- Robert Morales
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From his promoter, Bob Arum, to most boxing writers, everybody was tooting the horn of Antonio Margarito.
Big, bad Tony. One of the most feared fighters in the world. Floyd Mayweather turned down an offer to fight Margarito for $8 million in 2006 while Mayweather was himself still under contract to Arum and Top Rank.
"Mayweather's not a coward, he's only afraid to lose," Arum said Thursday, reiterating what he has said many times before. "He wants to remain undefeated; he won't fight anyone who can beat him."
Even if it wasn't because Mayweather was afraid, his balking at what then would have been his biggest payday spoke volumes about Margarito.
Margarito had an 8-1 record with six knockouts in championship fights heading into a welterweight title defense against Paul Williams in July 2007 at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. He was a vicious, hard-hitting fighter with one thing on his mind: to destroy.
Williams was thought to be a solid fighter going in. He was a southpaw, and a tall one at that. But he was not supposed to be in Margarito's class, and Williams perhaps proved that when he was upset by Carlos Quintana in his first defense in February.
Against Williams, Margarito, 35-5, 25 KOs, fought tentatively in the first half of his fight and lost a unanimous decision by two, two and four points.
Maybe Margarito just got caught up in all of the acclaim, a proverbial case of an athlete reading too many of his own news clippings. But Margarito told ESPN.com during a recent interview that was not the case. He said his head did not get too big.
"I don't think that it did," said Margarito, who on Saturday will get a chance to redeem himself when he challenges Kermit Cintron for a welterweight title at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. "To me, it was just one of those nights. And to prove that, I think the fans are still behind me; I still have a lot of people behind me. I don't think I behaved any other way."
Margarito explained his psychological outlook heading into the Williams fight. He probably didn't realize it, but his words made it sound like he was too confident, that he did think too much of himself. That's dangerous and comes from listening to what people are saying and writing.
"To be honest with you, I never thought he was the type of fighter that could beat me," Margarito said of Williams. "I went in there thinking it was going to be another win for me. But sometimes, losses happen and they remind you that you have to get back to basics. I still feel good and I feel it was a loss that maybe is going to help me in the long run."
In doing his job as his promoter, Arum was one of the biggest offenders in the glorification of Margarito. But he scoffed at the notion that Margarito got caught up in the hoopla.
"You look at professional sports, even when you have a great football team like the New England Patriots," Arum said. "They didn't go through a season undefeated. The baseball teams win a big percentage of their games but not all their games. Basketball teams don't go through a season undefeated. The idea that a fighter is going to be undefeated and not run into a night where he is not 100 percent is just not reasonable."
In Arum's mind, Margarito lost to Williams because of the way he chose to go about his business in the first half of the fight. By the time Margarito decided to fight like he normally does -- with bad intentions -- he hurt Williams late, but by then, he had fallen too far behind on points.
"I think [the way he fought] was sort of silly," Arum said. "Margarito is an aggressive, brawling fighter, he's not a boxer. And he took it into his head to box with this kid and therefore gave away a lot of early rounds that he never should have. But if he had put the [pressure] on Williams early, he would have got him out of there and certainly wouldn't have lost the fight."
Then again, that reeks of a fighter whose head had swelled. Margarito, brimming with confidence, took it easy, then had to fight very hard to try to catch up -- and couldn't.
One thing is certain: Margarito now has a terrific chance to wipe away all the emotional hurt as well as any financial loss he may have sustained by losing to Williams.
If Margarito beats Cintron and Miguel Cotto successfully defends his welterweight title against Alfonso Gomez in Saturday's main event, Margarito would get to fight Cotto on July 26 in what would be the biggest fight of his career.
And make no mistake, there was plenty of hurt. The pride of a Mexican is one thing; the pride of a Mexican fighter is another.
"Without a doubt, it was very personal to me, losing the title, losing that fight," said Margarito, 30, of Tijuana, Mexico. "It was something that was very hard for me to take. But I think it also made me hungrier. I'm really hungry to be a champion again and I'm going to prove that I can be world champion again."
Margarito and Cintron have met before, three years ago this month in Las Vegas. Margarito defended his title by stopping Cintron in the fifth round. But Cintron (29-1, 27 KOs) was coming off hand surgery and did not have a good training camp. He rebounded to win one of the welterweight belts, and in a role reversal, Margarito is challenging him.
"I know what he's thinking," Margarito said of Cintron's obvious thirst for revenge. "But I also want to be world champion again. I need to prove again who I am and what I can do."
Actually, what Cintron is thinking is that Margarito is still a fighter with whom to be reckoned.
"Who wants to lose?" Cintron, 28, said during a recent telephone interview. "Especially if you have a world title and you lose it. I think he will definitely be more hungry."
Arum is convinced of that.
"Absolutely," he said. "He's tasted a defeat after he became champion and he now wants to redeem himself and he knows that the big money is spread out before him if he can perform. If he beats Cintron and Cotto beats Gomez, Margarito gets Cotto in a big fight. And then who knows, if he beats Cotto, he's into really big, huge purses."
Seven months after he surprisingly lost to Williams, Margarito watched Williams shockingly lose to Quintana in Temecula, Calif.
"Like everybody, I never expected Quintana to beat Williams," Margarito said. "But after seeing the fight, I saw that Williams looked a little overconfident. He went in there thinking that it was an easy fight, and that's the worst thing you can do when you're a fighter, to think that it's an easy fight and an easy opponent in front of you."
Robert Morales covers boxing for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.