It is certainly an event—only a fool would deny that. Miguel Cotto’s challenge of Sergio Martinez Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York is more than a fight for the middleweight crown, it is a veritable pageant. In a world where “celebrity” qualifies as a vocation, star power goes a long way. And in a sport where the best fighters treat each other like magnets of like charge, this matchup of proven headliners is a rarity, even on pay-per-view. Yes, Cotto-Martinez is most certainly an event. But is it a fight?
The answer to that question is not found in the promotional material, bursting, as usual, with all the hollow gravitas of an Oscar winner’s acceptance speech. Nor is it found in the enthusiasm the fight has generated: merit is not necessarily reflected in popularity. Rather, the answer to whether Cotto-Martinez promises to be more than an overhyped mismatch lies, thankfully, in the fighters themselves. The prognosis for competition, however, is not good.
Cotto, 38-4 (31), has been many things over his thirteen year career (though a middleweight is not one of them). With his professionalism and Puerto Rican heritage, Cotto put the east coast boxing business on his back for almost a decade. Even now, despite going 1-2 since 2012, he remains one of the few legitimate draws in the United States. Despite his success, Cotto is derided for taking a knee against Antonio Margarito, declining post-fight interviews, flexing his promotional muscle, and even (gasp!) wearing pink. Whatever people may think of him, Cotto speaks to the bottom line, which is what boxing has always been about.
The bottom line explains Cotto’s matchmaking since Manny Pacquiao beat him out of the welterweight division. Top Rank kept the Cotto brand alive by feeding him Yuri Foreman, Ricardo Mayorga, and the twice-pulped version of Margarito. As a promotional free agent, Cotto, 33, parlayed his ring rehab into fights with Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Austin Trout. Cotto’s ability to bloody Mayweather masked how uncompetitive he was in defeat, while Trout’s decision victory over Cotto served as a springboard for his long-expired fifteen minutes of fame.
Consecutive losses prompted Cotto to enlist the services of Freddie Roach, who prepared Cotto for his October fight against Delvin Rodriguez. Cotto ripped through Rodriguez like a finish line, with that performance offered as proof—however shaky—that the Caguas, Puerto Rico, fighter had recaptured enough of his former ferocity to sell a Martinez fight. But Rodriguez is no Martinez.
Nor is Martinez, 39, the same fighter he was even a few years ago. In recent years, the number of harrowing moments Martinez has faced in the ring has been rivalled by the number of surgeries he has undergone outside it. And if his hard fought decision over Martin Murray last April is not proof enough that Martinez is on a rather steep decline, his absence from the ring since then, and his failed request to wear a plastic knee brace into the ring Saturday night are.
Things could be worse for Martinez, however. Whining like a colic-stricken newborn over his treatment by the boxing business, Martinez, 51-2-2 (28), has hurled a number of bitter barbs at Cotto in the build up to their fight. Cotto slighted him once, so the story goes; Cotto is picking on him at his weakest moment, goes another. Perhaps Martinez, who earned his crack at the middleweight title when a Kelly Pavlik-Paul Williams fight fell through, who is days from his eleventh straight appearance on HBO, needs to reconsider the depth of his tribulations. For the second time in three fights he will appear on pay-per-view (as the b-side, it should be pointed out), and as for Cotto’s opportunism, surely there are worse fates than being targeted by a blown up welterweight outboxed by Austin Trout.
Martinez is not suffering for more deserving challenges, either, particularly the one posed by Gennady Golovkin. Yes, Golovkin is unproven: the best name on his ledger might be Matthew Macklin, who he folded like an origami corpse in three rounds (eight rounds less than Martinez needed). For a sense of how good Martinez has it ask yourself this: how might Cotto fare against the likes of Macklin, or against compact slugger Curtis Stevens, who Golovkin pulverized last November. Better yet, ask yourself what Golovkin would do to Cotto, and take note of the facial expressions that accompany such a thought. Does Cotto represent a far better payday than Golovkin? Absolutely. All the more reason for Martinez to quit kvetching. Besides, after years of calling out Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., Martinez finally has a smaller fighter right where he wants him.
Despite his decline, Martinez retains every physical advantage over Cotto. His greater power will be delivered via faster hands and longer limbs; even hobbled, he should prove more nimble than Cotto, a good boxer but hardly quick-footed. Recent trips to the canvas notwithstanding, Martinez has the better chin as well, having weathered the punches of full blown middleweights for years. Yes, Martinez’ style is predicated on reflexes and quickness, neither of which he boasts with the same aplomb of his late prime, but he should retain the timing to catch Cotto in space. Cotto has the pedigree to make it interesting, but a few rounds of eating Martinez’ left hands—provided they do not leave Cotto looking up at the lights—should have the challenger in survival mode. From there, all Martinez has to do is get off his stool and limp to victory.
Or maybe Martinez’ body refuses to cooperate? Well, what does it say of this fight that Cotto’s prospects hinge on his opponent’s fragility? Enough to help make an event of it, it seems.