On the surface, promoting a fight is a simple thing. But in execution, making fans care about spending money and time to watch two men step into a ring and throw punches at each other is an art form. In this, HBO has succeeded to unbelievable degrees with their promotion of Saturday's pay-per-view bout between Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto.
The storyline and much of the drama takes little more than HBO lending a camera, a microphone and stepping out of the way.
When Cotto and Margarito met for the first time in 2008, it was (as Max Kellerman described) a modern boxing classic. A violent battle between two heavy hitting boxers in the prime of their careers which saw Margarito overcome a hot start by Cotto to score a late TKO.
After Margarito was discovered having loaded hand wraps applied before his bout with Shane Mosley, it changed the way the Cotto fight was seen. Had Margarito loaded his wraps for that bout as well? After all, Cotto's face was left looking unusually rough after the fight:
The hand wrap controvery has given a natural focal point for the promotion. Cotto has pointed out similarities between the wraps worn by Margarito the night of their bout and the ones confiscated before the Mosley bout. He has also taken great offense to the idea that Antonio may have taken his life into his hands. It led to a great debate on HBO's Face-Off between the two men which saw Margarito say "You think I'm a cheater, but I will beat you again. That's what I believe. You heard me."
The differences between the men as human beings was also on display when the subject of how far each man is willing to go to have their hand raised came up. With Cotto having taken a knee as he couldn't take any more punishment the first time around and Margarito having fought through having his orbital bone destroyed by Manny Pacquiao without ever seeming close to giving up. The exchange:
Margarito: "I am ready to die in the ring. I have said it before, I will die in the ring. Knockouts will come."
Cotto: "You're going to die in the ring? For what? I have four kids. Beautiful family. It's just my job."
If Face-Off was compelling TV, the first episode of HBO's 24/7 for the bout was near perfection. As the men talked about the controversy, Cotto once again talked about the similarity between the wraps and the danger his life was put in, leading to one of the most chilling moments in fight promotion I have ever seen. Antonio Margarito, seeming to fully embrace his role as the villain in the tale, slouched in his chair, with his dark sunglasses and overall suddenly "evil" look (screencap via BadLeftHook):
Cotto's story revolved around having been placed in danger by the dastardly Margarito and the passing of his father. We were shown the love that Cotto had for his dad, having his face tattooed over his shoulder. We saw the raw emotion of Cotto's mother talking about losing her husband of forty years.
On the other side, we saw Margarito insulting Cotto and training in his mountain retreat with a gang of jokesters. The contrast could not have been more stark.
And the close of the show only added more heat:
Cotto: "Margarito is not a gentleman. He is not a man. For me, Rex, my dog, he's more person than him."
Margarito: "What's he scared of? Why does he cry so much? Why did he sign up for this fight? Maybe he doesn't have a big heart. I don't know."
HBO carried the momentum into the second episode of 24/7. This time telling the story of Margarito and Top Rank's struggle to get licensed in the state of New York. Margarito's eye injuries sustained in the Pacquiao fight resulted in surgery to repair his crushed orbital bone and a replacement put into the lens of his right eye.
Again, we turn to Bad Left Hook for a shot of the eye:
In the end, Margarito was granted his license. But, the eye does remain a concern for many heading into the bout.
Margarito insists that his eye is fine, we're shown scenes of him training (once again in his somehow evil seeming Mountain camp) with training partners going full speed and telling the camera how well he is doing. We also see more of the same incredibly easy to hate mannerisms from Margarito as he dives deeper into the role of the bad guy.
While the story of Tony's eye is interesting, it's still the scenes which show the fighters speaking openly about the other that steal the show. Some of the highlights:
Cotto: "No matter what, I'm preparing myself to beat Margarito's ass. He played with my health. I'm going to play with his."
Cotto: "I don't have any respect for him. And I'm going to take advantage of his eye like he took advantage of the plaster."
Margarito: "F**k Cotto. If he thinks that I had plaster, it will hurt like I was using plaster. And he will know it."
HBO was given two fighters with a tremendous story and took advantage by appropriately using the programming at their disposal. They told the story of a humble man looking for redemption and his seemingly evil rival who may have risked Cotto's very life in pursuit of a win.
If the fight lives up to anything close to their first bout, it will be the perfect cap to this tale, no matter who wins.
...but especially if it's Cotto.