Gonna be late and short, what can you do?
Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the most talented pugilist in the world, everybody knows this. He’s got the greatest athletic gifts, the most highly developed skills, and arguably the best case to be placed at the top of pound for pound lists; he’s the finest boxer today. But. There’s one accolade which still escapes his grasp, one which is a matter of public acclaim as much as it is of records and results, polls and prizemoney: the title of the Best Fighter Alive. That is the title which demands not just the talent and cool excellence of a Mayweather, but the killer spirit of a prime Roberto Duran or, well, a Pacquiao; and the incredible heart and drive to keep going of an Arturo Gatti; or, well, a Miguel Cotto. The man who holds that title, the one embraced by the public for his spirit as well as his talent and for his desire to conquer men and not just get through matchups- that man will be the winner tomorrow night. Perhaps Floyd will challenge him for that title; perhaps not. It matters little in the end, because Saturday belongs to the victor. On that day, despite the rise of MMA which has attained mainstream exposure but not yet the throne, the sports world will still stop and pay homage to one of the great old time events left: a championship fight between two of the best, a war between two hall of famers, to settle which of them is really the better man. One more time, and maybe for the last time, the sports world will turn and gaze in awe at what two men can drive themselves to, what two warriors can achieve and endure; and in the end they’ll say: there goes the baddest man on the planet. There goes the Best Fighter In The World.
I can’t fucking wait.
It’s a fight which will be either one thing or the other; I do not anticipate a back and forth war or a great exchange of rounds, and the only way I can see a major momentum swing is if Cotto badly outboxes Pacquiao early but begins to fade- which may well happen. Beyond that, if fights were card games this would be No Limit Hold ‘Em: it won’t take long to find out what each man is holding. Either Pacquiao is too quick for Cotto, or he isn’t; either Pacquiao can take Cotto’s punch and solve his timing, or he can’t. A quick look at what each man will be trying to do:
Guns don’t kill people, speed kills people, and by speed I mean Manny Pacquiao. He has to be quicker than Cotto, not by a little, but by a lot. He can’t lurk inside, he can’t stand in front of the larger man, and he almost certainly can’t and won’t begin to throw combinations until he believes he can stun Cotto- if he can. If he can’t, or in the early going at any rate, he has to be in and out one bite and away, using a combination of quickness and footwork to keep Cotto off-balance, guessing, trying to hit things that aren’t there anymore and lapsing into a reactive mode. If Cotto does that he’s dead; but he knows that, and no one’s really been able to do it to him before, not even Shane Mosley. Pacquiao has his work cut out for him.
Pacquiao’s punch of choice will likely be an uppercut, thrown with either hand but perhaps tending towards the right for the speed advantage of the shorter distance to travel out of a southpaw stance. No one is better than Freddie Roach at picking up ticks, quirks, tendencies and bad habits, and if I’ve noticed the way Cotto earmuffs and leaves a space low and between the gloves there’s no doubt Freddie did long before me. If the uppercut can land regularly it’s a scoring blow which can help Pacquiao come in and out with his offense; if there’s enough behind it to stun Cotto, even momentarily, then it opens up the chance for Pacquiao to punch in combinations. And when he does that he’s the scourge of God. I think a huge amount of this fight turns on the effectiveness of that punch, and whether- when Cotto adjusts to it as he will- Pacquiao can disguise the blow and throw a right hook from a similar arm angle as a changeup. If he knocks Cotto down, that has a good chance of being how it happens.
People seem to be expecting the Cotto of several years ago to make an appearance, the walk-forward-drop-a-left-hook-to-the-ribs fighter who showed up for the Ricardo Torres or Fonso Gomez fights. I don’t really think there’s a chance of that, and thank goodness- that version of Cotto would have gotten worked. While the weight cut to 140 likely contributed to his chin issues back then, the fact of the matter is that he used to get tagged more than the fat kid in recess and it wasn’t an accident- he had the same iffy defensive quirks he has now, but he was flatfooted with his weight leaning forward and thinking only about the next punch he was going to throw- not the one the other guy might be. Cotto in his last few fights has been very, very different, and maybe some of that was circumstances like being cut early against Clottey- but I think most of it is simply that Cotto is now a smarter, more disciplined, more skilled and vastly more dangerous fighter. When he fought Shane Mosley the best ever version of the old Cotto went back and forth, life or death with Sugar for most of that fight; but in the later rounds the new Cotto showed up and won the fight for him. He got up on his toes; he moved; he showed superior footwork for maintaining proper distance and throwing off the timing of a lunger; he pumped a vicious, accurate and powerful jab. Frankly it was almost Barreraesque watching an immensely talented but basically prototypical Mexican-style brawler become a boxer- and a brilliant one.
