ON A CONCRETE slabsoftened only by a thin layer of grimy beige carpeting, the boxer nobody wantsto face is finishing his fourth set of crunches. Antonio Margarito is back infull workout mode at Gimnasio Azteca, the basement gym in Tijuana to which hereturned only three weeks after relieving Miguel Cotto of his WBA welterweightbelt in July. All he's missing is an opponent.
Margarito, 30,recently learned that Oscar De La Hoya has passed him over. "He promised hewould fight me," the exasperated boxer says. De La Hoya, 35, boxing's toprainmaker, said Margarito should "wait in line, because there's 20 otherguys that want to fight me." De La Hoya's camp claims he decided to fightManny Pacquiao of the Philippines solely for business reasons. And while it'strue that Pacquiao, the 29-year-old WBC lightweight and super featherweightchampion, trumps Margarito in pay-per-view appeal, he is also a much saferopponent: a small fighter who began his career as a flyweight and has neitherMargarito's punching power nor his indestructible chin.
"Oscar isafraid of me," says Margarito. "He knows I would take himapart."
De La Hoya is notthe first brand-name boxer to duck Margarito. By 2006, having won the WBOwelterweight title and defended it seven times over four years, Margarito hadjoined the pack of elite fighters stalking pound-for-pound king FloydMayweather Jr. But not even an $8 million offer from Top Rank promoter BobArum, which would have been Mayweather's biggest payday at the time, couldentice him to take on Margarito.
Cotto was not ascautious, and he paid a hefty price. The previously unbeaten champ from PuertoRico 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 pressurewore down Cotto. In the 11th Margarito floored him twice, and Cotto's cornerthrew in the towel.
Margarito'sextraordinary stamina (37-5-0 with 27 knockouts) is the fruit of a rigoroustraining regimen. Six days a week he rises at 6 a.m. to run at a municipalsports complex for 90 minutes before logging two hours of weight training at adowntown gym a few blocks from Tijuana's infamous red-light district. He wrapsup the workout with two-hour sessions in the ring at Gimnasio Azteca.
Growing up in acramped hillside house in Tijuana's rough Zona Francisco Villa, Margaritoshared two rooms with his mother, his father (a lamp salesman who moonlightedas a security guard), an older brother and three younger sisters. Young Antoniosteered 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 morefocused on boxing—he turned pro at 15—several of his friends succumbed to gangviolence or drug abuse. "At dawn when I stepped outside to run, I'd seesome 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 andanother 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 yearbefore Antonio did, was shot to death in his home in October 1999. The crime isstill unsolved.
Despite theviolence that surrounds him in Tijuana—the border city has become a virtual warzone as local drug cartels battle each other and the authorities—and despitethe 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. Whilethe 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 fearlesslyas he enters the boxing ring, where he mauls the best fighters brave enough tostep through the ropes.
SAFE HAVEN Training regularly at Gimnasio Azteca keeps Margarito sharp and off Tijuana's mean streets.