Antonio Margarito doesn't have to chase boxing's top welterweights any more. After his dynamic 11th-round technical knockout of Miguel Cotto, everybody else is trailing in the path of the Tijuana Tornado.
As Cotto's bruised, bloodied face attested Saturday night, those welterweights might regret catching up with an exhilarating brawler who waited several years for the opportunities he seized at the MGM Grand Garden. It was there that Margarito finally established himself as the meanest hombre in a division packed with tough talent.
"I told you I was a great fighter, just like Cotto is a great fighter," Margarito said. "I told everyone I would come out victorious. I told everyone my preparation was good, that I was going to beat Cotto."
By surviving Cotto's early dominance with relentless motion and a downright eagerness to get hit that he brings to every fight, the 30-year-old Margarito must have caught the notice of even casual fight fans. This is a boxer who fights with nonstop ferocity and would be right at home in mixed martial arts.
While sending Cotto to a hospital for enough stitches to make a quilt, Margarito kicked down his last obstacle to stardom. What's more, he did it at a particularly opportune time in Mexico, where the Torrance, Calif., native has lived since he was a child.
With Erik Morales' retirement, Marco Antonio Barrera's decline and Juan Manuel Marquez's chip-on-the-shoulder surliness, there's an opening for a courageous champion in the hearts of that boxing-mad nation, and the charismatic Margarito seems perfect for the role. Just ask Julio Cesar Chavez, who jumped in the ring to share a hug with the fighter who idolized him growing up.
"This is what Mexico needed," said Sergio Diaz, Margarito's co-manager. "We needed another idol, and that's Tony."
Some might be unimpressed by Margarito's 37-5 record, hardly imposing for a champion, but it's deceiving: While Cotto, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and other top welterweights had several years to hone their skills as amateurs, Margarito turned pro and took three losses as a raw Mexican teenager still learning the sport.
He has won welterweight belts twice before, losing the first to Paul Williams last year and voluntarily surrendering the second for his shot at Cotto. Neither title meant as much as the WBA belt he won by pulverizing Cotto, a previously unbeaten champion widely considered to be among the world's top handful of pound-for-pound fighters.
And unlike the retired 31-year-old Mayweather or Cotto, who planned to hang it up before turning 30, Margarito isn't plotting a quick getaway with his fans' money.
"I feel like I'm just getting into my prime," he said before the fight. "I could fight for several more years after this. I don't want to retire any time soon. I still have many goals I want to accomplish."
After making well more than his $1.5 million guarantee Saturday because of the fight's robust pay-per-view sales, Margarito finally is in line for even bigger paydays after years of laboring in out-of-the-way venues and on undercards, most recently for Cotto's last two title fights.
It will be a big change for Margarito, who once couldn't get big fights with Mayweather, Shane Mosley or Oscar De La Hoya, both because of his dangerous abilities and his lack of fan support.
"It's a whole different ballgame now," Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said. "People who wouldn't fight Antonio before now would be inclined to fight him, because the money rewards would be so much greater. Now it changes the whole parameters of who won't or will fight Antonio."
Arum has an intriguing set of options for his new champion's next fight, though it probably doesn't include De La Hoya. Margarito would love to put the Golden Boy into retirement in his farewell bout Dec. 6 at the MGM Grand Garden, but one look at Cotto's rearranged mug should dissuade De La Hoya from any such thoughts.
If he chooses, Margarito also could have a shot at the winner of Saturday's IBF title bout between Zab Judah and Joshua Clottey, who already has lost to Margarito. HBO will replay the Cotto-Margarito fight Saturday night during its telecast of Judah's bout with Clottey.