That is the Cotto Pacquiao faces, and that’s the one that can beat him. Where Pacquiao has to be physically dominant- faster, hit harder, have a deeper gas tank- Cotto has to be smarter. Pacquiao’s not stupid but for 3 out of every four minutes his brain will be sitting on a stool in the corner, yelling. Cotto’s will be in his head, working, staying sharp and looking out for things. His key punch is the jab: if he uses his footwork to maintain distance- and he’s shown he can against world-fucking-class opposition- than he nullifies much of Pacquiao’s offense especially in the early going before Pacquiao wants to throw combinations. He makes the Pinoy a lunger, a flailer, an awkward fighter; and that’s when the jab begins to work. Thud. ThudThud. Thud. Over and over and over into the face of a guy who’s now too off-balance to avoid it. It’s a scoring blow, it’s a punishing blow, and when a natural welterweight throws it over and over at a guy who began his career at flyweight, it may just be a fight winning blow. Everything else Cotto does offensively has to be keyed off of that jab, because it’s the jab which will create all the other openings: you throw a naked left hook at a Pacquiao who has his weight under him and your death certificate says “right hook” on it; you throw it hooking off the jab on a guy whose balance is gone, and half the arena falls silent or moans in fear.
But Cotto has to be perfect. He has to be, because if there’s one thing he’s lost in his change over from a brawler to a boxer, it’s the finishing. He hits as hard as ever, he wants to finish as much as ever, there’s no questioning his heart; but now his offense is keyed off of a punishing blow and not a potential knockout blow, now his gameplan is based as much around avoiding damage as delivering it. I fully believe that if Cotto hits Pacquiao with his best punch, Manny will be knocked out; but Cotto’s style means he has relatively fewer chances to hit that best punch than he did a few years ago. He has a lot fewer chances than Pacquiao. As noted above, Pacquiao may well get his ears boxed off for the first 7 or 8 rounds of this things, trying and failing to find the timing and looking kind of stupid as he flails around in the process. But that will not necessarily mean he’s out of the fight. He may not hit as hard as Cotto (or maybe he does); but so many more of his punches are thrown to finish, to try to stop the fight, that he has a better chance of coming from behind than most fighters. It’s a game of inches, and Pacquiao can be one inch away all night… until he’s suddenly not, anymore, and someone’s counting amidst the screams and cheers.
So who wins? What, in the end, is the deciding factor? 3 months ago I was absolutely sure that Pacquiao was going to win this. I’ve had a reoccurring image of him landing this ridiculous windmilling left hook on a lunge in against Cotto which is the beginning of the end, and while Cotto is among the best fighters in the game at fighting while hurt and staying competitive Pacquiao is THE deadly finisher in the world today. Now, writing this the night before the fight, I’m honestly not sure. Frankly it’s one of the best matchups I’ve seen in my time as a boxing fan, because I don’t feel remotely comfortable picking either man. Probably, if you’re putting money on this, the most likely turn of affairs is that Cotto gets off the deck in the 7th or 8th to win a thrilling close points victory, or else lose a similarly close call which many to most people disagree with. As for my pick….
…well I’ll tell ya tomorrow.
It’s going to be an amazing fight.
Back with the second installment of these.
5. BJ Penn converts to Juan Manuel Marquez.
Similarities: Technically excellent and physically unimposing fighters who’ve fought their careers out slightly in the shadow of an important rival, in Penn’s case GSP and in Marquez’s, Pacquiao. Both as a result have something of a public reputation as whiners. Both are far from imposing physical specimens, and thus rely on a perfection of technique to achieve results- both are amazingly accurate strikers, and Penn adds his famous jiu jitsu while Marquez is the more varied puncher. Both are probably first-ballot hall of famers who’ve somehow always seemed a half-step behind the top 2 or 3 P4P guys in their eras.
