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Antonio Margarito and the Handwrap Issue
By Thomas Hauser
A fighter’s fists are his weapons. Tampering with a fighter’s gloved fists is one of the worst offenses imaginable in boxing. It subverts the notion of a fair fight and puts the opposing fighter at exponentially greater risk of serious injury or death.
On January 24, 2009, Antonio Margarito fought Shane Mosley at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In the dressing room prior to the fight, an illegal insert was found in each of Margarito’s knuckle pads. The inserts were removed and the fight proceeded as planned. Mosley knocked Margarito out in the ninth round.
Margarito’s license was subsequently revoked by the California State Athletic Commission. On August 18th, the CSAC will consider his application for reinstatement. That is expected to open the door for a proposed November 13th fight between Margarito and Manny Pacquiao.
There has been considerable debate during the past eighteen months regarding the Margarito handwrap issue. But the lines have been blurred by inaccurate reporting and the tendency of some observers to take sides based on their fondness or antipathy for Margarito’s promoter, Top Rank.
Let’s put the nonsense aside and view the Margarito handwrap issue in perspective.
The taping of a fighter’s fist begins with a roll of gauze being wrapped several times around his hand. Then a pad that has been previously fashioned from multiple layers of gauze is placed over the fighter’s knuckles. That’s followed by the application of more gauze and tape. California rules allow for the use of gauze and surgical adhesive tape when wrapping a fighter’s hands; nothing else. The application of water or any other liquid to the gauze or tape is prohibited.
Margarito’s hands were wrapped in his dressing room prior to the Mosley fight by his longtime trainer, Javier Capetillo. The task began under the supervision of inspector Che Guevara with Naazim Richardson (Mosley’s trainer) looking on.
Before a big fight, Richardson usually objects to the manner in which an opponent’s hands are being taped if for no other reason than to upset the opposing fighter. Here, he lodged numerous objections to the taping of Margarito’s right hand. Several more inspectors, including chief inspector Dean Lohuis, came into the dressing room. Richardson’s objections were overruled.
Then Capetillo began taping Margarito’s left hand, and Richardson asked if he could physically inspect the knuckle pad. Lohuis instructed Capetillo to pass the pad to Richardson. Naazim felt it and said that it seemed unusually hard. He then handed the pad to Lohuis, who agreed that it felt stiffer than is normally the case.
CSAC inspector David Pereda, who was in the room, later testified, “Naazim opened the gauze and pulled something out of it. He showed us what appeared to be an old gauze which had been used before and hardened from perhaps being sweaty and wet many times.”
Inspector Guevara testified, “It [the knuckle pad] was a clean new bandage. But within it, in the inner layers of it, was another bandage wrap. It was not as white as a new bandage wrap would be. It was used and it looked almost like it was sweat soaked and that’s what caused it to have the discoloration. It was harder in certain areas than it should be for pure gauze. It was definitely firm and hard. I believe there was a little bit of, it looked like old blood, on it.”
Mike Bray (an inspector who entered the dressing room during the dispute) recalled, “I observed what appeared to be a blood stain on the corner of the pad. I also noticed that it was moist and dirty-looking. The pad had the appearance that it had been used before. After looking at the pad closer, I could see a white substance smeared across the face of the pad and into the gauze. I touched the white substance, and it was hard to touch. It looked like a cast plaster or maybe a thicker type of white out that you would put on paper.”
Lohuis confiscated the knuckle pad and instructed Capetillo to make a new one. Capetillo did so and wrapped Margarito’s left hand. Richardson then asked the inspectors to examine the knuckle pad on Margarito’s already-wrapped right hand. Lohuis instructed Capetillo to remove the right handwrap and a similar insert was discovered inside the pad. Lohuis confiscated that pad as well and ordered Capetillo to prepare a new right-hand knuckle pad.
After the pads were confiscated, Mike Bray (at Richardson’s request) brought them to Mosley’s dressing room, where three members of Mosley’s team were allowed to touch them under the inspector’s supervision. An undetermined number of commission personnel also touched them.
