NEW YORK -- Genuine hatred, like the animus that underwrote Saturday's rematch between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito at Madison Square Garden, cannot be manufactured by even the shrewdest of boxing's carnival barkers, try as they might.
And the rancor between these two was never more evident than moments after Cotto finished off a 10th-round TKO of Margarito, defending his WBA super welterweight title before an electric crowd of 21,239 that packed the house for the first boxing card at the renovated arena.
Before ring announcer Michael Buffer could read the official result, Cotto had wandered over toward Margarito's corner simply to be seen -- a rare moment of braggadocio from one of boxing's classiest and understated champions.
"I wanted him to see me savoring my victory," Cotto confessed afterward, "with the one eye he had open."
The four-year blood feud that came to an end Saturday night -- we can only pray -- traced back to Margarito's gruesome victory over Cotto for his welterweight championship in 2008. It had been one of the most memorable slugfests in recent memory, but its legitimacy was thrown into question when Margarito was caught attempting to use loaded gloves ahead of his next fight with Shane Mosley, an offense that led to a suspension and nearly a year-and-a-half of inactivity.
In Saturday's long-anticipated rematch, Cotto (37-2, 30 KOs) badly mistreated Margarito over nine rounds before the ring doctor intervened prior to the 10th.
"I felt extra motivation," said Cotto, who connected on 210 of 493 punches (43 percent) compared to 147 of 700 for Margarito (22 percent). "I was vindicated. You can see my face now and how I got out of ring in 2008. Draw your own conclusions."
Cotto hates Margarito because he feels he was cheated out of what might have been the headiest days of his career. The Puerto Rican was 32-0 and a superstar-in-waiting when Margarito gave him the beating of a lifetime and took his welterweight title. It is to Cotto's immense credit -- and probably the cherry on top of his Hall of Fame case -- that he didn't let it completely derail his career.
Margarito doesn't seem to hate Cotto per se, but he committed a hateful act -- certainly the most hateful act one boxer can commit against another -- a thing that has sent other fighters to prison for assault. It was a night when Cotto lost something he'll never get back. It is the sport's gravest sin, and it's branded him a villain for life. "El jugó con la vida de mi esposo," Cotto's wife told HBO in a recent interview.
It wasn't so much that Margarito did wrong -- from Michael Vick to Betty White, America loves a comeback -- it's that he seems so at peace with it. He is the cowboy in the black hat and he seems to relish the role, bearing a Grinch-like smile as the heavily pro-Cotto audience rained boos on his ringwalk. To Margarito, the road to redemption was not through repentance but through victory.
Yet Cotto made it clear from the opening bell that revenge was his. Buoyed by the carnival-like atmosphere his fights always promote at the Garden (where now six times he's fought and won), Cotto looked sharper and quicker from the jump, landing crisp left-right-left combinations that sent the crowd into hysterics. A straight right early in the second round wobbled Margarito, the Mexican's wide grin and continuous taunts belying their effect.
Cotto's defense looked as good as it's ever been, aided in no small part by a Margarito who looked rusty and clumsy, like a man in the dark trying to find the light switch. He effortlessly parried and blocked Margarito's unrefined offerings, moving with ease and scoring on a wide variety of punches.
Emboldened, Cotto ramped up the pace in the action-heavy third and connected with a series of vicious power shots, including a huge left hook that rocked Margarito backwards. By the end of the round, a trickle of blood ran down from the corner of Margarito's surgically repaired right eye -- a souvenir from the Mexican's stomach-turning beating against Manny Pacquiao in 2009. From then on, it became a race against time, with the doctors at ringside keeping close tabs on an eye that had nearly seen the fight moved out of New York when the state athletic commission balked at licensing him.
Though Margarito (38-8, 27 KOs) enjoys significant advantages in height and reach, he is a pressure fighter who prefers the fight in a phone booth. Yet against Cotto he couldn't find a way to get inside without paying the toll -- and the price was consistenly steep. The 33-year-old Mexican finally began to connect with consistency in the fourth round, landing some of the uppercuts in close quarters that so troubled Cotto when they first met in 2008, but not nearly enough to beat back the inevitable.
Margarito was simply too slow.
By the sixth, Margarito could not see out of his right eye, which Cotto had targeted with grim accuracy. When sent to a neutral corner Margarito gave an unconvincingly reassuring nod to his wife, who looked concerned behind his corner a few seats down from Carmelo Anthony. Margarito soon began leaning into Cotto, a last-ditch effort to leverage his physical advantages, but Cotto kept scoring with well-schooled combinations -- often punctuated by that exquisite left hook.
After ring doctor Anthony Curreri took a long look at Margarito's eye following the eighth -- which by then was completely shut -- it became clear he'd only get another three minutes to reverse his fortunes.
It wasn't to be.
Hungry but not overeager to close the show, Cotto continued where he'd left off, peppering Margarito with rapid flurries and moving safely out of danger. Even in what everyone recognized as the fight's dying moments, as Cotto snapped Margarito's head back with powerful straight rights, Margarito grinned in mad defiance -- the Joker to the stoic Puerto Rican's Batman.
"I asked for at least one more round, they wouldn't give it to me," Margarito groused at the post-fight presser. "I felt like this was a continuation of the first fight. The last few rounds were going to be mine."
He spoke with conviction in Spanish, trainer Robert Garcia translating. But when he proffered the conspiracy theory of a premature stoppage in the interest of protecting Cotto's future, it no longer felt like the gambit of a delicious villain. It came off as sour grapes.
With Saturday's emphatic victory, the 31-year-old Cotto can finally close the chapter on one of boxing's most regrettable chapters and look toward the future -- which could include a move up to middleweight and pursuit of a championship in a fourth different weight division. At last, he can trade in the hate for apathy.
"He has his own life, I have my own," Cotto said of Margarito, speaking in English. "He can keep with his life, I'm going to keep with mine.
"He means nothing to me."