Differences: Penn has a sort of perpetual fog of disappointment around him, a sense that he’s not getting the most out of his career whether through lack of conditioning, or lack of improvement, or insistence in fighting at weights which don’t suit him. Marquez by contrast has probably accomplished now more than had been expected of him early in his career, and there’s really no fight you can point to and say conclusively that Marquez beat himself in through lack of preparation. Penn has fought all over the place weight-wise and sought out the big fights, while Marquez has seemed content at times to hang around at one weight and fight scrubs instead of seeking out career-defining superfights. Oddly enough though, when he does have those fights Marquez has shown the heart of a lion in coming back from adversity (recovering from 3 first-round knockdowns against Pacquiao, for instance) in a way which Penn never really has.
6. Randy Couture converts to Bernard Hopkins.
Similarities: The inspiration for this list and the most obvious comparison, it’s two old men who’ve won multiple titles in multiples weight classes and succeeded far past the age of 40, beating up younger men despite being counted out and written off again and again. Both are possessed of brilliant insight into their respective sports and have demonstrated it as excellent TV analysts, both retain far more of their youthful quickness and endurance at this age than they have any right to, both hit harder than they’re expected to and can be counted on for one unexpected knockdown in a thrilling decision victory (vs. Tarver, vs. Sylvia, etc.), both are really good wrestlers, both have a remarkable understanding of positioning and timing, both have a knack for suckering opponents into fighting their fight. Both (if Hopkins vs. Adamek is made) are likely to win their next fight despite being older than things like weather and the moon. Both have fought just about everyone with a nametag in their weight range at one time or another. Both have retired on occasion, and neither has ever meant it. Both have headlined huge shows, and both are regarded as one of, if not the, foremost fighters of their era.
Differences: One’s Sub-Zero, the other’s Scorpion; they’re palette swaps of each other for all intents and purposes, with biography the only serious difference. Couture was a military man and amateur wrestler who was obviously great from the start (“The Natural”), winning the UFC heavyweight title in his 4th pro fight. Hopkins was a criminal who did prison time (5 years), and who lost his pro debut before dropping down in weight and becoming what he became. If you want to really look for something, Couture is more beloved while Hopkins is more respected; Couture has also won more total titles, while Hopkins dominated middleweight in a way Couture never quite did at any weight class.
Fun Fact: in all the furor over this horrible pro wrestler invading UFC, it’s fun to remember that Randy Couture’s first UFC opponent was this guy.
A few other quicker ones, which are more provisional:
7. Cain Valasquez converts to Jorge Linares
Similarities: Both are fantastic young prospects with awesome reputations and a strong measure of early pro success, marred by one crucial flaw. In Linares’ case, he can’t stay healthy enough to fight consistently; in Velasquez’s, he’s got a chin about which people are starting to ask serious questions after Cheick Kongo cracked it twice. Neither guy is so far exactly a killer KO artist either.
Differences: A vast weight difference, and most importantly simply that each guy is early enough in their career that we don’t really know what they’ll become.
8. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua converts to Miguel Cotto
Similarities: Both have been dominant fighters in their division and at times considered the best regardless of who held the actual titles, and both are defined as fighters by their offense. Both had serious setbacks due to physical injury, Cotto from the illegal and disgraceful beating he received from Antonio Margarito’s loaded gloves, Shogun from a long series of knee problems which kept him out for over a year. Both may be walking into a buzzsaw next time out against Manny Pacquiao and Lyoto Machida, though there are people who are picking both men as underdogs. Both have records with very few goobers, derelicts, butt-scratchers and humanoids on them. Both had a good win last time out, but with real questions attached- Cotto about his durability, Rua as to whether the guy he beat was any good any more.
Differences: Rua has a much better and longer track record against top, top, top opposition; however that record is also suspect for a reason Cotto’s can’t be, given the switch from PRIDE rules to UFC.
9. John Duddy and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. convert to Kimbo Slice
Similarities: Vaguely ethnic drawing cards whose fame has come from means other than actual in-ring accomplishments, and who owe the careers they have to shrewd promotion and matchmaking. None are really any good, and all either are likely to or already have folded against the first serious opposition they faced.
Differences: Kimbo’s a lot more famous than those other too goofs, and he’s also shown a resilience as an attraction which they haven’t by getting himself on TUF. Heard anything about Duddy recently since the Billy Lyell fight? Me neither.