, a way of living was suddenly over. It was time to move on, to get a real job.
Still, you never forget what it was like to fight, how special it made you feel despite the crooked nose, the scars over the eyes and the rough edges that still slip out once in awhile.
I tried to explain it to my fiancé but she just shook her head, never understanding why I loved something as brutal as the prize ring.
I stayed away from boxing gyms for awhile after that. I would occasionally read about an upcoming fight, but I wouldn’t watch it. Occasionally, I would run into someone who knew me as a fighter and they would ask me why I wasn’t in the paper anymore and I’d just tell them it was time for me to retire. They would shake their heads, but I wouldn’t go into the details unless they asked me. And then I kept it short, told them I had a bad eye and couldn‘t risk loosing it.
“Maybe if I was fighting for a million dollars, it would be worth taking the risk,“ I’d say. “But I’m not going to jeopardize my eye for a $1,200 purse.”
I remember Sugar Ray Leonard suffered a detached retina two years after I did, and after deciding to retire, he later changed his mind and resumed his career. The medical profession had already made some strides in eye surgery. His purse also had a few more zeros on it than mine. Risk has a price.
Though I did my best to stay away from boxing after that, I eventually was drawn back to the ring and coached an amateur team in Arizona a few years later. And yeah, I sparred with some of the young fighters I trained, knowing the risk. But I believed that 16-ounce gloves, headgear and healing time would minimize the danger to my eye. Besides, I was never good at going cold turkey.
Despite the surgery, my left eye was never really the same after that night in Omaha, and almost 20 years later, in the spring of 1999, I had cataract surgery performed on the eye while living in Denver. The doctor told me my eyes were pretty beat up from my years of fighting and that was the problem.
Then, in March of this year, I was covering some spring training baseball games in Clearwater, FL when I noticed I couldn’t read the scoreboard from the press box. I decided I needed stronger contact lenses and glasses, so I went to another eye specialist in Tampa. Hesaid I needed cataract surgery in my other eye, my right eye.
He asked a lot of questions about my eyes and the trauma they’d been through and I told him about my boxing history. Two weeks later, in early April, I had cataract surgery on my other eye. Three days after that, I was no longer near-sighed. Today, all I need are reading glasses.
Sitting in my eye doctor’s office a few days after the surgery, I asked him half-jokingly if I would ever be able to put the gloves on again and spar.
Without missing a beat, he said I could start sparring again in a couple months after the implanted artificial lens had some time to heal.
“But it probably wouldn’t hurt you to wear headgear,“ he said, keeping a straight face.
Not a bad prognosis for a guy who wore glasses for 53 years, but can see better now at 60 than he could when he was 16.
Antonio Margarito? Saturday night, his eye will be the least of his worries.