By Jason Keidel
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Ethnic pride isn’t a boxing novelty. Indeed, much of boxing’s rich history comes from heritage. A downtrodden group gathering its vicarious mojo from a fighter is as old as the sport itself. Before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Joe Louis galvanized minorities en masse, perhaps America’s first athletic hero who wasn’t white.
So it wasn’t shocking to hear a throaty, New York City throng give Miguel Cotto a Caesar’s greeting when he ducked under the ropes to fight Sergio Martinez at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
And the Puerto Rican prince proved his royalty by shredding Martinez to wrench the middleweight belt from the Argentine champion. Cotto decked Martinez three times after the opening bell, using his potent, patented left hook to the body to set up a right to the temple.
Martinez was dazed the rest of the round and fell two more times to shots that would not normally floor a fighter of his heft. For the next few rounds Martinez kept a safer distance, whipping his quick jab over Cotto’s low left hand. But Cotto stalked Martinez, landing the far more formidable punches, often hurting Martinez, but not enough to end the fight.
Martinez was able to cobble together a few innocuous combinations, but Martinez was always moving laterally, if not moonwalking from Cotto’s power. Since joining famed trainer Freddie Roach, Cotto sharpened his already nuclear punching power, keeping his shots sharper while eschewing his old coda of eating several shots in order to return fire.
Cotto controlled the pace, the punches, and the purpose. You could argue he won every round. Martinez, who is no stranger to leaping up from the floor to win a fight, was dazed, confused, and concerned about Cotto’s leaden fists for the rest of the bout. You would not have known that Martinez was the naturally bigger and faster man who fought way more as middleweight than Cotto. Even Martinez’s alarming, eight-inch reach advantage was incidental. Cotto, at his ornery best, is like a scorpion — head down, bulling his way inside with pincers as much as fists, his tornadic attack to the body and brain almost surgical.
And by the end of the ninth round, Martinez was tired, hurt, and bloody. And when the bell sounded for the 10th, Martinez’s corner called off the action, against the proud, Martinez’s protestations. The fight was technically a technical knockout at six seconds of Round 10, which was an odd ruling considering Martinez never left his corner for the round.
And for a building that bungles nearly all its affairs, Madison Square Garden pulled off a clever, promotional slight of hand by booking Cotto on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Everyone of Hispanic ancestry entered the building draped in a flag, either the striped hues and star of “La Isla” or the powder blue and festive, smiling sun of Argentina.
And the fight could not have followed form any better for the over 19,000 at MSG, perhaps 18,000 of whom came to see Cotto (38-4) become the first Puerto Rican fighter to win titles in four weight classes. Even the “media” in attendance were little more than Cotto shills with a laminated press pass dangling from their necks.
For a low-rung title fight, MSG usually partitions the building into the WAMU theater, an embellished cubicle of about 5,000 seats. But Considering Cotto’s local gravitas and timing of the title fight, MSG opened its cavernous contours to full capacity. And the crowd, in numbers, noise, and octaves, was befitting a Knicks or Rangers playoff game, every seat stuffed with beer-and-testosterone-soaked fans who got precisely what they paid for.
So, what did we learn from the bout?
That Cotto can still fight, and Martinez can’t.
As we inched down the bowels of MSG, I wondered if there was a larger narrative to this bout. Cotto and Martinez are fine fighters worthy of watching on any night. But 30 years ago this fight would have been buried in some undercard in Atlantic City, not a headline fight in the “Mecca of Boxing.” For all the hyperbole and woeful acronyms, MSG isn’t the World’s Most Famous Arena, but it is the ancestral home of pugilism, going back to its days on 49th Street and through the Ali-Frazier era and at least until Bernard Hopkins toppled perhaps the most talented Boricua of all, Felix Trinidad.
In his fight prior to Saturday, Martinez (51-3-2) needed his hometown crowd and generous judges to defeat journeyman Martin Murray, who’s hardly Marvin Hagler. Martinez has been hobbled by a bad knee, limiting his notably fast feet. He first injured the his knee during a fight with Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., a fight he dominated until the injury, and had to scramble just to survive a brutal final round to defeat the son of the Mexican boxing god.
You can talk about his oft-injured knee or other, weathered appendage, but fighters get old rather quickly, and no sport exposes weakness like boxing. It’s time for Martinez to retire. He was born and raised in galling poverty in Argentina, migrated to Spain to learn the sweet science, and won the middleweight title in his mid-30s with an unforgettable, one punch KO over Paul Williams. By non-athletic standards, the 39-year-old Martinez is a young, wealthy, and, as women are quick to assert, wildly handsome.
But the spoils of boxing, like other sports, are a narcotic, and it’s easy to convince yourself that you can still fight if it can make money for minions who whisper cash and cliches in your ear.
Not to trivialize Cotto’s career or his accomplishment Saturday night, but the shots that flattened Martinez didn’t even hurt Floyd Mayweather, who is much smaller than Martinez. Cotto, who has always had a slick and strong arsenal, would have been a dangerous fighter in any era. But with the dearth of decent talent in boxing these days, you come away with conflicted feelings.
After this performance, Cotto has myriad options. At 33, he probably has a year or two left at his lethal best. He can pine to fight Mayweather again, or he can fight another Latin fighter, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who is 10 years younger and perhaps one of the few in the sport who is as popular as Cotto.
The fact that Miguel Cotto can sell out Madison Square Garden is a sign that the fight game still has a heartbeat, no matter how clogged the arteries may be. But the fact that Cotto is considered the top draw in NYC is also troubling, particularly when the camera flashed on Mike Tyson, who got the most thunderous applause of the night.
For all his warts, his talent, torment and brutality, Tyson was an iconic boxer, a throwback in its raw essence who would have held the belt for at least a year in any era.
Think of Cotto as Adrian Peterson. Both men are very gifted, but their flaws — Peterson fumbles and is injury prone, while Cotto has the Irishman’s blueprint for defense, stopping punches with his chin — are often overlooked because there aren’t nearly as many dominant boxers or running backs anymore. Peterson would not have been as good as Earl Campbell or Walter Payton or Barry Sanders, but since there’s no premium on halfbacks, he soars above his current competition. So it is with Cotto.
Cotto was defeated by Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao practically perpetrated a homicide on Cotto. Losing to Antonio Margarito didn’t count, since Margarito essentially stuffed gravel in his gloves. Once they fought on even terms, Cotto whipped the disgraced former contender.
There’s no shame in either loss, and if Cotto retired he could do so with pride. But Cotto’s game isn’t rounded enough to be an immortal, which is the goal of all great fighters.
But considering the Rangers blew another big lead and California Chrome blew immortality, it was nice to hear some hot pocket of the Big Apple explode for the right reasons. New York City, even in its homogenous, tourist-laden, sterilized state, is still fun and diverse at times, and Saturday was clearly one of them.
We adopt our own, and Miguel Cotto clearly qualifies.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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