In three of his last three four fights, against Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley and Manny Pacquiao, Antonio Margarito has endured inhuman amounts of punishment. Three of the toughest, most highly skilled boxers in the world have, in essence, had free reign to pummel him about the face and head.
He's been battered and beaten so badly in those fights, it's fair to ask if he'll ever be the same boxer. Every fighter, no matter how tough, can take only so many punches.
Margarito, though, is adamant that, physically, at least, he's fine. He's a fighter, and he's going to come to fight as hard as he can. He loves the macho aspect of the game, the toe-to-toe, me versus you simplicity of it. He'll rematch Cotto on Saturday in front of what is expected to be a sold-out crowd of more than 20,000 at New York's Madison Square Garden and a worldwide pay-per-view audience in a fight that figures to be equally as violent as those other three.
Margarito, though, laughs at the thought that he may shy away from the battle because of the punishment he's absorbed.
"Never," he scoffs. "This is what I do. I don't quit."
For the last nearly three years, though, there has been a curtain of pain and hurt that has enveloped Antonio Margarito and his wife, Michelle. He's become boxing's greatest villain and has been branded as a criminal and a cheater by other fighters, other promoters, media and the fans.
He sat out more than a year. He cut off a relationship with a man who was like a father to him. He's jumped through every hoop he's been asked to jump through. And yet, little he says has altered the overwhelmingly negative opinion of him.
It doesn't help when Cotto, one of the biggest names in the sport, labels you a criminal and will tell anyone who will listen.
"When you put plaster on your hands and you go into a boxing ring, you're a criminal," Cotto says, adamant that Margarito's hand wraps were loaded when they fought in Las Vegas on July 26, 2008. "That's like bringing into a weapon into the ring and that's criminal."
Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, has repeatedly insisted there is no evidence that Margarito's wraps were tampered with that night in Las Vegas.
But because of the events of Jan. 24, 2009, Margarito's life has never been the same. And it hurts him, as well as his family, like no punch could ever do.
"He's hasn't come to peace [with all of the criticism]," Margarito's co-manager, Sergio Diaz, said. "I don't know if he ever will. It's hard when you know you didn't do anything wrong and people are saying things. Of course that's tough for someone to take."
There are few things more difficult to accept in life than being falsely accused. The question that is outstanding, however, is whether Margarito has, in fact, been falsely accused.
In the moments before he was to walk to the ring to fight Mosley before an adoring throng at Staples Center in Los Angeles, his then-trainer, Javier Capetillo, who was like a father figure to him, began to wrap his hands. Naazim Richardson, Mosley's wily trainer, felt the wrap on the right hand and insisted something was wrong.
An inspector for the California State Athletic Commission ordered the wrap to be cut off and for his hand to be re-wrapped. When the first wrap was removed, a small knuckle pad with a reddish brown stain on it fell out and was seized.
When it was later examined by a laboratory, it was determined to contain two of the elements that are in Plaster of Paris. Significantly, though, it was never ruled that it actually was Plaster of Paris.
"The question in this whole thing is, who was complicit in this event," said promoter Bob Arum, who has been Margarito's staunchest defender, so much so that it indisputably strained his previously solid relationship with Cotto. "Look: I saw the wraps. I touched the wraps. The wraps were used before. But the idea that there was Plaster of Paris on them is just not true. It's not like the thing felt hard, like a rock. It had two chemicals that are contained in Plaster of Paris. That is true. But those same chemicals are also present in the creams that the trainers put on the fighters' hands before they wrap them.
"But even with all of that, Margarito had no idea about what was going on. I am convinced only Capetillo knew. Even the [California] commission, when it suspended him, said Margarito didn't know. But they ruled because he was the captain of the ship, so to speak, he was responsible for what those on his team did."
In the immediate aftermath of the revelation that something was untoward with Margarito's wraps prior to the Mosley fight, Cotto was silent, even in the face of relentless questioning. Cotto had never been beaten as he had by Margarito six months prior to that Mosley bout. Cotto raced out to an early lead, but Margarito's relentless pressure ultimately wore Cotto down and the fight was stopped in the 11th, his mangled face a bruised and bloodied mess.
But then, as Margarito's saga unfolded, Cotto began to receive pictures of Margarito celebrating without his gloves on in the ring after their fight. And when Cotto zoomed in on Margarito's still wrapped hands, he said he was stunned.
