Boxing comes back
strong off vacation

Sep 7, 2004 4:33 AM

Death does not treat boxers lightly.

Emile Griffith could never really pull the trigger again after his hands left Benny (Kid) Paret in a fatal coma. Gabriel Ruelas saw the slain Jimmy Garcia on the shoulders of the next opponent he fought. Even though Beethavean Scottland’s widow absolved George Khalid Jones of any blame for that tragic night on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, Jones can’t shake the responsibility that "my fists were in the ring."

Boxers are among the most sensitive to death of all tradesmen, including doctors. And the death does not have to occur in the ring. Maybe that’s why Daniel Santos has not become the left-handed Thomas Hearns.

Santos, early in his pro career, was driving on a country road near his Puerto Rican home when a man dashed out in front of his car. It was not his fault, the police ruled. But for a long while, the shaken Santos would not resume his career. His girl friend tried talking him into the gym. So did his father, and trainer. The wife of the man he ran down begged him to continue boxing.

Eventually, Santos did and though he has won the WBO welterweight title and now holds that organization’s junior middleweight championship, he has not blossomed into superstardom as had been suggested by his early bouts. Santos was knocking everyone out with his booming left hand, so in one early contest, he was instructed by his corner not to throw the left. He scored an early KO with his right.

But then came the auto accident and Santos seems almost gentle in the ring. His last four fights, all with WBO titles on the line, have averaged 11.8 rounds. His last three all have gone the 12-round limit. Despite having the home-field advantage on Sept. 11, and facing a man moving up in weight, he is pick ”˜em on the Internet lines and in the estimation of Art Manteris, the little old linemaker from Station Casinos.

Most casual boxing fans would probably gravitate to Santos’s feistier opponent, the WBO welterweight champion, Antonio Margarito. The fact that the line is even close is a sly estimation that this is a real competitive fight, which figures, since it is the opening bout on an HBO Boxing After Dark card.

The so-called main event is between Miguel Cotto, the Puerto Rican voted most likely to succeed Felix Trinidad as that island’s next ring superstar, and Brazil’s Kelson Pinto, an old amateur nemesis. Pinto, who lost in the 2000 Olympics to eventual gold medalist Mohammed Abdullaev, says he has Cotto’s number. With his 6-foot height, the rangy junior welterweight certainly has the kind of physical attributes to make for an interesting night. Pinto has a good jab and can smack.

But Duane Bobick beat Larry Holmes in the amateurs, ditto Henry Tillman over Mike Tyson. As a pro, Bob Arum and his clever matchmaker Bruce Trampler have moved Cotto wisely, giving him much better experience than Pinto possesses. Both are 20-0 as pros, Cotto with 16 knockouts and Pinto with 18. Cotto has been at the 12-round distance (they’re fighting for the WBO junior welter title vacated by Zab Judah), while Pinto has gone 10 only once. That’s a big edge for the hometown hero, as is fighting in Puerto Rico.

I wouldn’t want to put much money on Cotto, not at 4-1 or 3-1. Not when I think Santos and Margarito offer better value, depending on which you like. They met once, for the WBO 147-pound title back in 2001, but clashed heads in the opening round. With Margarito bleeding badly over the right eyebrow, it was ruled a "no contest."

It is a good matchup. Margarito is a tank, a pressure fighter who overwhelmed the talented Antonio Diaz to win the vacant WBO title. He is 30-3 with 21 knockouts and hasn’t lost in eight years, or since he dropped a decision to the very capable Rodney Jones. My guess is that the Mexican, whom many would favor against Cory Spinks, the real 147-pound king, will take late money.

This would make Santos extremely attractive. Some guys, if you leave them alone, don’t bother you. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad was one. But if you pressured him, forced him to fight, be careful. He could take your head off. I suspect Santos, with his straight and accurate punches, may have no alternative to catching Margarito recklessly coming at him.

But even if you can’t get down, it is a double-header that on paper, is worth watching. It’s a nice lead-in for Oscar de la Hoya’s challenge of Bernard Hopkins the following week. Boxing’s not dead; it was just on a brief vacation.