There's a kind of theatre to any rivalry, and what we love about combat sports is that it offers the most primal of resolutions to such conflicts. It's what made season one of The Ultimate Fighter, at least for the moment that it was distanced from lectures on asparagus and Diego's drunken ravings about aliens, sort of compelling. Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck had scores to settle, and they settled it in the cage.
This weekend, another score will be settled when Michael Bisping and Jason Miller face off. Despite the criticisms, it's a good fight. But the rivalry feels forced. It needed a season's worth of wits being traded, pranks being pulled, a heated game of air hockey, Bisping's garish demeanor, and the tired interjection of Dana White that "these guys don't like each other" to finally simmer. The fight itself might be compelling, but the theatrics are defiantly not. Which brings us to a rivalry that boils on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Before Miguel Cotto fought Antonio Margarito in 2008 at the MGM Grand, observers felt like he was walking in the shoes of another great Puerto Rican born fighter in Felix 'Tito' Trinidad. He wasn't the lights out puncher that Tito was, but he was undefeated until then, and had a crowd pleasing style.
Margarito, meanwhile, was the guy "everyone was ducking". 'Everyone', for many critics, was a shot at Floyd Mayweather. But the division pressed on. And so Cotto answered the call to battle against the rugged, iron chinned boxer from Tijuana (coming off a win over another Puerto Rican upstart in Kermit Cintron).
The fight itself was what you'd expect out of prizefighting at its most brilliant. Cotto blazed through Margarito in the first round, strafing him with punches from all angles. Against a normal man, that kind of dominance would been foreboding. But Margarito, as if made of crocodile skin, walked through them. Cotto may have been winning exchanges, and scoring points, but he was never comfortably ahead. In fact, the fight felt like it had already been decided by round 7.
Margarito threw 130 punches in round 7, landing 46 power shots. The significance of this statistic created the most indelible image of the fight as Cotto, fatigued and visibly discouraged, slowly retreats toward the ropes while a small waterfall of blood leaks from his nose. The fight would end in the 11th. It was a definitive win. Sort of.
If you haven't been following the story, the controversy goes like this: before Margarito's fight against Shane Mosley (directly following his win over Cotto) in 2009, Mosley's trainer noticed something peculiar about Antonio's handwraps. Sure enough, the pads in question were found to contain sulphur and calcium, which help to form plaster of paris.
And so Miguel Cotto asked the logical question: 'did he load his wraps in his fight with me?' While typically soft spoken, he perks up during an episode of 24/7 when he reveals what he considers to be damning evidence: the pad confiscated in the Mosley fight possesses a red stain in the same area as the wraps used in his fight with Cotto.Then there's what appears to be a "crack" in Margarito's handwraps, which Cotto offers up as additional evidence (and which Margarito dismisses as a "booger"). Neither act as smoking gun level evidence, but there's nothing insincere or misguided about Cotto's suspicions. He's at once curious, and outraged.
It's the perfect black hat vs. white hat scenario. And Margarito wears the hat well. During HBO's 24/7 we see Cotto shedding tears with his mother in a heartbreaking scene, reflecting on the recent passing of Miguel Cotto Sr. Then we see Margarito, mocking Cotto for 'crying so much', and laughing off any notion that he cheated. Margarito's smile just feels unclean. Scott Christ at Bad Left Hook even asks the question "is he happy enough just to be here, when he knows that he shouldn't be?" And every flash of his pearly but uneven whites brings us back to when Margarito made fun of Freddie Roach's Parkinson's with stablemate, and self-proclaimed clown, Brandon Rios.
But what of the fight itself? Will the rematch be the same classic that the first one was?
Watching the first fight, it was clear that Cotto was the better boxer. But it was also clear that in between his combinations, he needed oxygen: room to breathe in the center in the ring. And Margarito never gave him that. For Cotto, the path to victory is clear: fight in the center, and stay on that bicycle when needed.
However, there are questions surrounding whether or not Cotto still has the faculties that for a time, made him a star. In his last bout with the brash, and bizarre Ricardo Mayorga, Cotto seemed tentative at times. And his combinations lacked 'sizzle', if you will. Against an elite boxer, Cotto's performance might be justified, but Mayorga is irrelevant and hasn't cared about the sport of boxing in years. Autopilot for most fighters entails a dull performance, but for Mayorga, 'autopilot' is a reference to his hypermacho theatrics, and the type of bar room brawling you wouldn't find at a wet t-shirt contest. Nonetheless, it's a dynamic that confounds even superior boxers (see Forrest, Vernon, RIP). And so perhaps Cotto gets a pass.
But it's not a performance he'll want to replicate against Margarito, who will do what he always does: take shots, move forward, and land his own. For Margarito, a different kind of doubt hovers above his future: how many times have his wraps been loaded? Does the revelation of loaded wraps recast his identity as a fighter? It's a difficult fight to predict for these reasons. But I think with a chip on his shoulder, Cotto will outbox Margarito in another fantastic affair.
When Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck settled their score, it was a lackluster resolution. The layers of drama (insofar as being sprayed with a water hose supplied the foundation for drama) were limited to the actions that preceded the fight, as the fight itself lacked both crescendo, and overture. This won't be the case for the boxers in The Garden. For Cotto and Margarito, expect the drama to continue in the ring, as it did in the first fight and as it has leading up to the rematch. The reason is simple: their rivalry, is 'as real as it gets'.