Instead of the epic battle we had been promised by the two fighters’ resumés, Puerto Rican Day revelers in NYC’s Madison Square Garden were treated to a one-sided onslaught doled out by their native son, Miguel Cotto, to the lineal middleweight champion last Saturday. Sergio Martinez, the best middleweight of an era without elite competition at 160 pounds, especially since Paul Williams’ injury-induced retirement, never looked like he had a chance.
The theater of the ring is established by moments like Saturday’s. An all-out war between two of the best performers of their generation would have been a thriller, instead we were given a tragedy: the career death of a great fighter. Whether Martinez demeans himself to fight again on half a leg or not, the 39-year-old’s mind has succumbed to his body and the damage looks permanent.
Not that age should even be the first consideration from the Sergio apologists, the Argentine looked for more impaired than old. For boxing aesthetes, it was painful to watch a fighter still gifted with the same reflexes, hand speed and power as ever struggle to get off from his legs.
In the ring post-fight, he offered that Cotto caught him cold in the first round and he never recovered. While it’s certainly possible, it still wouldn’t surprise this observer to learn he was either fighting injured or dealing with a severely compromised knee. We’ve seen Martinez’s awkward style lead to him tasting canvas after fielding a punch while off-balance in the past. He’s no stranger to unorthodox footwork. It’s something that’s worked to his advantage far more often than against him in his career.
But he looked downright unsteady and unsure on his knees from the opening bell. Re-watching the first round knowing what you know now is a different experience altogether and might lead you down a dark corridor labeled “one last payday.”
Boxers rarely ride off into the sunset at the end of their careers. For every Joe Calzaghe and Rocky Marciano, there’re dozens of Alis, Tysons, and Oscars. Sergio’s camp had to have imagined this as a possibility and all the pre-fight bluster of his knee being in great shape reads like a snakeoil sales pitch in retrospect. His mind was writing checks his body would never be able to cash. Martinez scripted his own demise, against one of the sport’s most honorable men who himself is rising back to the sport’s peak only a few years after many declared his own career as dead in the water.
After the fight, Cotto’s trainer Freddie Roach praised him, "He’s maybe one of the best students I've ever had." Miguel Cotto stuck to his corner’s fight plan, measured patience with aggression and kept a high guard through most of the fight. Even with Martinez obviously laboring and unable to throw with balance and leverage, Cotto refused to yield any room for a comeback lucky punch.
Whether Cotto is back and better than ever or was just lucky to walk a shot fighter down will be the narrative to sell heading into his next fight. And there is where Cotto will seemingly have his pick of the litter. He took less money to fight Sergio Martinez than he could have by fighting Canelo Alvarez. Now, a Cotto-Alvarez megafight looks inevitable; the money will be huge and there appears to be no business conflicts that would bar the way.
Cotto’s gamble on the strength of Sergio Martinez’s knee may wind up paying a huge dividend.
It would be an event that could generate money on par with boxing’s biggest pay-days , one that could challenge Floyd Mayweather’s hubristic claim over the Mexican Independence Day weekend. Hell, it might make Money green enough with jealousy to put on something bigger . . .
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