Antonio Margarito's right eye was the subject of much debate in recent months. Thomas Hauser takes a deeper look at the meaning of it all. (Chris Farina-Top Rank)
There’s something about a Miguel Cotto fight that brings chaos to the New York State Athletic Commission.
Cotto fought at Yankee Stadium against Yuri Foreman on June 5, 2010. Early in round seven, Foreman’s right knee gave way and he fell to the canvas. He rose in obvious pain, hobbling when he tried to walk. Later in the round, his knee buckled again and he fell to the canvas for the second time without being hit.
In round eight, the inspector assigned to Foreman’s corner advised referee Arthur Mercante Jr that Joe Grier (Yuri’s trainer) wanted to stop the fight. Mercante refused and Grier threw a white towel of surrender into the ring. The referee then consulted with New York State Athletic Commission chairperson Melvina Lathan, who declined to stop the fight. The bout continued into the ninth round before it ended.
It’s impossible to know the extent to which Foreman’s injury was aggravated by the authorities allowing the fight to continue for two rounds after Yuri was injured. What is known is that, afterward, Foreman underwent reconstructive surgery for a torn ACL and a significant meniscus injury. Nine months later, he returned to the ring. But his mobility was diminished and he lost every round en route to a sixth-round stoppage at the hands of Pawel Wolak. His career as a fighter is now on hold.
Medical contretemps were also part of the story-line for Cotto’s December 3rd fight at Madison Square Garden against Antonio Margarito. Only this time, the controversy was before the fight, not afterward. And it centered on an eye, not a knee.
Dr. Barry Jordan (chief medical officer for the New York State Athletic Commission), Dr. Anthony Curreri (its ocular specialist), and the commission’s medical advisory board (including retinal specialist Dr. Vincent Giovinazzo) did not think that Margarito should be licensed to box in New York. In making their determination, they considered five problems that Margarito faced after his 2010 fight against Manny Pacquiao: (1) a retinal detachment; (2) a large retinal tear necessitating the use of silicone oil as part of the repair process; (3) a fractured orbital bone; (4) a vitreous rupture; and (5) the removal of a cataract followed by the implant of an artificial lens. Taken together, these factors led to further concern regarding the total construction of Margarito’s right eye.
Thereafter, the NYSAC was on the receiving end of some unfair commentary. For example, considerable attention was paid to the fact that Ms. Lathan enjoyed a “free lunch” at the September 20th kick-off press conference for Cotto-Margarito II without indicating that licensing Margarito might be a problem.
References to Ms. Lathan’s lunch skewed the debate. The writers in attendance at the press conference (including this one) ate lunch too. But there was more valid criticism with regard to the substantive issue of how Ms. Lathan had overseen the licensing process.
With the fight in jeopardy as the clock ticked down, Bob Arum declared, “Can you believe this? We’re two thousand tickets away from a complete sellout, and the New York State Athletic Commission wants to pull this nonsense. It’s a complete kangaroo commission up there. This woman, who knows nothing, says that two leading ophthalmologists [retained by the promotion in support of Margarito’s application] are lying. I don't understand her. She knew he had eye surgery before we even had a first press conference. The government should throw them all out of office. In all the years I've been in boxing, this is the most incredible experience I've had.”
Arum, of course, had a vested interest in the process. He was promoting the fight. But Dan Rafael of ESPN.com (a more impartial observer) had a comparable view.
“The NYSAC has handled this whole sorry episode like a bunch of amateurs who have no idea what they are doing,” Rafael wrote. “What is wrong, and what stinks here, is that the NYSAC waited until the eleventh hour to make a decision that should have been made months ago. Now thousands of people are in limbo and tens of millions of dollars are at stake when it never should have come to this. It was up to the commission to give Top Rank a firm deadline by which any paperwork or exams were due so that it would leave enough time to make a decision; not risk forcing the fight out of town less than two weeks before and with the Garden already nearly sold out.”
“This whole thing is a mess,” Rafael continued. “And it's because of how irresponsibly the NYSAC has behaved. The fight was agreed to in July. The site was selected not long after that. Then there was a news conference in New York to formally announce the fight in late September; a news conference that Lathan attended, where she was one of the speakers. She lauded the fighters and Top Rank. At that point, there wasn't a hint of a licensing issue. Do you think for one second that Arum would have spent so significantly on the promotion and made a deal with the Garden and HBO PPV if he hadn't been given assurances from New York that Margarito's license was in the bag? And it's not as though Margarito's eye injury and surgery were a secret.”