On his right wrap, there was an area near Margarito's right pinky finger, in which the outer wrapping had somehow fallen off. Could it have been a piece of plaster that broke and fell off when Margarito's gloves were tugged off? Cotto began to believe so, particularly when he saw that same reddish brown stain on the remains of Margarito's wraps which looked so eerily similar to the piece confiscated from Margarito's glove prior to the Mosley fight.
"When the matter of the hands first came out, I didn't want to talk about it because I didn't have a clear view of what happened," Cotto said. "Then, some pictures came out, and I looked at those, and then I had a really good, clear understanding of what had happened in my fight.
"Those pictures told me that he used it in the fight with me. I handled my defeat like a man, and I have for three years, but he wasn't a man to use those kinds of things. He's a criminal to do that."
Margarito has never wavered. He has always insisted that he had no knowledge of the illegal piece that was found in his wrap in Los Angeles that night. He has, he insisted, earned every cent he's gotten through tenacity and hard work.
He abhors the idea of being labeled a cheater. He's been dubbed "Margacheato" by some and "Hands of Stone," by others. Kermit Cintron, a knockout victim of Margarito in 2005 and 2008, has wondered publicly if those knockout losses had been aided by a bit of chicanery.
Prior to the fight, Cintron had been known for a good chin. But he was battered and beaten easily by Margarito in both of their matches.
"I honestly don't know," Cintron said on a conference call. "I have no proof to show he used plaster in my fights. Only he knows. ... It sure made him look bad after he got caught. Were there a lot of questions in my mind about it? Yes. But I have no proof that he used plaster. I believe if you're caught once, what makes you think that he hasn't done it before?"
Margarito has tried to laugh off the suggestions that he's a cheater. His trainer, Robert Garcia, said he's gone so far as to let his hair grow wildly and wear dark glasses all the time to help foster the impression of a bad guy.
But Margarito has been pained by the allegations and what it has done to his family. He's become a pariah, of sorts, among boxing fans and it's caused great angst.
"It has been very hurtful to read and listen to what Miguel says about my husband," Michelle Margarito said. "I read and hear comments that are extremely upsetting. I am proud of what my husband has accomplished. I admire his dedication and love for his job. He's great husband and an even better human being."
Top Rank president Todd duBoef said Margarito doesn't enjoy the villainous role that the Mosley saga has imposed upon him. Arum said Margarito has been extraordinary loyal and thankful to him for his assistance in building Margarito's career.
Long before the hand wraps controversy, Margarito remained at Arum's side during a trial in Puerto Rico in which Margarito could have gotten free of his ties to Top Rank.
"He's been an honest, loyal guy ever since I've known him," said Arum, who has promoted Margarito for more than 10 years. "There are a lot of people who talk, but they talk without knowing all of the facts and they're jumping to conclusions that simply aren't true.
"If I thought for a minute that this kid had knowledge of [the illegal wraps], I'd have dropped him so fast you couldn't believe it. But I really studied this situation and it became obvious he had nothing to do with it. So how I could I dump him just because people who didn't do the research that I had and who don't know what the hell they're talking about are criticizing him? I couldn't. I had to stand by him, even if it were unpopular."
Arum has been like Margarito's guardian angel since the night of the Mosley fight. Arum zealously supported Margarito at a contentious hearing in front of the California commission, and angrily compared a deputy attorney general who was presenting the state's case against Margarito to Adolf Hitler.
He gave him a fight against Pacquiao and, after that bout when Margarito had serious eye injuries, brought him to highly regarded ophthalmologist Alan Crandall. He saved Margarito's career and, perhaps, his eyesight.
"Tony called me a few months after the Pacquiao fight and he said, 'Robert, you're my trainer and you've been my trainer for a couple of fights now and I think you deserve to hear this from me: I'm retiring,' " Garcia said. "He told me that he couldn't see out of the eye and if he couldn't see, he couldn't fight and would have to retire."
But Arum interceded and took Margarito to Crandall, one of the foremost ophthalmologists in the country.
Crandall removed a cataract, implanted a new lens and ultimately saved Margarito's sight, and career.
The heat on Margarito has only increased as the fight nears, and it's clear it's not something he enjoys. But Margarito hopes that his performance on Saturday -- both before the fight and during it -- will end the doubts, and the criticisms, forever.
"I have never cheated and I tell you, I never, ever would," Margarito said. "If Cotto wants to come to my [locker room] and wrap my hands before the fight, he can do that. Anyone who wants to watch, hey, I don't care, let them watch. I have nothing to hide. I would rather everyone watch [my hands being wrapped], because then they'll know for sure that nothing is wrong.
"And then, when I go out and do to Cotto the same thing I did the last time, they'll know what the truth is."