For Margarito, fighting Cotto is a chance of a lifetime
Antonio Margarito was finishing his third set of abdominal crunches on a breezy evening in late April when he was told of the confrontation unfolding on the street outside the Gimnasio Azteca. The newly crowned IBF welterweight champion bounded up the steps of the ratty basement-level Tijuana gym and stopped at the entrance to survey the scene.
A half-dozen federal policemen had spilled out of four white Silverado pickup trucks and surrounded a young man who had been rummaging through the trunk of a plate-less SUV parked directly across the street. Eight more officers stood by, gripping AK-47 assault rifles. Some wore black ski masks. All were decked out in full battle gear.
Margarito strode over to the cops and identified himself, smiling and shaking their hands. The SUV was not stolen, he assured them. It was a present he had just given to the man at whom the police were pointing their weapons: his pad man and lifelong barrio buddy, Jesús Armando Pérez Cortez.
Margarito assured the cops that the vehicle would be registered without delay. Backs were slapped and the champ was congratulated on his most recent victory, a sixth-round knockout of Kermit Cintrón on April 12 in Atlantic City. Jesús was free to go. Celebrity, it seems, has its perks even in a violent, drug-ravaged town like Tijuana.
The tension in the border city is palpable. Bodies are found on the streets almost every morning, and kidnappings have become commonplace. Thirty-six hours after the license-plate mishap involving Pérez, 15 people were killed and six injured in a bloody shootout between rival drug-trafficking gangs and police.
But as the cartels battle each other and the authorities for supremacy on the streets, Margarito sticks to his training routine, tuning out the mayhem and shrugging off inconveniences such as the ubiquitous police roadblocks. "The drugs and violence are everywhere," he says, "but I stay focused and walk my own path."
When not in the gym, the champion drives around in a sleek late-model Mercedes SUV and drops in at elegant restaurants where he signs autographs jovially and eats indiscriminately. He'll burn off all the calories, he explains, in his arduous daily workouts.
The so-called "Tijuana Tornado" is, in fact, a fitness freak. He resumes full workouts barely a week after each fight, rising to run in a popular municipal sports complex at 6 each morning, logging two hours of light weight training under the supervision of a bodybuilder (another close friend from the barrio) at a nondescript downtown gym a few blocks from Tijuana's infamous red-light district. Finally, he trains diligently with Pérez at Gimnasio Azteca.
While Margarito may be a destructive whirlwind in the ring, punishing his opponents with powerful hooks and crumpling uppercuts (he knocked out Cintrón with a vicious blow to the liver), outside the ropes he's a prankster who teases his friends relentlessly and laughs gleefully when recalling the time five years ago that, at the mature age of 25, he caused a minor panic outside a mall by setting off a cherry bomb. To anyone who knew Margarito as a boy, this is anything but a surprise.