LOS ANGELES — Antonio Margarito can only say he’s sorry so many times.
His penitence long ago turned into frustration, and he takes it out on every sparring partner, each conditioning drill, every heavy bag he punches into submission while preparing to face Manny Pacquiao.
Nearly two years after a hand-wrapping scandal almost ended his boxing career, Margarito still insists he didn’t know his former trainer had placed illegal pads atop his fists. He’s still banned from fighting in California and Nevada — but the commissions can’t stop him from training in peaceful Oxnard or a noisy Hollywood gym.
With a new trainer who claims to see significant flaws in Pacquiao’s vaunted skills, Margarito is determined to capitalize on the chance to take on the pound-for-pound champion Nov. 13 in Texas in a big-money fight that few believe he deserves.
“It’s been really tough, but this is a great opportunity for me, and I have to take full advantage of it,” Margarito said through a translator before a workout at the Fortune Gym on Sunset Boulevard. “It’s always been difficult for me. They always put tough fights in front of me, and never expect me to do anything, but that’s what made me into the fighter I am.”
Training is a refuge for the former welterweight champion, and two months of monastic hard work have improved Margarito’s mindset heading into the fight that could catapult him back atop the sport — or condemn him to also-ran status, unable to fight on his native West Coast.
His frustration with the Nevada Athletic Commission’s blunt refusal to consider his appeals and the California commission’s intransigence on his suspension has been funneled into determination to win a fight in which few give him a shot.
The seriousness of Margarito’s training is obvious in his physique: He’s already hovering six pounds near the 150-pound catch weight limit with almost no visible body fat, and his calves are crisscrossed with ropy veins.
“We’ve got two weeks left, but we could be ready tonight,” said Robert Garcia, the trainer who replaced the disgraced Javier Capetillo. “He’s right where I want him physically, and mentally, he says this is the best he’s ever felt. Every single day when we’re driving home in the morning after running, he tells me there’s no doubt this fight is ours. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
Garcia, also a former fighter, even has the temerity to suggest he sees areas of weakness in Pacquiao’s latest string of dominant victories. While trainer Freddie Roach believes Pacquiao’s speed will make it easy to execute a winning game plan, Garcia claims to know exactly how to counter it.
“In his last six fights, you watch the video and you see a lot of mistakes,” Garcia said. “It doesn’t take a scientist to see them. Our job is to cut the ring off and pick the spots to hurt him. He has speed, but when you have someone as good as Margarito, someone that can take a punch, combined with some of the things I’ve been working on with him, like head movement, it’s going to be tough for Manny.”
The American-born Mexican fighter known as the Tijuana Tornado never had an easy path: Margarito fought for 7 1/2 years before his first title shot in July 2001, but kept that WBO welterweight belt for six years. After losing it to Paul Williams, he returned with three straight knockout wins, including an 11th-round stoppage of Miguel Cotto in 2008 that stands as the height of his hard-punching, diamond-chinned excellence.
Margarito was a celebrity in two countries after that victory, and Garcia believes it went to his head and his waistline. He had to cut 40 pounds to make weight for his January 2009 fight against Sugar Shane Mosley — and when Mosley’s trainer discovered the illegal wraps moments before the fight, Margarito was mentally out of a fight won by Mosley on a ninth-round stoppage.
“When he beat Cotto, he was on top of the world, and then the world came crashing down,” promoter Bob Arum said. “It must have affected him mentally, but he’s a hardworking kid who wouldn’t stop.”
Margarito owes his resurgent career to Arum, who also promotes Pacquiao. When Floyd Mayweather Jr. apparently refused numerous offers to fight Pacquiao, Arum matched the Filipino congressman with Margarito in a matchup widely derided by fans and in the media.
Margarito can’t apologize for having the right promoter to get the redemptive fight he craved. He also can’t think of anything else to say to the Nevada bureaucrats who still refuse to license him to fight in Las Vegas, depriving boxing’s cash-starved capital city of an estimated $300 million in revenue from a Pacquiao fight.
“I think I will fight in Vegas again,” Margarito said. “Once I get this opportunity, I know I’m going to come through.”
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