“I have no quarrel with the NYSAC wanting to make sure Margarito is healthy enough to fight,” Rafael concluded. “But if the commission was so concerned, why didn't it have Margarito submit to an eye exam when he was in New York in September rather than wait until the last minute for this dog and pony show? How do you tell thousands of people who have bought tickets, booked flights and hotel rooms, and planned their lives around the week of the fight that it's being kicked out of town on less than two weeks' notice? Do you think this mess is going to make any promoter want to bring a big fight to New York in the future?”
Thereafter, medical testmony from outside physicians at odds with the thoughts of the NYSAC medical staff was introduced into evidence at an eleventh-hour hearing. After considerable maneuvering behind closed doors, the commission relented. In legal-medical terms, it was determined that licensing Margarito was “contra-indicated but not prohibited.”
Looking back on it all, Dr. Curreri says, “Our medical guidelines are written for doctors, not lawyers. Now I’m a bit concerned about what happens in the future. A fighter with multiple pathologies passed through the licensing process. After allowing this fight, we must review our guidelines and change some of the terminology so that the intent of the guidelines – which is to protect the safety of the fighter – is enforced. What I believe will happen next is that the medical staff will work with others to develop proper terminology that satisfies all legal requirements as well as medical considerations. What I can also tell you with great certainty is that the doctors in the commission medical department were looking out for the safety of Mr. Margarito. And we continued to perform our duties even after the commission decided not to follow our advice with regard to licensing him. The commission medical staff will continue to put fighter safety first in New York.”
Throughout fight-week, Margarito appeared to relish the role of villain. He wore sun-glasses for most of the proceedings in The Big Apple and still managed to look shifty-eyed. His first words from the dais at the final pre-fight press conference on November 30th were, “Here comes the criminal,” (a reference to the much-discussed controversy involving his handwraps in previous fights).
As Margarito spoke, Cotto’s face hardened. When it was Miguel’s turn to speak, he began with, “I’m going to talk in Spanish so Antonio can understand me.” He then told Margarito precisely what he thought of him, closing with the sentiment, “You are an embarrassment to boxing.”
There was no ritual staredown for photographers at the end of the press conference. Instead, the fighters posed with Arum standing between them.
The bad blood was real and wouldn’t wash away when the fight was over. “Margarito is just another human being,” Cotto said. “I don't have to like him. I just have to fight him.”
Cotto was a 2-to-1 betting favorite, but he’d also been favored 2-to-1 in their first encounter. Miguel’s backers felt that their man was the better fighter; that “loaded” gloves had been a key factor in the previous fight; that Antonio’s right eye would make a nice target for Cotto’s power punch (his left hook); and that Miguel’s hatred would strengthen his resolve.
As for Margarito’s trash-talking, Cotto declared, “I don’t pay attention to what my opponents say; only to what they do in the fight.”
Margarito’s partisans believed that Antonio had won the first fight fairly and that, once again, his brutal swarming assault would beat Miguel down. Cotto would be coming to box. Margarito would be coming to fight. No matter how good Miguel’s defense was, he would be hit and hit hard.
Margarito is a tough SOB. Last year, AFTER his orbital bone was broken and his right eye was swollen shut, he doubled Manny Pacquiao over with a body shot that almost took Pacquiao out of the fight. What would happen if he hit Cotto like that?
The moment of truth would come in the ring when Miguel was on the receiving end of punches from the man who’d beaten him into submission before.
“We’re different,” Margarito said. “Cotto will take a knee, and I won’t.”
Meanwhile, neither Ms. Lathan nor anyone else from the NYSAC attended the final main-event press conference at Madison Square Garden on November 30th. That notable departure from custom was repeated when the undercard press conference was held at B. B. King’s a day later.
Then things got even more strange.
Media coverage was particularly important to Cotto-Margarito II because of the issues involved (from Margarito’s handwraps to the condition of his eye). But there were times when Lathan seemed more concerned with controlling the media than efficiently administering the fight.
The NYSAC continued to follow its ridiculous practice of refusing to allow HBO to weigh the fighters on “the unofficial HBO scale” in the dressing room prior to the fight. Then a more serious issue arose when the commission wouldn’t let Naazim Richardson supervise the wrapping of Margarito’s hands on behalf of the Cotto camp.
HBO analyst Max Kellerman was dispatched to the dressing room. NYSAC officials sought to preclude him from interviewing Richardson, but were unsuccessful in their attempt.
