Very few of us view our jobs with any romance. They’re something we do because we must. We work to live. We don’t live to work. Sports provide an escape from the drudgery of day-to-day routine and it’s easy to mythologize them. We see heartbreak and triumph in the feats of the athletically gifted, and for a few brief hours, we can join together to feel those same things. The victories of teams or fighters become ours. Their losses leave us wounded.
It’s easy to see why people are often left confused and angry when they see an athlete who doesn’t treat his work with the reverence we do. It bursts our bubble and leaves us to consider the nonsensical things we turn to when real life leaves us flat. It’s the same reason that mercenaries are held in borderline contempt. They’re doing a job for money we all want to believe is a noble pursuit being done for our sake.
Middleweight champion Miguel Cotto (40-4, 33 KO) is a consummate professional. Based on his history with promoters and TV networks, you could almost describe him as a mercenary. For many of boxing fans, this makes him easy to hate. They’ll tell you it’s because he took a knee against Antonio Margarito, or that he uses catch weights to his advantage, or that he’s blatantly ducking middleweight heir apparent Gennady Golovkin. But the reality is that he treats his job like a job. Nothing pisses off sports fans more than being robbed of their delusions.
Cotto has been a professional boxer for nearly 15 years. He’s been fighting at the world-class level for 12. At this point, we know almost everything there is to know about him. On his way up, at 140 and 147 pounds, he was a seek-and-destroy, body-punching terror who could box when he needed to, despite some slight chin issues. He fought everyone.
After taking beatings from Antonio Margarito and Manny Pacquiao in 2008 and 2009, however, Cotto was mostly left for dead by fans. It was assumed that he was done at the top. Like many fighters, he hired a new trainer. Making a corner change is often overblown as a fix, but for Cotto, the effect of Pedro Diaz was clearly positive. He moved up to junior middleweight and beat up the gimpy, under-talented Yuri Foreman before shellacking an old Ricardo Mayorga and stopping Margarito in their rematch.
His status as the consensus #1 contender at junior middleweight earned him a date with Floyd Mayweather in May 2012. Mayweather won comfortably, but Cotto bullied him around the ring and busted his nose. He followed that by getting boxed silly by Austin Trout in an oddly passive performance.
Then Cotto revamped his corner again, hiring Freddie Roach to train him. After crushing journeyman Delvin Rodriguez, Cotto moved up in weight to face middleweight king Sergio Martinez. You’d never know it now, but before the fight much of the talk was that it was a final payday for Cotto before retiring. It was supposed to be an easy win for Martinez. In fact, a writer I greatly respect referred to it as a “squash job” on twitter. It was a squash job, but not the one we expected. Cotto destroyed a clearly gimpy Martinez, dropping him four times, prompting the Argentine’s corner to finally throw in the towel after the 9th round.
Much to the consternation of fans, Cotto took the next year off, returning this past June against Daniel Geale at a catch weight of 157 pounds. Everyone who had seen Geale lose to Darren Barker in a fun fight and get destroyed by Gennady Golovkin was disappointed in the choice of opponent. Giving up close to 20 pounds in the ring, Cotto surgically removed Geale from his senses, landing his vaunted left hook to the head and body at will. Geale finally had enough after getting dropped hard twice in the 4th round. Cotto had seldom looked as sharp.
Across from him this Saturday night is Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. The ginger-haired Mexican turned pro at just 15 years old. Feasting on tomato cans, no hopers and the less-talented brothers of world-class fighters, he was famous before he was world class. As he worked his way toward fighting contenders, Alvarez built a sizable fan base. They insisted that he was the best junior middleweight in the world as he bludgeoned (recent junior welterweight) Josesito Lopez and the withered husk of Shane Mosley into submission.
We were all encouraged/cajoled/guilted/yelled at to be patient, even as Alvarez’s fame and paychecks outpaced his accomplishments. Austin Trout was five months removed from defending his junior middleweight alphabet trinket from Cotto when he faced Canelo in April 2013. Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 KO) treated Trout to equal parts effective pressure, combination punching, and surprisingly deft movement for 12 rounds, dropping him hard in the 7th round and earning a clear unanimous decision. Suddenly, Alvarez looked like a semi-finished product. For the first time he seemed like he might be everything his backers insisted he was.
Then Canelo fought Floyd Mayweather. And no matter what C.J. Ross, or the deep thinkers who picked Alvarez pre-fight tell you, he got pantsed. Alvarez and his trainers decided that he should box Mayweather, and we got a 12-round waltz that was never in doubt for even the slightest fraction of a moment. The scorecards were the only debatable things about the fight. Mayweather made Alvarez look slow and amateurish.
Canelo rebounded by laying a frightful beating on Alfredo Angulo, chasing shiftless Cuban Erislandy Lara around for 12 thoroughly uneventful rounds and finally detonating James Kirkland’s jaw. No matter what you thought of the Mayweather fight, Alvarez is a very capable fighter. He punches hard, but not explosively. He has good balance and pretty solid defense. He’s comfortable leading or countering.
So what we have Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas is a fight between the two best junior middleweights in the world, contested at 155 pounds for the lineal middleweight championship. Personally, I find the catchweight absolute horseshit, but if the fighters like it I won’t complain further.
It’s worth noting that the professional extortionists at the WBC decided on Tuesday to strip Cotto of his trinket, which matters not at all, since he is the lineal champion. As I understand it, Cotto and his promoter Roc Nation paid $800,000 to the WBC as step-aside money to avoid fighting mandatory challenger Gennady Golovkin. When they were informed that they still owed $300,000 as a sanctioning fee for the Alvarez bout, they told the WBC to pound sand. For some obscure reason, there are people who are actually siding with the WBC on this. The WBC has declared that Alvarez is still eligible to win the title should he defeat Cotto.
Ultimately, none of that is important. The fight is what matters, and it’s a goddamn good one. Conventional wisdom favors the younger, bigger challenger. Alvarez has advantages in height, reach, and punching power. The hand and foot speed equation is similar, though Cotto moves more smoothly. Experience favors the Puerto Rican. Cotto has fought the best of his generation, but the miles on his odometer are getting mighty high and, at 35, it’s difficult to know when the wheels will start to come off.
Look for Cotto to maximize his two greatest weapons, his jab and left hook, while trying to avoid prolonged exchanges. Cotto is stubby-armed, but he steps in with his jab, which greatly extends his range and makes him absurdly effective at short-circuiting his opponents’ timing. If he can work the jab and dig his left hook to the body while avoiding getting clipped in return, Alvarez is in for a long night.
Canelo’s job will be to force Cotto to exchange. Alvarez has an excellent jab of his own and is adept at countering over jabs with his right hand. If he can keep Cotto on his bike all night, the old man will start to look tired down the stretch. Youth and strength are Canelo’s weapons, and he’s going to have to use them. Cotto won’t be drawn into a firefight needlessly, so Alvarez is going to have to pressure and outbox him at the same time.
Prediction: Miguel Cotto by split decision in a tense, nip-and-tuck affair with wonderful skill and moments of high drama. Canelo will be able to hurt Cotto clearly at times, but I don’t think he’ll be able to do it for long enough stretches to win the fight. Expect raucous arguments over the scoring afterward.
(Photo credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)