ON A CONCRETE slab
softened only by a thin layer of grimy beige carpeting, the boxer nobody wants
to face is finishing his fourth set of crunches. Antonio Margarito is back in
full workout mode at Gimnasio Azteca, the basement gym in Tijuana to which he
returned only three weeks after relieving Miguel Cotto of his WBA welterweight
belt in July. All he's missing is an opponent.
recently learned that Oscar De La Hoya has passed him over. "He promised he
would fight me," the exasperated boxer says. De La Hoya, 35, boxing's top
rainmaker, said Margarito should "wait in line, because there's 20 other
guys that want to fight me." De La Hoya's camp claims he decided to fight
Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines solely for business reasons. And while it's
true that Pacquiao, the 29-year-old WBC lightweight and super featherweight
champion, trumps Margarito in pay-per-view appeal, he is also a much safer
opponent: a small fighter who began his career as a flyweight and has neither
Margarito's punching power nor his indestructible chin.
afraid of me," says Margarito. "He knows I would take him
De La Hoya is not
the first brand-name boxer to duck Margarito. By 2006, having won the WBO
welterweight title and defended it seven times over four years, Margarito had
joined the pack of elite fighters stalking pound-for-pound king Floyd
Mayweather Jr. But not even an $8 million offer from Top Rank promoter Bob
Arum, which would have been Mayweather's biggest payday at the time, could
entice him to take on Margarito.
Cotto was not as
cautious, and he paid a hefty price. The previously unbeaten champ from Puerto
Rico was battered by Margarito, whose relentless attack justified his nickname,
the Tijuana Tornado. In a bout packed with riveting toe-to-toe exchanges,
Margarito gathered strength in the later rounds, and his ceaseless pressure
wore down Cotto. In the 11th Margarito floored him twice, and Cotto's corner
threw in the towel.
extraordinary stamina (37-5-0 with 27 knockouts) is the fruit of a rigorous
training regimen. Six days a week he rises at 6 a.m. to run at a municipal
sports complex for 90 minutes before logging two hours of weight training at a
downtown gym a few blocks from Tijuana's infamous red-light district. He wraps
up the workout with two-hour sessions in the ring at Gimnasio Azteca.
Growing up in a
cramped hillside house in Tijuana's rough Zona Francisco Villa, Margarito
shared two rooms with his mother, his father (a lamp salesman who moonlighted
as a security guard), an older brother and three younger sisters. Young Antonio
steered clear of the gangs that permeate impoverished Tijuana neighborhoods,
spending most of his free time either at home or in the gym. As he became more
focused on boxing—he turned pro at 15—several of his friends succumbed to gang
violence or drug abuse. "At dawn when I stepped outside to run, I'd see
some of them passed out in the alleyways, drunk or high on meth," he says.
"One of the guys I hung out with as a kid was gunned down in jail and
another in front of a pharmacy. A third caught a bullet in his house."
Antonio's brother, Manuel, who trained alongside him and turned pro a year
before Antonio did, was shot to death in his home in October 1999. The crime is
violence that surrounds him in Tijuana—the border city has become a virtual war
zone as local drug cartels battle each other and the authorities—and despite
the new wealth and fame that have made him a potential target for criminals,
Margarito has remained loyal to his hometown. He lives with his wife, Michelle,
and two of her younger brothers just five minutes from his old barrio. While
the champ has considered a move to the relative calm of a San Diego suburb,
he's in no rush. In his Mercedes SUV he cruises the city streets as fearlessly
as he enters the boxing ring, where he mauls the best fighters brave enough to
step through the ropes.