HBO commentator Emanuel Steward expressed sympathy for the situation that Lathan and other commission members found themselves in. Jim Lampley and Kellerman were less sympathetic.
“It’s amazing how these commissions behave sometimes,” Kellerman told the viewing audience. “Naazim Richardson didn’t think they had done anything wrong. But just by [my] asking the question about what he thought about it, the commission members who were in the room wanted to immediately stop the interview.
“Really?” Lamply inquired. “Is there a media blackout on the subject?
“Which is absurd,” Kellerman responded. “No one is accusing them of any wrongdoing, although it does seem that they’re not allowing him in on a technicality. This happened not long ago in California. There was an issue with the commission. The commission stopped answering questions and behaved defensively and it makes them look very bad. They’re accountable to boxing fans and the media as the outlet for boxing fans; or maybe they don’t think they are.”
Then the situation got crazier. As the handwrap debacle stretched on, Robert Garcia (Margarito’s trainer) and the fighter himself said that they had no problem with Richardson overseeing the handwrapping process. “Bring him in,” Garcia urged.
“That answers the question you might have had about the Naazim Richardson situation,” Lampley observed. “Obviously, it was no problem for anybody in Margarito’s camp. It was entirely the New York State Athletic Commission’s issue.”
“It’s like a bouncer at a club door who flexes some muscle simply because he can,” Kellerman added. “The New York State Athletic Commission.”
Problem resolved . . . Not.
“And now, here’s another change,” Lampley reported. “Hold the phone because I’ve just been told there’s another shift in gears. Naazim Richardson won’t be allowed into Margarito’s dressing room to watch the handwraps.”
Two of the best ring inspectors in the country – chief inspector Felix Figueroa (who was assigned to Cotto’s dressing room) and George Ward (who was assigned to Margarito’s) were caught in the middle of it all.
Ultimately, Pedro Luis Diaz (Cotto’s trainer) watched Margarito’s hands being wrapped. No one from the commission was able to explain why Richardson (a widely-respected trainer) wasn’t allowed in Margarito’s dressing room, but actors Tony Sirico (The Sopranos) and Chuck Zito (Oz) were allowed into Cotto’s.
Still, when all was said and done, December 3rd was a good night for boxing at Madison Square Garden. The arena was sold out, with an announced attendance of 21,239. The atmosphere was akin to the excitement at a World Cup soccer match.
Two of the undercard fights were of particular note.
Delvin Rodriguez vs. Pawel Wolak was a rematch of their Juy 15, 2011, draw, which many observers think was the fight of the year.
Rodriguez-Wolak II lacked the drama of their first encounter because Pawel had two eyes this time instead of one left eye paired with a balloon on the right side of his face. Also, Rodriguez clearly won the second time around (although the fight was closer than the scoring of the judges indicated).
Wolak is relentless. At times, he seems to regard getting punched in the face as nothing more than an inconvenience that momentarily slows his forward progress. He has a great chin but not a great punch.
In their first fight, Rodriguez stayed in the pocket and relied on getting off first as his primary defense. This time, he used his legs and distance to defensive advantage. Wolak, as he usually does, went to the body throughout the fight. Delvin successfully countered with uppercuts. The last round saw Pawel reeling aroung the ring, all but out on his feet.
Four days after the fight, Wolak announced his retirement from boxing. Over the course of a seven-year career, he compiled a 29-2-1 record as a courageous honest fighter who brought honor to himself and the sport of boxing. I hope he’s honest with himself and stays retired.
Brandon Rios vs. John Murray was also a good action fight.
Rios (who was required to make 135 pounds in defense of his WBA title) tipped the scales at 136.4 on his first try at the Friday weigh-in. Moments later, the same scale registered 135.6. Seconds after that, it was 136.4 again. That seemed odd until it was suggested that, on the second try, Robert Garcia had his finger under Rios’s right elbow and was pushing up. Whatever the truth, Brandon was unable to make weight and forfeited his 135-pound crown.
Rios is easy to hit. The problem for opponents is that he hits back. When Brandon gets hit, he smiles like Freddy Krueger. When he hits his opponent, he smiles like Freddy Krueger. The harder the punches, the broader the smile. One doesn’t stand in the pocket and trade with Rios unless one knows something that the rest of us don’t. But that’s what Murray did.
It was trench warfare all night, with Rios throwing 1002 punches to Murray’s 921. John had his moments; but over time, Brandon beat him down. It was entertaining while it lasted, which was until 2:06 of round eleven. Rios will have an exciting and successful career, not a long one.
