Friday July 25th, 2008

There was a time not too long ago when Antonio Margarito was the most feared fighter in boxing.

Not the welterweight division -- all of boxing. There was a time when Margarito (36-5) was avoided more than the "remember the time" guy at a high school reunion. Zab Judah. Shane Mosley. Floyd Mayweather Jr. turned down $8 million in guaranteed money to fight Margarito and Oscar De La Hoya said Margarito was "too tough" to get in the ring with.

In fact, the only elite fighter who accepted Margarito's challenges was Kermit Cintrón. And he paid the price: the power-punching Cintrón lasted a grand total of 11 rounds in two fights with Margarito, both ending with Cintrón enjoying the comfort of the canvas.

It seemed impossible Margarito could lose his reputation for intimidation all in one night. But he did. That night came last July when Margarito, defending his IBF welterweight title against Paul Williams, turned in the worst performance of his professional career. For 12 rounds Margarito ate hundreds of punches -- more than 100 per round, to be more precise -- from the rangy Williams. It was not an unusual occurrence for a man like Margarito, who takes an almost perverse pleasure in taking a punch, but a significant problem when he is unable to deliver as many concussive blows of his own. The result: a unanimous decision in favor of Williams that cost Margarito his title -- and his reputation.

"I wasn't into the fight for those first few rounds, and that cost me," Margarito said. "He wasn't hurting me. He was just throwing punches, and I let him throw punches because he wasn't hurting me. After I saw the tape I said, 'that's never going to happen to me again.'"

Margarito may have believed the Williams fight to be an aberration, but to the general public, it was the first sign of decline. (See, there is a price to be paid for spending the bulk of your career leading with your chin.)

Even though Margarito, 30, was still young by boxing standards, some in the sports' inner circle believed the inordinate amount of punishment Margarito had absorbed in his 14-year pro career meant his best days were behind him. It was as if a myth of Margarito had been dispelled in one fight.

Said Margarito, "I had a bad night."

Still, he would soldier on. Four months after losing his title to Williams, Margarito was back in the ring. Fighting on the Shane Mosley-Miguel Cotto undercard, Margarito dismantled Golden Johnson in a first-round knockout that many in attendance felt was more exciting than the main event. Last April, Margarito regained a piece of the world title when he dropped Cintrón in the sixth round.

It was vintage Margarito. He endured shot after shot from the heavy handed Cintrón before eventually forcing his way inside and delivering a crushing body blow that sent Cintrón crumpling to the canvas. It was a win that re-established Margarito within the division.

"During [the Cintrón] fight, I had been telling people all along that I wanted to become a champion again," Margarito said. "As far as I am concerned, that is what the fight against Cintrón proved."

It did more than that. The win earned Margarito a shot against Cotto (32-0), who, with the retirement of Mayweather (however "Favre-ian" that retirement may be), is widely considered the top welterweight in boxing.

"It is the biggest fight of my career," declared Margarito. "Without a doubt, I think that winning this fight will move me to another level. I think it will fulfill some promises in my career."

Margarito-Cotto will be a contrast in styles. The compact Cotto has a prolific jab and is known as one of the fiercest body punchers in boxing. A longtime junior welterweight, Cotto outboxed Mosley last November before destroying former Contender star Alfonso Gomez last April.

To counter Cotto's boxing acumen, Margarito will attempt to turn the fight into a brawl and use his size advantage (Margarito is 5-foot-11; Cotto is 5-foot-7) to wear opponent down.

The strategy has worked on Cotto before. In 2005, he was floored by Ricardo Torres and staggered by DeMarcus Corley.

"I feel that I will be pressuring him a lot," Margarito said. "I have a lot of power and I can do a lot of things as far as power is concerned. If [Cotto] boxes and tries not to come to me I will have to use my reach and height to make him fight."

If the boxer is forced to become the street fighter, it would work decidedly in Margarito's favor. And it could help him regain the reputation he lost a year ago.

"I am not sure what strategy Cotto will have for this fight," said Margarito. "I know that I am the type of fighter that throws a lot of punches and puts a lot of pressure on my opponent and we'll see how he comes out and how he reacts to it."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.