For one night the barnyard fowls in boxing will give way to lions and tigers and bears. Faux superstars, many of them bankrolled by a benevolent association named HBO, routinely abuse a slew of washed-up fortysomethings, offer themselves to the FDA as safe potential substitutes for Ambien, and fail to knock out handpicked opponents. In fact, watching many of these preordained headliners is the equivalent of eating a warm bowl of plankton. But tomorrow night at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, two of the best pure fighters in the world, clash in a bout that will make the sporting world forget, at least momentarily, the paper tigers, blowhards, and low achievers currently overrunning the sport like weeds in Detroit. Meanwhile the members of these phony “pound-for-pound” All-Star teams should all be tied to their La-Z-Boys and Segways and forced to watch what it means to be a topnotch prizefighter.
Miguel Cotto, 29, like Pacquiao, is one of a handful of fighters whose determination and pride makes it nearly obligatory for him to demand fierce competition. When Antonio Margarito was considered the most feared and fearsome welterweight on the planet (with good reason, it turns out), it was Cotto who ducked through the ropes against him; Shane Mosley, who for the better part of 2009 has been unable to land a fight despite begging, cajoling, and bogarting postfight interviews, got an invitation from Cotto in 2007 and lost a unanimous decision. Certainly, fighting Joshua Clottey, an exponentially high-risk and low reward proposition, was madness in light of how many boxers sit on their hands waiting for free rides to pass by. Other notable fighters Cotto has faced include Paul Malignaggi, Carlos Quintana, Zab Judah, “Chop Chop” Corley, and Randall Bailey.
Now Cotto, 34-1 (27), has decided to face down a perpetual three-alarm fire named Manny Pacquiao over twelve rounds. Throughout his high profile career Pacquiao has chased glory with the same fervor Captain Ahab chased the White Whale across the world. In some ways, this attitude is nearly perverse. In this day and age when fighters are overpaid to fight policemen and crash test dummies, it seems illogical for him to keep moving up in weight and fighting bigger opponents. HBO would rubber stamp any opponent presented to them and pay Pacquiao millions for each fight. But why do that when he can fight Miguel Cotto instead? Of course, in the surreal world of boxing, where HBO paid nearly $600,000 more to televise Chad Dawson-Antonio Tarver II (a fight that should have been held in a vomitorium, if they could have found one small enough) than it paid to broadcast Miguel Cotto-Joshua Clottey, anything is possible and the same can be said for this
Pacquiao, General Santos City, Cotabato del Sur, Philippines, is a solid 3 to 1 favorite on most books, but the truth is that Cotto is the best opponent Pacquiao has stepped into the ring with since “Pacman” first began vaulting weight classes as if they were hurdles. A true welterweight, Cotto has an edge in size and will almost certainly have an edge in strength come fight night. Given how dangerous Cotto is, there is also the question of whether Pacquiao, 49-3-2 (37), is ready for a tough fight. This may sound strange, but Pacquiao might be a victim of his own runaway train success. He has not had a competitive bout since outpointing Juan Manuel Marquez on March 15, 2008. Over the last year Pacquiao keelhauled David Diaz for nine rounds before mercifully ending the torment, transformed a boxing ring into an abattoir against Oscar De La Hoya, and force-fed Ricky Hatton Knockout Drops in less time than it took to perform “God Save the
Queen” before the opening bell rang. Is it possible that these dominating performances might be a drawback? If Cotto gets him in trouble will Pacquiao be able to adjust and fight his way out of difficulty? And is Pacquiao completely focused on the task at hand? There seems to be no end to the distractions surrounding Pacquiao: typhoons, television appearances, film shoots, Michael Koncz, etc. If Pacquiao enters the ring with less than 100% focus, he might find himself surprised at some point in the fight.
Most likely Pacquiao will be as ready as ever, and Cotto will have to fight at his best to win. For all of his skill, courage, and strength, Cotto is going to need something abracadabrant to keep up with Pacquiao. Unless the Puerto Rican superstar has mapped out a flawless plan and executes it seamlessly, he is probably going to be a step or two behind Pacquiao for as long as the bout lasts.
Pacquiao may begin the fight more footloose than usual, ducking, darting, and dodging in order to draw Cotto into pursuing and leaving an opening. If so, Pacquiao may prove to be a hard target early. Will Cotto pressure Pacquiao or will he try to box? Ironically, Cotto looked his best boxing in the early rounds against Antonio Margarito, before cumulative damage—and perhaps doctored gloves—caught up to him. Margarito, however, is a completely different proposition from Pacquiao—slower, less athletic, unimaginative, and orthodox. Against southpaws Carlos Quintana and Zab Judah, Cotto pressed forward behind a high guard and mixed his jab with powerful left hooks to the body before switching to headshots. Judah, however, scored effectively against Cotto in the early rounds and even had him looking shaky against the ropes at one point.
On the outside Pacquiao may try to play sniper and Cotto, whose habit of weaving too far from his opponent will be a major flaw against a speedy puncher like Pacquiao, will have to count on timing to land counterpunches. Every now and then Pacquiao still falls off-balance when rushing in to rattle off some of his lethal combinations. It will be up to Cotto, Caguas, Puerto Rico, to find a way to counter Pacquiao when the Filipino is out of position. Does he have the reflexes and hand speed to do it? In close, with Cotto pursuing, Pacquiao may decide to bide his time and wait for openings. There is a chance Cotto might try to rough up the smaller man on the inside, but that will be hard to do if Cotto has to abandon his bodywork on the inside. Opening up his left side to land shots to the ribs seems almost counterproductive against a southpaw with a quick right hook, and Cotto might not work the body with his usual zeal.
Either way, it might take a while for Pacquiao to begin zeroing in with straight lefts and right hooks, but when he does, Cotto will probably begin to break up shortly thereafter. Cuts, bruises, and knots follow Cotto into the ring like one of his seconds and, because of his defensive lapses, it seems unlikely he can avoid physical damage for long. Despite being hurt several times throughout his career, Cotto is a durable fighter and has the poise and heart to gut out rough spots in the ring. No one—at least no one human should have survived the punishment Cotto took from Ricardo Torres in the fifth round of their barnburner in 2005, but somehow Cotto got through it and went on to knock Torres out in the seventh. Similarly, the cut he suffered against Joshua Clottey last summer would have seen many lesser fighters unravel, but Cotto adjusted his game plan, fought through the blood, and emerged with a decision over a rough customer. Still, his
erratic defense and propensity to bust up is cause for worry when facing a sharpshooter like Pacquiao.
It seems hard to pick against Pacquiao based on recent form. Pacquiao has looked spectacular in his last three fights while Cotto struggled against Joshua Clottey in June and took serious punishment from Margarito in a fight whose legitimacy can be questioned. In the end, Pacquiao might just be too fast and elusive for Cotto to overcome. A perfectly timed left hook from Cotto would even the playing field, so to speak, but how many can he land before he is worn down by rapid fire combinations? Cotto is a much tougher proposition than either Oscar De La Hoya or Ricky Hatton. With that said, Cotto should be able to use his ring smarts to hang around longer than his predecessors. Pacquiao should be able to win via cuts or stoppage somewhere after the eighth round in a fight with its fair share of suspense.