Cotto vs. Martinez doesn’t offer us the best two fighters in the sport, but it very well may offer us the best fight of the year.
To an outsider's eye, a duel between a 39-year old champion with a recent knee surgery tucked underneath his middleweight belt and a 33-year old challenger who has lost three of last seven times he's entered the ring has an underwhelming look on the surface of things.
But looks are deceiving. The temerity that both men fight carries the promise of an instant classic in the Garden, a venue that has adopted the Puerto Rican middleweight aspirant Cotto as its own because of the pitbull with gloves style he has carefully cultivated over the years. Gifted with more pride and skill than good sense, Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto are both wolves in gentleman’s wool.
The way things go in boxing with the suits looking to maximize a boxer’s future purse potential and with fighters themselves able to politick away from unfavorable matchups, we don’t often see the most competitive matchups get made. But the Cotto-Martinez dance will mark the third consecutive month in which we’ve seen the game’s top fighters in tough against a warrior with not only something to prove but the ability to prove it.
Almost certainly, Cotto could have made more money by dipping into the Mexican PPV well against Canelo Alvarez. But Cotto’s hard head sits in the middle of a Venn diagram of valor, courage and pride and he’s obsessed with becoming the first Puerto Rican to win belts in four weight classes, an accomplishment appreciated by only the sport’s most ardent fans and historians. What’s far more compelling than the arbitrary nature of titles, sanctioning organizations, and keeping track of who holds what belt, is that Cotto places glory ahead of money in a sport where careers can end in an instant.
And nothing embodies the spirit of prize-fighting better than taking incredible risks for the sake of perceived immortality. Cotto is taking on the biggest man and toughest out of his career, and is betting everything that he will succeed. He’s already come back from boxing death once or twice in his career, he can’t have many more ring lives in the tank.
Inversely, it might be argued that Martinez has had his fill of glory as the consensus champion of Sugar Ray Robinson’s weight class, it’s time to get paid. The Argentine hasn’t had the megafight paydays that Cotto has enjoyed and doesn’t have the broad name recognition that can drive up PPV buys in traditional boxing markets. Coupled with his elite skills as a boxer and puncher, his lack of star-power has made him one of the sport’s oft-avoided champions.
Sergio can publically bristle all he wants about playing second fiddle to Cotto’s Stradivarius, the Puerto Rican’s fan-friendly style packs MSG and drives up the buys and promises to give Martinez the best purse of his career. At 39 years old, Martinez has to be thinking about the financial consequences of this fight, win or lose.
Martinez might be the Vegas favorite heading into the night, but he carries enough of his own risk to make bettors pause. With his age and fairly recent knee operation, the Buenos Aires southpaw has to end the fight by its midpoint, like he did against Paul Williams in their second fight. We’ve seen Martinez in three fights where he’s weakened considerably against top guys in late rounds: the first Williams fight, the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr fight, and last year’s surprisingly close meeting with Martin Murray. For Cotto, the fight plan has to include surviving Martinez’s early energy and rolling the dice on the champion’s legs in the 8th, 9th, and 10th rounds.
Both fighters may have the best of their careers behind them, but that will hardly matter when the bell rings in what should be a wild Madison Square Garden on the Puerto Rican Parade weekend. Fresh off dismantling Delvin Rodriguez last fall, Cotto is selling the story of being a reborn boxer under trainer Freddie Roach. Martinez finds himself in a familiar position, forced to prove himself yet again as a top five pound-for-pound fighter. What matters most in boxing matchups is when skill and desire meet their match, and there’s nowhere to run for 36 minutes or less, and that’s the promise here.