The welterweight division is the deepest in boxing, with several big money fights. So there was a lot riding for champion Antonio Margarito and unbeaten challenger Paul Williams when they entered the ring Saturday night. Margarito had already been penciled in by Top Rank to fight unbeaten champion Miguel Cotto this fall, providing, of course, he beat the undefeated young Williams. A loss for Margarito would mean a major setback for a boxer with a history of trouble securing big money fights. For Williams, the highly touted, over-sized welterweight, this was either his coming out party to stardom, or a reality check on all those who have predicted big things for him.
For a change, the hype proved real. Williams, the freaky big welterweight apparently is the real deal. He outworked Margarito for 12 rounds, winning a dominant, unanimous decision, 116-112, and 115-113 on the two other cards.
Complicating the already overcrowded welterweight division, HBO commentator Larry Merchant broke news after the main event by saying sources had told him that Oscar De La Hoya planned to drop down from the junior middleweight division to fight at welterweight.
Williams, who in the past has shown a tendency to give up his height and reach advantage and get down inside, this night used his longer reach, terrific mix of angles and body movement to keep Margarito at a distance, where he peppered him with punches, over 100 fired a round.
Margarito made a brief rally in the second half of the fight when Williams stopped moving and stood in front of him, and although the champion won some of those rounds when they went toe-to-toe, he never hurt Williams.
Williams showed incredible poise throughout the fight, and in his corner between rounds, was never winded and always bright eyed, the picture of confidence. In contrast, Margarito's face looked swollen and bruised and his eyes showed concern from the early rounds on.
Margarito, with a reputation as a heavy-handed puncher, tagged Williams several times, but it seemed to have no effect on the challenger. While Williams connected with more punches every round, he didn't seem to hurt the champion, either.
Incredibly, two judges had the fight up for grabs going into the 12th round. Had Margarito won the 12th, it would have resulted in a draw and he would have retained his title. But Williams listened to his trainer, George Peterson, in the corner after the 11th. Peterson told him he had the fight won and to box and move and not stand in the pocket. Poised as ever, Williams did just that to take the fight.
Williams is now the 800-pound young gorilla in the division. Margarito, who has had problems finding fights because he is perceived as a high risk, low yield boxer, will have an even tougher time securing bouts because he has lost his title.
Asked by Larry Merchant who he wanted to fight next, Williams said, "Well, I want Cotto, but if I can't get Cotto, I want a shot at (Floyd) Mayweather.
The night loomed big, also, for Arturo Gatti, who was coming off a devastating loss last year to Carlos Baldomir and was looking to keep his career alive against Alfonso Gomez, a graduate of "The Contender" series. "This is a must win fight for me," Gatti told HBO commentator Max Kellerman in a taped interview before the fight. "I have to show that I have a couple more good fights in me."
Alas, Gatti did not demonstrate he had any more left in the tank. He was dominated from the opening bell, trying to box, not brawl with Gomez. But Gomez out-boxed him, consistently beating him to the punch, and Gatti's reflexes looked gone. Gatti missed frequently with his punches and his defense was a step slow for the disciplined former "Contender" graduate, who was impressive in his two-handed assault. The fight was mercifully halted in the 7th round when Gatti took a blizzard of punches and then went down.
In Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, site of some of Arturo Gatti's greatest fights, he was brought to his knees in utter humbling fashion. A sad end to a tremendous warrior's career. Ironically, it came for Gatti with a new trainer, Micky Ward, who fought one of the greatest trilogies in history against Gatti, two of which were Ring Magazine Fights of the Year.
In the locker room area after, a bloody Gatti told Kellerman that he was going to retire because he was not big enough to fight at 147 pounds, and couldn't make the junior welterweight limit of 140.
Also on the exciting tripleheader was another welterweight title holder Kermit Cintron (28-1, 26 KOs), who scored a devastating second-round knockout of power-puncher Walter Matthysse (26-2, 25 KOs). Cintron, who was trained for the third straight fight by Hall of Famer and HBO commentator Emanuel Steward, knocked down Matthysse for the first time in his career in the first round. Then in the second round, Cintron rocked Matthysse with powerful left upper cut, then knocked him off his feet with a straight right hand to end it.
Matthysse's only previous loss was to Williams, who took 10 rounds to score a TKO. The only loss on Cintron's record, which came before he switched trainers to Steward, was a fifth round TKO by Margarito.
"That fight with Margarito was nothing," Cintron told Kellerman in the ring. "This is the real Kermit Cintron. The fight with Margarito should be erased. Emanuel Steward has taught me boxing, boxing."
And indeed, Cintron was a typical Steward disciple, working off a stiff jab, using both hands and firing precision punches, all with power. Next?
"I want Shane Mosley. He says he wants to fight a champion. I am a champion. Come and get it," Cintron said.