Some fighters will never miss a trick
Were boxer Antonio Margarito’s fists of steel actually aided by concrete? Did Ultimate Fighting Champion Georges St-Pierre defend his title bout with enough Vaseline so that he was as slippery as a greased pig?
Fighting lore is sprinkled with colorful tales of questionable gamesmanship, yet even in this age of high-definition cameras and intense state testing, athletes are still swayed to sometimes bend the rules.
Last week the California State Athletic Commission revoked Margarito’s boxing license for one year for having a “foreign substance” that resembled grout or plaster of Paris in his hand wrappings before his welterweight title loss to Shane Mosley in January.
“Gamesmanship is a much better word to use than cheating,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar. “You’re trying to win, and sometimes you can play games to ensure you do.”
It was Mosley’s trainer, Nazim Richardson, who spotted the illegal hand wraps in Margarito’s dressing room. State officials ordered Margarito’s hands to be rewrapped, and sent the plaster-like substance to a lab for analysis due next month.
Then one week after the Margarito-Mosley fight, another controversial bout took place.
UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre was scolded in Nevada for having excessive amounts of petroleum jelly on his body during his technical knockout over B.J. Penn.
During the fight, the smaller Penn complained that St-Pierre had so much Vaseline that Penn couldn’t get a solid grip. State inspectors ordered corner men to wipe St-Pierre down with a towel during the match. After Penn suffered a terrible beating, he urged a “thorough investigation.”
Nevada officials have ordered St-Pierre’s trainer and corner man to provide written reports this week of what transpired on fight night.
“I have never cheated in my life,” St-Pierre told Sports Illustrated.
“One of my corner men did use an energy technique to help with my breathing that involves rubbing my back. . . . If there was any Vaseline left. . . . it was unintentional.”
Penn said he wants a rematch.
“Guys will push the envelope in every way possible,” former UFC referee “Big” John McCarthy said of mixed martial arts fighters. “Vaseline has always been an issue in MMA. It’s a real problem.”
As for Margarito, he became known as the “Tijuana Tornado” because of his relentless punching style. At the state hearing, Margarito’s attorney asked if his punching power came from months of grueling training, or because he had “some concrete in your fists?” Margarito answered, “I’ve never cheated.”
But now that Margarito’s boxing license has been revoked, his reputation may be tarnished for as long as he fights.
Jack Dempsey could attest to that.
On July 4, 1919, Dempsey unmercifully hammered heavyweight champion Jess Willard despite being outweighed by 58 pounds. Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times in the first round. Willard quit after three rounds of punishment.
In 1964 Sports Illustrated published a posthumous memoir by Dempsey’s former manager Doc Kearns, who said he “loaded” Dempsey’s gloves with plaster of Paris, hiding the substance in a talcum powder can, then sprinkling it over Dempsey’s wet hand wraps so they hardened before the Willard fight.
The claim was dismissed by several authorities, as well as Dempsey, but others gave some credence to Kearns’ claim.
But some boxers have been caught.
One of the most celebrated cases was a middleweight fight in 1983 between undefeated Billy Collins and a light-hitting journeyman, Luis Resto, at Madison Square Garden. Resto battered Collins to win a unanimous decision. Collins’ face “looked like his head had gone through a plate-glass window after a car accident,” HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant said. Collins suffered permanent damage in his left eye.
But Resto’s gloves were tampered with by his trainer, Panama Lewis, who emptied most of the padded contents of the gloves. Both were tried and convicted of assault. Years later, Resto said that his hand wraps were also soaked in plaster of Paris.
“People look for edges in every sport,” Merchant said. “We’ve seen it in baseball with the steroids; in football, with the New England coach [Bill Belichick] using video even though he had a great team. When it crosses the line to being an unfair advantage and against the rules, that’s when people really get upset.”
But some edge-making is deemed tolerable. Trainer Angelo Dundee has admitted he slit Cassius Clay’s glove to save the fighter known later as Muhammad Ali after he was knocked down in a 1963 fight against Henry Cooper. The delay to change gloves gave Clay the energy he needed to score a fifth-round TKO.
McCarthy, the former mixed martial arts referee, said part of the problem in his sport is that inspectors are more experienced in boxing, where Vaseline can be used more liberally without affecting the outcome, unlike in MMA.
McCarthy has seen MMA fighters come into the octagon after taking a bath filled with soapy water or even baby oil. “You can’t notice it when they’re dry, but when they get on the ground and start to sweat, it starts to come out of their pores,” McCarthy said.
Sometimes, though, looking for an edge just isn’t worth the trouble.
In 1988 undefeated heavyweights Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks fought for the undisputed title. Before the fight, Spinks’ trainer, Butch Lewis, requested that Tyson rewrap his hands three times.
Tyson grew so agitated, he slammed his hand through a wall. Seated in the next room, where Tyson’s fist protruded, was Spinks, who was “scared beyond scared,” by the force of that blow, Sugar said.
Tyson knocked out Spinks in 91 seconds.