Three days after the fight, the California State Athletic Commission temporarily suspended Margarito’s boxing license and Capetillo’s trainer’s license, and set February 10, 2009, for a hearing on the status of both men.
Capetillo testified at the hearing that he prepared Margarito’s knuckle pads in the dressing room at the Staples Center and put them on top of the contents in his training bag. Then, when it was time to wrap, he pulled the wrong knuckle pads out of his bag by mistake. He further testified that the confiscated pads had most likely been used by another boxer while hitting the heavy bag in the gym.
“They just throw their things in my bag,” Capetillo told the commission.
The following colloquy exemplifies his testimony:
Q: Is this the kind of pad you usually use in a championship fight?
Capetillo: No, sir.
Q: Have you ever used a pad like that in a professional boxing fight?
Capetillo: No, sir.
Q: So is it your testimony that, when you wrapped Mr. Margarito’s hands, you reached into your training bag and grabbed the wrong pad?
Capetillo: That is correct . . . I put my hand in my bag to pull out, they are like little pads. And by mistake, that I had those in my bag, I put them on and I wrapped them on without realizing that it had been a big mistake.
There was no direct evidence that Margarito knew about the inserts inside the knuckle pads; only inference. Antonio denied any knowledge of the inserts, and Capetillo testified, “I commit a big mistake and I acknowledge it. I don’t want that this young man have any problem because he is not at fault. He didn’t realize what I had put on.”
Prior to the hearing, the California State Athletic Commission sent one of the inserts to the Bureau of Forensic Services at the California Department of Justice for testing. The Commission rejected a request by Margarito’s attorney to allow his own expert to analyze the inserts. The lab results were not in before the hearing. On March 19, 2009, the Bureau of Forensic Services forwarded a report to the CSAC that read, “Calcium and sulpher, two elements found in plaster of Paris, were found on the submitted gauze pad using an X-ray fluorescence [XRF] spectrometer. The elements calcium, sulpher, and oxygen are found in plaster of Paris. These three elements are also found in substances other than plaster. Oxygen is not detectable by XRF.”
Margarito’s defense team contends that calcium and sulpher are also common elements in hand cream and salves.
The options available to the California State Athletic Commission ranged from taking no action against Margarito and Capetillo to a fine, suspension, or revocation of their respective licenses (the maximum penalty under law). In the event of revocation, either man would be free to reapply after one year with no guarantee of reinstatement. An irrevocable permanent ban was not an available option.
At the close of the February 10, 2009, hearing, the commission voted to revoke each man’s license. It made no finding that Margarito had knowledge of the inserts, but held him responsible for Capetillo’s actions. In so doing, it relied on Boxing Rule 390 of the California Code of Regulations, which states, “Any licensee who conducts himself or herself at any time or place in a manner which is deemed by the commission to reflect discredit to boxing may have his or her license revoked, or may be fined, suspended, or otherwise disciplined in such manner as the commission may direct.”
In making its determination, the CSAC imposed a doctrine of “strict liability” upon Margarito. That’s similar to the position that most commissions take when a fighter tests positive for an illegal performance enhancing drug. A fighter, the theory goes, is a professional athlete. He’s responsible for his body and his equipment. If someone who works for him puts something illegal into his body or on his hands, the fighter should be held ultimately responsible.
After Margarito’s license was revoked, he filed a lawsuit to overturn the commission’s decision. The matter is currently pending in the Second Appellate District of the California state court system.
Meanwhile, on February 10, 2010 (one year after his license was revoked), Margarito became eligible to fight in any state that would grant him a license. There was talk of his fighting in Dallas on the undercard of the March 13th fight between Manny Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey. Indeed, on January 20th, Tim Lueckenhoff (president of the Association of Boxing Commissions) sent an email to Dickie Cole (administrator of combat sports for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation) that read, “The State of Texas may accept an application from Margarito and determine if a boxing contestant license will be issued based upon the laws of Texas.”
