As his showdown with Manny Pacquiao nears, Antonio Margarito is sticking to his story and even seeking sympathy. But only he knows where the truth lies.
Manny Pacquiao's training camp T-shirts are all emblazoned with two simple words: "Manny Knows."
In the opposition's training camp, the party line is precisely the opposite: "Tony Didn't Know."
Some 21 months after Antonio Margarito's then-trainer Javier Capetillo was busted for attempting to slip a plaster-like insert into Margarito's hand wraps, Margarito's story remains the same. He has stuck to a singular strategy of "deny, deny, deny," claiming he knew nothing about Capetillo's nefarious endeavors.
But the fallout from what fell out continues to haunt the former welterweight belt-holder, as you'd expect it would when a fighter is involved in a scandal of this magnitude. His career continues on after a brief loss of his license - and he's even being granted a seven-figure payday to fight the sport's most popular star - but venom lurks among the great majority of the American media and fight fans, who don't buy a word of his insisted ignorance.
"People can think what they want," Margarito told HBO's cameras on the first episode of ‘24/7 Pacquiao-Margarito.'
"Many people believe I didn't know anything. Others don't believe. I can't change the way people think, but I didn't know what was in the infamous wrappings ... I've struggled a lot, suffered a lot ... There are people who say I don't deserve this fight with Manny Pacquiao, but the truth is I have faith in myself that I can beat him."
And there are people who don't care if Margarito pulls off the upset against the pound-for-pound king. They don't agree with his assertion that by winning one major fight fair and square he erases the controversy and redeems himself. Margarito insists "beating Manny Pacquiao will make people forget my past." His accusers say they will never forget, never stop believing his gloves were loaded in violent wins over Miguel Cotto and Kermit Cintron.
"Both Margarito's words and the lawyerly defense of him by [promoter Bob] Arum amount to an attempt to downgrade the most serious crime you can commit in boxing, loading gloves, into a kind of accidental foul," said Hall of Fame HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. "What strikes me is that even if he claims not to have known what was going on -- which any boxing person has to question -- he has never accepted responsibility. He has never said, ‘I'm sorry this happened, I'm responsible, I'm supposed to know about what's going on around me, and I didn't know, but I'm responsible.'"
"You have to ask yourself, what is a fighter going to say when he's caught with stuff in his gloves? He's going to say, ‘Gosh, I had no idea!'" said boxing columnist Ivan Goldman, The Ring magazine's longtime West Coast correspondent. "I'd say there's about a 1-percent chance that he's innocent. Unfortunately, lying is what people do. It's what O.J. did. People commit a crime, and then a lot of them say, ‘I didn't do it.'
"I think we all learn as little kids that one lie leads to another lie. ‘Did you get into the peanut butter?' ‘No, Mom.' And then that leads to another lie and another lie. And it's kind of sad, I think he's living a lie, it's just a façade. I don't think he's a victim at all -- except he's a victim of himself."
Still, Margarito wants us to feel sympathy for him. And if by chance the night of January 24, 2009, was the first time Capetillo slipped something illegal into his wraps, then Margarito has every right to feel sorry for himself.
It's important to note that Margarito and his wife, Michelle, have no children. The fighter has long declared that to be a calculated move so he could keep his single-minded focus on boxing until he retires. With someone that career-obsessed, we can only imagine how the temporary loss of his license, and the potentially permanent loss of his pugilistic legacy, must have affected him. Whether he's innocent or guilty makes little difference in the fact that these have been trying times for Margarito.
So he has reacted by trying to make the boxing world feel for him. And he has also reacted with the classic human defense mechanism: humor.
The most controversial scene from 24/7 Pacquiao-Margarito saw an assistant trainer bring a concrete slab into the gym, Margarito say, "Put it here, dude," as he pointed to the top of his hand, and trainer Robert Garcia begin to wrap around it.
Depending on your point of view, it was either laugh-out-loud funny or the most tasteless display seen in the sport since Mike Tyson stopped going on rage-filled rants.
"My immediate reaction was to smile. This is what jocks do. And they've got a lot of time on their hands -- and now he's got a brick on his hands," Merchant said with a laugh. "In a way, it was an amusing gambit. But again, it brings attention to the fact that they're trying to downplay this serious crime to an accidental shot below the belt."
And that fact, to those who are convinced Margarito is a cheating scoundrel, makes every element of his behavior offensive.
So what exactly is going on inside Margarito's head as the biggest boxing match of his life nears? It sure seems he is not remorseful. But perhaps he's regretful, on some level.
Whatever the case, he keeps talking about redemption. Beating Pacquiao will prove he can beat an elite fighter with properly padded fists. But only Antonio Margarito, Javier Capetillo, and perhaps a few other people know the truth of whether his conscience is on the receiving end of punishment day after day. If it is, those scars may last far longer than any that loaded gloves could cause.