LAS VEGAS -- This week Antonio Margarito had a long talk with his brother, as he does before every big fight.
The two boxers chatted about everything and nothing, the way close brothers do when one’s scared and the other’s worried. And there’d be nothing unusual about any of this if not for the fact that Antonio Margarito’s brother Manuel has been dead for eight years, shot in the back of the head in his Tijuana home.
“I’m always thinking of him,” Margarito said. “One incredible thing about that is whenever a fight is near, I always dream of him. They’re very realistic dreams. It’s like he’s right there with me.”
He’ll be with him again tonight when Margarito (36-5, 26 knockouts) climbs into the ring at the MGM Grand to face WBA welterweight champion Miguel Cotto (32-0, 26 KOs) in the biggest fight of his 15-year professional career.
Not only is Margarito guaranteed at least $1.6 million, by far the most he has ever earned, but a victory over the heavily favored Cotto could lead to even more lucrative fights against Oscar De La Hoya or Floyd Mayweather Jr., should he decide to come out of retirement.
It has been a long climb for Margarito, who was born in Torrance but grew up in a poor, lawless neighborhood in Tijuana. When he was in grade school his father introduced him and his brother to boxing and soon the boys were going straight from school to the gym.
After a while, they skipped the school part and just went to the gym. Their father agreed to look the other way as long as they gave everything they had to the sport.
“My dad told me there’s a phrase that says anybody can be part of a group but to be a success you have to work harder,” Margarito said in Spanish. “I always remembered that.” Out of the ring, with his thick horn-rimmed glasses, the 30-year-old Margarito looks like an MBA student or an accountant. But the truth is, after dropping out of school in junior high, he became a pro fighter at 15 because he needed the money.
And though he won eight of his first nine fights, the bouts, all in northern Mexico, paid little. So Margarito made himself a promise: if he ever made money in the ring he would skip the cars and the bling and spend it on a house, something no one could take away from him.
“After that could come the cars or whatever,” he said. “But first was going to come the house. And thank God I have it now.”
But he didn’t buy in Tijuana’s surrounding hills, where many of the elite in the city of 1.5 million, Mexico’s sixth largest, choose to live. That would have been too ostentatious for the son of a door-to-door salesman.
“Tony Margarito in Tijuana is Tony Margarito,” said Michelle, his grade-school sweetheart and wife of eight years. “He’s not better than anybody else or worse than anybody else.”
While Margarito waited to get married, his brother didn’t, quitting boxing after only four pro fights to start a family. Less than four years later, intruders burst into his home and shot him as he watched television, leaving a baby girl and a wife nearly eight months pregnant with his son.
Margarito, in Texas preparing to fight Buck Smith, had just returned from the weigh-in and a spaghetti dinner when he got the news. After a few moments of stunned silence, he started crying, then screaming.
But several hours later, after regrouping, he insisted the fight go on and the next night he dismantled Smith -- who came in with an amazing 179 victories to his credit -- in six rounds.
“My body was there,” Margarito said. “But my mind wasn’t.”
Outside of family and a close circle of friends, Margarito rarely spoke of the tragedy.
“For many years that weighed on Tony’s heart,” Michelle said. “But Tony’s the kind of person who keeps those things inside. He doesn’t let people in. He’s very guarded.”
While robbery is suspected, a motive for the killing has never been determined -- partly because Michelle, wary of who might be involved, urged her husband to give up his investigation shortly after the murder.
“I told him, ‘You know what? It’s better if you stop all this,’ ” she said. “Your brother isn’t going to come back. What happened happened. I understand he wants to know what happened to his brother and make the person that did it pay. But I was frightened for Tony and for the family.”
Margarito spoke publicly about his brother in April, after he knocked out Kermit Cintron in the sixth round of a welterweight title fight on what would have been Manuel’s 33rd birthday.
Now Margarito has assumed his brother’s place as the family man fighting, figuratively and literally, to take care of an extended family that includes his wife’s three brothers -- one of whom wants to be a boxer.
“He wants to be like Tony. He doesn’t want to study anymore,” Michelle says of 16-year-old Hansel, who has won four of his first six bouts. “But Tony told him it’s not so easy. You have to go to the gym and get better every day and keep knocking on doors like Tony did. Tony never let his opportunities pass.”
Tonight he’ll try to make sure the biggest one of his career doesn’t get away either.