Instead, Margarito returned to the ring in Aguascalientes, Mexico, on May 8, 2010, and hammered out an unimpressive ten-round decision victory over Roberto Garcia.
Then, with negotiations for a fight between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr on the verge of failure, Margarito applied for a license to box in Nevada. On July 9th, the Nevada State Athletic Commission voted 4-to-1 to table a decision on the application until after Margarito applied for reinstatement in California.
Initially, the California State Athletic Commission said that it didn’t have time to hear an application from Margarito until September and suggested that he first abandon his appeal from its original order of revocation. That struck some (including the leadership of the Association of Boxing Commissions) as a violation of due process. In any event, the CSAC subsequently reversed course and agreed to hold a hearing on Margarito’s application on August 18th. After the hearing, regardless of the CSAC’s decision, Antonio can apply for a license in any state.
During the past year, some commentators have likened Margarito’s situation to the decades-old scandal involving Panama Lewis, Luis Resto (who was trained by Lewis), and Billy Collins. On June 18, 1983, Resto won a unanimous decision over Collins at Madison Square Garden. Thereafter, it was determined that, in the dressing room before the fight, Lewis had removed padding from the striking surface of his fighter’s gloves. Collins suffered serious eye damage in the fight, never fought again, and died in a car crash nine months later. Resto and Lewis were criminally convicted, imprisoned for several years, and banned from boxing for life.
The Margarito handwraps controversy has also become one of many proxy wars being fought between Top Rank and Golden Boy.
On January 26, 2010, Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya criticized the prospect of Margarito being licensed to box again and declared, “I’m very disgusted by it. When you’re messing with somebody’s life in that ring, you should be banned for life. That’s my opinion.”
That infuriated Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who saw rampant hypocrisy in De La Hoya’s position that Shane Mosley (a Golden Boy fighter) shouldn’t be punished for his past use of illegal performance enhancing drugs because Shane did so “unknowingly,” whereas Margarito should be banned for life without any direct evidence that Antonio had prior knowledge of wrongdoing.
Arum (who promoted De La Hoya for over a decade) also stated that Oscar should sign a waiver of confidentiality with regard to his own medical history “and let’s find out if there was ever any proof of Oscar using performance enhancing drugs. People who live in glass house should not throw stones.”
Six months later, Arum and De La Hoya were at each other’s throat again. On July 28th, Oscar declared, “Why should any fighter who’s been banned because he was wearing plaster of Paris in his gloves be allowed to fight? A lot of people are against it, including myself. There’s no reason why he should be licensed to fight."
Arum countered with, “Oscar is not the brightest penny on the block. There is all of this misinformation out there that people like Oscar eagerly cling to because he’s a man who has no discernment. He doesn’t read and he doesn’t study. Oscar is an advertisement for this movie that’s coming out on Friday night that’s called Dinner for Schmucks.”
Now; putting all of that aside . . .
Let’s look at the real issues in the Margarito handwrap controversy, starting with Javier Capetillo.
Capetillo shredded his credibility by maintaining that the use of the inserts was accidental. A trainer doesn’t reach into his bag and make a mistake like that. To say that’s what happened here is nonsense.
Moreover, if (as Capetillo claims) the knuckle pads he pulled out of his bag “by mistake” had been used by another fighter in the gym, why was the gauze that surrounded the illegal inserts squeaky-clean?
There has been near-universal condemnation of Capetillo for his role in the handwrap scandal, and justly so.
The case against Margarito is more difficult to construct. Essentially, Antonio’s detractors say, “Stop with the bullshit. A fighter who has fought for as long as Margarito has fought would be aware that his handwraps felt different.”
They hypothesize that one reason Margarito fell apart so dramatically during the Mosley fight was that, when the illegal inserts were discovered, Antonio lost both his physical advantage and his self-belief.
They maintain that Capetillo can’t be believed when he says Margarito didn‘t know about the inserts, because Capetillo lied when he said that using the illegal knuckle pads was an innocent mistake.
