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Cotto vs. Martinez: A True Battle of Unknowns

By Tyson Bruce

The boxing public knows that Miguel Cotto and Sergio Martinez are world-class fighters of the highest order. We also know that they’re two of the sports biggest box office stars—one need only look at a sold out Madison Square Garden to see that. Quite simply, it might be the best blockbuster fight of the year, especially for hardcore fight fans. However, the most intriguing and perhaps overlooked aspect of the fight is just how little we know about each boxers form going into the fight.

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Photo: Chris Farina/Top Rank

Sergio Martinez’s injury woes have been well documented. At nearly forty years of age his exquisite athletic physique is finally beginning to break. A point that was disturbingly emphasized by none other than Martinez himself on an episode of 24/7 where he stated that he was crutch ridden and one-armed for nearly seven months. It’s hard to imagine any athlete—even one of his quality—overcoming such debilitating injuries.

The fact that Cotto presents a vastly different style of opponent than Martinez has fought in years, if ever, only makes his vulnerability more relevant. Despite the fact that Cotto is years past his prime, the Puerto Rican slugger is still far and away the most skilled operator he has faced. Martinez is indisputably the bigger man but size is perhaps the single most overrated advantage in all of boxing.

It’s the logic that explains why Pacquiao is able to blast away a bigger, slower guy like Cotto, yet struggles mightily when he fights a quicker more skilled opponent such as Juan Manuel Marquez. Martinez has profited tremendously by having a dramatic speed advantage over virtually every middleweight he fights. Yet, it’s also likely the cause of his rapid physical decline. Martinez will still have a slight speed advantage over Cotto but it will be far less than against his recent competition.

Martinez’s true advantage in the fight lies not with his superior size but rather the stylistic similarities he shares with Cotto’s previous conquerors. Cotto does not deal with southpaws, even though he holds wins over several notable lefties. The first fighter to ever badly hurt Cotto was Demarcus Corely, a southpaw, and the first to ever totally obliterate Cotto was Manny Pacquiao, perhaps boxing’s most talented southpaw. Even against Zab Judah, a career best performance at the time, Cotto struggled mightily avoiding straight left hands.

The opponent that bears the closest resemblance to Martinez is probably Cotto’s most recent superior, Austin Trout. Like Martinez, Trout is a southpaw with approximately the same physical dimensions. Granted Trout, who has boxed since childhood, is a more technically superior boxer than Martinez, he’s also far less deft of foot and natural athleticism. Trout was a nightmare for Cotto because his skill-set, speed and size prevented him from making his usual physicality imprint on the bout. Martinez, in top form, presents all the same problems for Cotto.

Cotto’s best strategy to win the fight is to neutralize Martinez’s speed advantage with superior timing and take his legs away with an early body assault. Cotto cannot afford to have the stylistic identity crisis he’s had in recent fights. He is not going to outbox Martinez from a distance. Therefore, he must force Martinez on the back foot. Martinez doesn’t move his head all that much preferring to use his legs to avoid punches. Like Adonis Stevenson, the best time to catch him is going straight back. If Martinez’s injuries have diminished his reflexes and foot speed then it could have disastrous consequences, especially against someone with the punching accuracy of Cotto.

Just how little does Cotto have left, though? Although he’s just 33, relatively young by today’s boxing standards, he’s been through a bevy of gruelling fights. After all, the beatings he suffered against Margarito (probably aided by plaster of Paris) and Pacquaio were bad enough to end most boxers’ careers. Critics have tried to label Cotto as damaged goods since 2008, but because of his tremendous popularity and crowed pleasing style he’s always just one decent performance away from suspending our doubts. His reunion with Freddie Roach seems to have raised his motivation level to an all-time high and with the clock winding down on his career he must know that this may be a last opportunity to pad his resume for Canastota.

Ironically, despite both men’s elder status, the bout might be happening at the perfect time. Max Kellerman correctly pointed out that at different periods of the 2000’s both men would have been dramatically favored over one another. In 2007, after beating Shane Mosley, Cotto would have been a big favorite to defeat that junior middleweight version of Sergio Martinez. Conversely, Martinez would have been a big favorite to defeat the post-Margarito Cotto, who many viewed as damaged goods.

The odds today, approximately 2-1 in favor of Martinez, are probably more even than they have ever been. Come Saturday night, in front of a sell out Crowd in Madison Square Garden, it will be anyone’s fight. This is the kind of fight boxing fans live for–the reason why we put up with all of the bull shit.

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