Antonio Margarito was able to call his performance against Paul Williams an off night -- until he watched a replay of the fight on videotape.
During that viewing, Margarito noticed a subtle change in his fighting approach. It had crept in without his noticing it -- hidden beneath the veneer of victory.
"During the fight he [Williams] wasn't hurting me," Margarito said. "He was just throwing punches, and I let him throw punches because he wasn't hurting me. When I was watching the fight, I saw that he was just throwing more punches than me. That's where I lost the fight."
Margarito's head was not in the fight. Because Williams wasn't handing him his head, Margarito took a lackadaisical approach. It cost him. Williams won a decision and wrested away Margarito's welterweight crown.
"I wasn't into the fight for those first few rounds, and that cost me," Margarito said. "After I saw the tape I said, 'that's never going to happen to me again.'"
Margarito has stuck to that vow, demonstrating the kind of relentless aggressiveness that has overwhelmed his opponents since that loss to Williams three fights ago. Margarito's pledge will face its most severe test yet when he challenges Miguel Cotto for the WBA welterweight champion at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Cotto can be just as smothering as Margarito. But Cotto likes to start slowly and build to an all-encompassing fire.
Paul Malignaggi, who went the distance with Cotto in a brutal 12-round junior welterweight bout, described the feeling in those late rounds as almost suffocating.
Margarito, employing his sprinter mentality, hopes to stop Cotto before he can get to the runaway-locomotive stage of the fight.
"I think it's going to come down to whose rhythm we are going to dance to," Margarito said. "I need to start my pace fast and see if he can keep up."
It's not easy for a boxer who has reached the championship ranks to remake his style. But that is what the 30-year-old Margarito has done since his loss to Williams.
"I've been doing it because now it has become my mentality," Margarito said. "From the start I'm going to throw punches and throw punches and go as hard as I can."
There's a stark contrast in punch statistics between the Williams fight and Margarito's most recent fight, a rematch against IBF champion Kermit Cintron, according to figures compiled by CompuBox. In the fight against Williams, Margarito averaged 54.3 punches per round and threw a total of 61 jabs. In the last six rounds he picked up the pace some, averaging 68 punches a round. In the five rounds against Cintron, Margarito averaged 113 punches a round and threw 133 punches in Round 2.
Javier Capetillo, Margarito's trainer, said he employs a lot of work on the mitts during training to help Margarito maintain a consistently fast pace.
"For three minutes we have him throw punches, punches, punches, nonstop," Capetillo said.
They practice the exercise at least 16 times a day, building the kind of stamina and endurance they hope will keep Margarito from tiring during a fight. Capetillo said Margarito has sparred between 280 and 300 rounds for the fight against Cotto.
During a fight, Capetillo closely watches Margarito for signs that he is slowing his pace.
"If I see him standing still when the round is over, I will remind him that this is not what we're here for," Capetillo said. "I will tell him that he needs to get back on his rhythm and keep punching."
Cotto, for his part, isn't quite as sure of what he has to do to win the fight. He does know, however, that he'll be flexible enough -- and resourceful enough -- to make adjustments to Margarito's style on the fly.
"I will use whatever I need to use to win this fight," Cotto said. "I can't tell you what style I will have to use until I get in the ring. I don't know what style will win this fight -- move or box. But I will try to use everything and I always feel better when I do that."
Margarito believes that his punching power is greater than Cotto's and is confident his plan to open fast and pour on the punches will carry him to victory.
"I believe I'm a natural welterweight because I've been fighting at this weight longer than him," Margarito said. "He's just coming up, so I believe that I punch harder."
Margarito isn't concerned that he could run out of steam or punch himself out. If Cotto gives him a crack to get inside, Margarito will set up camp there and make it up close and personal.
"I know how hard I worked, and I know I have 12 good, hard rounds in me," Margarito said. "I'm not going to pace myself. I'm going to go hard and see if he can keep up with me."
Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.