Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito gave HBO's 24/7 a compelling and repelling shot in the arm. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Throughout the history of HBO's acclaimed "24/7" series, boxing fans have been treated to unrivaled access, unmatched production values, and the smooth narration of Hollywood's own Liev Schreiber.
The all-time greatest star of the series, of course, is Floyd Mayweather Jr.
It was "24/7" that made Floyd a household name, even more than his 2006 win over Oscar De La Hoya, the fight for which the series was created. Like all of the great reality TV stars, from Puck to Richard Hatch to Snooki, Mayweather knew to turn up the nonsense while the camera rolled.
When Floyd fought Oscar, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley, and Victor Ortiz, we got to see him at his best and worst. He clowned. He danced. He trained his ass off. He reconciled with his estranged father. Later, we witnessed the old wounds reopening when he and his father blew up in the gym.
Pretty and ugly, we saw it all with Floyd Mayweather.
Manny Pacquiao has been another series regular. An almost impossibly laid-back fighter with nothing personal to say about any of his opponents, we saw Pacquiao's grueling workouts, the growth of his entourage, and the weight of his life outside of boxing start to creep into the career that made him famous.
Only once in the history of boxing's editions of "24/7" has there been a series without Floyd or Manny in a starring role. That came in 2008, when Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jr nearly put viewers to sleep for a few weeks, followed by a fight that was even worse.
Last night, a new two-part series began. And the whole ballgame changed for "24/7."
"For all its pervasive brutality, boxing's foundations and fact lie in its controls. The assertion that a fight must be fair to be authentic. The obligation of fighters to observe that expectation when they enter the ring. This is a story of what can happen when those foundations are shaken, even by mere suspicion. And the tale of two fighters who shared a night that changed both of their careers forever.
"It was more than three years ago that they stepped into a ring together. An undefeated star from Puerto Rico and a relentless puncher from Mexico. The evening was a bloody display of resilience and courage. But there was a post-script months later; a tempest of uncertainty offering evidence sufficient to at least one party that an unforgivable boxing injustice had transpired.
"Boxing is designed to assure a fair fight to all who enter the ring. But it is also equipped to provide the simplest of solutions when one fighter claims another violated that basic right. This is the only way to settle the fiercest dispute in boxing.
"This is 24/7: Cotto-Margarito."
Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito are, to boxing fans, known quantities. Their history together stems from a Fight of the Decade contender in 2008, which later became controversial when Margarito had his license suspended in California after attempting to load his wraps prior to his January 2009 fight with Shane Mosley.
That night, Mosley beat the hell out of Margarito, who looked bewildered and lost in the ring. Whatever it was -- and many, including Cotto, have their suspicions -- he wasn't the same man who, the previous July, had taken Miguel Cotto's best shots, walked through them, and broken down a top-form, star fighter.
Last night on "24/7," in the greatest episode in the entire history of the series, Cotto and Margarito began to tell their sides of the story.
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Cotto, always the admirable and humble star, is quiet, and serious, as he always is. Miguel seems to have a sense of humor sometimes, but usually when he's speaking, the almost-lifeless eyes that made him such an intimidating 5'7" welterweight at his peak are the focus.
This is not a man that minces words or wastes his breath.
We see him and his team working out at the beach. Even at the beach, Miguel Cotto looks as if he has ice water in his veins.
"I'm a better fighter today than before I fought Margarito," Cotto says, "because the passion for this sport has come back to me."
We meet Pedro Diaz, Cotto's new trainer, as they work the pads at sunrise. It is gorgeous stuff.
In the sit-down interview shots, Cotto is calm. Confident. He's a man on a mission.
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And then comes Antonio Margarito: "The man who has haunted Cotto for three years."
He's happy with his new camp, the elevation in Mexico. We hear about the wrap scandal, his parting ways with Javier Capetillo, the trainer thrown under the bus in California.
Then, there's Capetillo himself. Still working in the gym with fighters. Still denying his guilt. Still claiming the same ignorance he's been claiming for nearly three years.