“And by the way,” they add. “If Margarito didn’t know about the inserts, then he also doesn’t know if the inserts were in his handwraps for other fights, including his brutal beat down of Miguel Cotto. Do you remember what Cotto’s face looked like after he fought Margarito? And suppose the inserts hadn’t been discovered before the Mosley fight? Take the hypothetical one step further and suppose that Margarito put Mosley in a coma and the inserts were discovered after the fight. There still wouldn’t be firm proof that Margarito ‘knew’ about the inserts. What would the appropriate punishment be then?”
The fact that the illegal inserts were previously used also raises the question: “Who used them?”
Were the inserts molded to Margarito’s knuckles? Is the stain on one of the inserts dried blood? If so, is it Antonio’s blood?
Margarito’s blood on the insert would be viewed by some as the equivalent of Bill Clinton’s semen on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. Certainly, it would be an interesting piece of the puzzle.
Meanwhile, Margarito’s position boils down to the following: “Capetillo was solely responsible for acquiring the gauze to make the knuckle pads. Margarito was not present when Capetillo prepared the knuckle pads. Margarito was totally unaware that anything improper had been inserted in the knuckle pads.”
Is that possible?
The inserts certainly weren’t visible to Margarito. We know that because Naazim Richardson (who was looking for irregularities) saw no visual evidence of them.
Nor is it a given that Margarito would have felt them.
Emanuel Steward, Freddie Roach, Don Turner, and Dan Birmingham have been honored as “Trainer of the Year” nine times by the Boxing Writers Association of America. Pat Burns trained Jermain Taylor for both of his victories over Bernard Hopkins and is a former police detective. Naazim Richardson trains Shane Mosley and is the man who discovered the illegal inserts in Margarito’s knuckle pads.
Their thoughts are instructive:
Dan Birmingham: “My guys watch me closely when I wrap. But what you’re talking about here happens pretty quickly. The pad goes on and then you put more gauze over it. So sure; it’s possible that the fighter wouldn’t know.”
Pat Burns: “Some fighters don’t pay attention when their hands are being wrapped. They’re listening to music or talking to someone or watching a television monitor. And even if they’re watching, they’re not wondering what’s in the knuckle pad. If I wanted to put a few layers of hardened gauze inside a fighter’s knuckle pads, I could and the fighter would never know.”
Freddie Roach: “If I did something like that, which I wouldn’t, I think I could do it without my fighter knowing. And if I was the fighter; Eddie Futch [who trained Roach] would never have done something like that. But if he had, I think he could have kept it secret from me.”
Don Turner: “I wouldn’t do it. I don’t cheat. But if I wanted to, unless what I was putting into the knuckle pad was very heavy, I could do it in a way that the fighter wouldn’t know. Even if the fighter is watching me wrap, he might not know because he wouldn’t see or feel the difference.”
Emanuel Steward: “My experience has been that a fighter watches very closely when his hands are being taped. But in a situation like this, it’s definitely possible that a trainer could put an insert in the knuckle pad without the fighter knowing. When I get in the dressing room before a fight, one of the first things I do is make two knuckle pads and put them on the table. I don’t put them in my bag. I leave them out on the table, and so does every other trainer I know of. So I have a hard time believing that Capetillo took the wrong knuckle pads out of his bag by mistake. But the fighter doesn’t watch me make the knuckle pads. A lot of times, the fighter isn’t even there when I make them. So the fighter wouldn’t know if I put something inside the pads unless I told him or the pads were heavy enough that he could feel a difference.”
Naazim Richardson: “I’m the wrong person to ask about this. If a guy is driving a truck and tries to run my daughter over and misses, don’t ask me what the punishment should be. But to be fair, yes, a fighter might not know.”
Could Antonio Margarito have been complicit in the handwrap scandal?
Yes; but we don’t know that he was. And there’s no way that a fighter in his situation can prove his innocence.
If Margarito knew that his knuckle pads contained illegal inserts, a lifetime ban from boxing would be warranted. But a fighter’s career shouldn’t be terminated on a guess.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (a novel entitled Waiting for Carver Boyd) was published last month by JR Books. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”
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