At various times throughout the evening, images of Cotto and Margarito were shown on large video screens above the ring. Miguel’s image was greeted with cheers; Margarito’s, with boos. The crowd also booed when the Mexican national anthem was sung and when Antonio’s wife was seen overhead.
Finally, it was time for the main event.
Margarito entered the ring at the stroke of midnight; the witching hour, when all manner of things happen. Boos and jeers resounded throughout the arena. Cotto followed to a thunderous roar. Now only the fight mattered.
Antonio fights as though finesse in the ring is a sin of the highest order. He comes forward, takes punches, throws punches; and more often than not -- by virtue of his stamina, power and iron chin -- grinds opponents down like a crushing millstone.
Cotto-Margarito II began like its predecessor. Miguel, circling and jabbing. Antonio, coming forward, willing to take punishment, throwing punches in return.
Chants of “Cotto! Cotto!” resounded from the first minute on. As was the case in their initial encounter, Margarito appeared to be the much larger man. When Miguel stopped to trade punches, Antonio relished the exchanges and went to the body well.
But there were two differences between this fight and their epic first battle. Margarito’s punches didn’t have the same devastating effect on Cotto as before; not even when the fighters were trading bombs. And the area around Antonio’s surgically-repaired right eye began to swell in the third round.
Dr. Curreri was the ring physician assigned to Margarito’s corner. “I did not approve Mr. Margarito’s request for a license and it was my initial preference not to work the fight,” Curreri said afterward. “But I was asked by the commission to be in the corner. And I came to feel that, if the fight was going to take place, I should be there to protect the fighter in the event that such protection became necessary.”
By the end of round six, Dr. Curreri (in conjunction with Dr. Jordan) was closely monitoring the damage to Margarito’s eye. Just before the start of round ten (with Cotto leading 89-82 on each scorecard), they instructed referee Steve Smoger to halt the proceedings.
“His eye was gradually closing throughout the fight to the point where there was no vision,” Dr. Curreri explained later. “Between the vision and the lid closing, I felt it was best to stop the fight. He had no vision in the right eye, meaning he had no peripheral vision.”
Cotto walked across the ring toward Margarito, cast a scornful look in his defeated adversary’s direction, and walked away. “I just wanted to taste my victory,” Miguel said at the post-fight press conference. “And I wanted him to see me tasting my victory with the one eye that he had.”
Later, Smoger (who did an excellent job of refereeing the fight) put the night’s events in perspective from his point of view.
“When I went to Margarito’s dressing room to give him his pre-fight instructions,” Smoger recalled, “I told him, ‘Antonio; in my mind, you’re a complete fighter. I know there was an issue regarding your eye. But you’ve been found medically fit to fight, and I’ll treat you the same way I treat every other fighter.’ I could see the relief on his face when I said that. Then you had the fight. From the middle rounds on, I could see that Dr Curreri was looking at the eye. But it never crossed my mind to stop the fight. Margarito never took a backward step. He was competitive. He was defending himself. He wasn’t taking unnecessary punishment. In fact, near the end of round nine, I sensed a change of momentum and thought that Margarito might be coming on. And remember; I refereed Pawel Wolak’s first fight against Delvin Rodriquez, which was also in New York. Pawel’s eye was worse than Margarito’s. But he was allowed to finish the fight, and now it’s a candidate for ‘Fight of the Year’. So I was in a situation after round nine where Antonio and his corner were pleading for one more round. If it was my call, I wouldn’t have stopped it. But I’m not an eye doctor. Dr. Curreri is a good one. And in the great State of New York, the ring doctor has the authority to stop a fight. People have said there was confusion at the end, but that wasn’t the case. The delay in stopping the fight before the start of the tenth round was my doing. I wanted to make totally sure that Dr. Curreri and Dr. Jordan wanted me to stop it; because once I wave my hands that it’s over, that action can’t be undone.”
As for the future; it’s unlikely that Cotto will recover the stature he enjoyed in boxing’s pound-for-pound rankings before his 2008 loss to Margarito. But his victory over Antonio will go a long way toward ensuring his place in the hearts of his countrymen.
And he has closure.
“I am very happy to finally get it over with,” Miguel said at the post-fight press conference.
“How do you feel about Antonio Margarito now?” he was asked.
“He means nothing to me,” Cotto answered. “He has his own life. I have my own. He can keep with his life. I’m going to keep with mine.”
The better man won. So did the better fighter.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (Winks and Daggers: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published earlier this year by the University of Arkansas Press.