"I will always say, here I am. And I'm not guilty of anything. And neither is Margarito," says Capetillo.
Capetillo is here to serve as a distant secondary villain. But the star of the show is Antonio Margarito. If you thought you hated Margarito before, he is almost impossible to stomach here.
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Like Floyd Mayweather, Margarito is playing the villain. But unlike Mayweather, it's a big question if this is just how he is, or if he's turning it on for the cameras.
Throughout the episode, we see Margarito as loathsome as can be. Lazily slumped in a chair, with expensive sunglasses, a haircut that crosses George Jung with Justin Bieber, and a Paulie Walnuts-esque jogging suit, he is purely terrible. We wonder if he knows it or if this is just who he is now. Has he embraced the role of bad guy, or has he dropped the facade of being anything but?
Looking back on the highlights of the first fight, with that dramatic music behind them, blood slow motion dripping from Cotto's swollen and smashed face, it's almost impossible to not wonder if you're watching assault.
Margarito, with other ideas about the mysterious red patch on his left fist after their fight, dismisses it with a smile on his face when reviewing the photos:
It's at that exact moment that Margarito, no matter what you feel coming in, has crossed over into a realm of hate that Floyd Mayweather will never, ever be able to reach.
In the opening moments of the show, there's a soundbyte where Cotto says, "He looks and acts like a criminal."
And for all the world, it feels like Cotto is right. It feels like Margarito is a criminal, laughing about it, knowing that he basically got away with it all.
After all, here he is, still fighting in major pay-per-view events. One year ago, he was abused by Manny Pacquiao. Now, he lines up a fight with Miguel Cotto.
Does Margarito really care if he wins anymore? Or is he happy enough just to be here, when he knows that he shouldn't be?
"It could have been a booger that I had there," Margarito says about the disputed wraps.
Now, he's turning it up.
Switching from the wraps, we go back to Margarito's tiny gym in Mexico. HBO gets an incredible close-up on Margarito's eyes, which look like they came from two different bodies. "Things are perfect in my eye," he offers.
"He's actually looking better than before," says trainer Robert Garcia. "So should I say he's healthy? Yes, he's healthy."
Brandon Rios joins the show, just in case you couldn't hate Team Margarito any more. Margarito loves him. Rios comes off like a hyperactive, obnoxious child. Margarito describes him as "a big kid," Rios describes himself as a "clown" who "talks a lot of shit."
It works, it appears. It's a loose team of nutjobs. And if it works, then it works. They describe themselves as a family.
* * * * *
Back in Orlando, Cotto is the professional at work. His mother, who took the role of Cotto's late father, has joined the boxing team. In what is without question the most touching, most emotional scene in series history, Miguel and his mother discuss the late Miguel Cotto Sr.
"I swear to you, it isn't easy. To bear the weight, to see how your son has to work, it isn't easy," says Juana. "I've had to live a lonely life without the person that shared forty years with me. He was my friend. He was my angel. Wherever he is, I'll always love him."
"My father? He was everything," says Miguel. "He was the person who woke me up every morning, no matter if I don't want to wake up. I have to do it. Because I have a commitment to myself. He was wonderful."
Tears in both of their eyes, words can't do this justice. Miguel has his father's portrait tattooed on his left shoulder blade: "He watches my back. In every moment of my life."
"I know I'm going to have a fifth person in my corner on December 3rd. It's going to be my father."
* * * * *
"So this is where three years of ecstasy and agony, confusion and defiance, anger and tragedy, have left them. As two men who agree on just one truth: That the only way to resolve their saga is to reunite, and to renew scrutiny, right where it began.
"In a place that has no tolerance for conflicting narratives, and no room for accusation or explanation. Only a simple capacity to render the most direct of verdicts."
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."
Cotto: "He doesn't have the same plaster this fight, and the result is going to be different."
Margarito: "I didn't go into the ring with anything. I know I'm a clean fighter. Period. End of story."
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Part two of the series airs next Saturday, November 26, at 10 p.m. EST.