Out With The Old (Jones, Trinidad) Vs. In With The New (Cotto, Margarito)?

Since I’m about the only person any of my friends know who follows boxing religiously, they come to me frequently when the sport trickles into mainstream consciousness. The most recent opportunity for my consultation has been the Jan. 19 fight between Roy Jones, Jr. and Felix Trinidad. “Roy Jones is still fighting?” one asked me. “Trinidad — wasn’t he big in the 90s?” asked another.
I get that kind of question a lot. “Evander Holyfield — isn’t he ancient? Why’s he got a fight coming up?” I’ve developed a reflex for it, an eye roll mixed with a stammering explanation that these anomalies are not what boxing’s about, that they’d be much better off watching, say, an upcoming Manny Pacquiao fight. “Now there’s someone you should check out. Forget about Holyfield.” I don’t blame them, because what it boils down to is that, with any sport, it takes time for an athlete to build a name in almost every occasion. It’s especially difficult when a sport’s not in the public eye all the time, as is the case for boxing. I just wish I had more days like the lead up to Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Ricky Hatton, when I could speak excitedly about the present of boxing, not its past.
The HBO preview show for Jones-Trinidad — which is far more about the past than the present — just aired tonight.

It did a very clever thing. Boxing fans know that Jones, no matter his back-to-back victories over an unknown and a pretty good prospect/borderline contender, is faded. The image of Jones in 2004 catching that Antonio Tarver left hook and smacking the back of his head down on the ropes is indelibly stamped in their brains. Boxing fans, too, know that Trinidad is not going to be at his best at 170 lbs., 10 lbs. higher than he’s ever fought. He looked stale against Winky Wright in 2005, making it hard to imagine he won’t look stale emerging from a three-year layoff. So the HBO preview show took those weaknesses and pivoted, turning them into questions and presenting them as the heart of the drama. Can Jones, on an eternal quest he never intended to take, recapture just a glimmer of the luster he lost with his youth? Can Trinidad’s passion shake him back to life in the ring? Will Jones stand up to Trinidad’s big left hook, or what’s left of it? Will Trinidad be out-skilled by what’s left of Jones’ considerable wellspring of skill?
I admit that, like with every HBO preview show, I was practically salivating to find out. It was a genius 30-minute slice of storytelling, insight and production values.
But it raised in me a question, one I return to every time that, say, Mike Tyson talks about wanting to fight Evander Holyfield again, or some other once-legend overstays his welcome, even if in the case of Jones and Trinidad the welcome has not been overstayed all that long. That question is: Does it help boxing or hurt it when former greats, now something considerably less than great, fight on?
I wish I had a satisfactory answer. I think the easy one may be the correct one: “It depends.” The mere thought of Tyson-Holyfield is so patently ridiculous that the only publications to cover both men’s flirtation with it have been boxing insiders’. Like, for instance, Sean’s appropriately passionate dismissal of it yesterday. Tyson-Holyfield most assuredly hurts boxing. Everyone know’s Tyson is through. Holyfield is a lesser degree of “through,” but he’s through enough that his last fight fell well short of the viewership he once might have obtained.
Jones-Trinidad? That’s a little more borderline. Generally speaking, I’m of the mind that all attention for boxing is good attention. Jones-Trinidad, based on my unscientific method of “how many people are asking me about it,” is getting attention for boxing. Problem is, there’s a point where not all attention is good attention. Jones-Trinidad is being met with scoffs in my circle of friends. But their next reaction to me is, “Are you going to buy that one?” Implied is that if I was going to, they’d want to come watch. So far, so good. It’s then up to what happens next. Will Jones-Trinidad be a good fight? If it isn’t — if one or both look terrible in there — then it isn’t good for boxing. If it is, it will be good for boxing. Maybe. Probably. Unless it fails to whet appetites for more meaningful fights, instead limiting the attention of the casual boxing fan to fights between faded big names, which sooner than later will bring disappointment when Father Time finally renders them beyond the pale.
If meaningful is your cup of tea, then look no further than what is shaping up for three of boxing’s biggest superstars, all three of whom reside in boxing’s glamor division, welterweight (147 lbs.). It’s not all signed, sealed and delivered yet, so in boxing it’s unwise to begin anticipating until that moment. But the scenarios are the most plausible yet. Oscar De La Hoya, according to El Nuevo Dia — and as previously reported elsewhere by other knowledgeable boxing scribes — is most likely to pick a rematch with Mayweather for his May 3 return to the ring. That means Miguel Cotto, one of the other fighters in the De La Hoya sweepstakes because of his own superstardom, would be left to his contingency plan of setting up a summer brawl with Antonio Margarito. In April, according to multiple accounts, Cotto would fight the popular ex-“Contender” reality show contestant Alfonso Gomez. Margarito, popular with a strain of boxing fandom, would face off against Zab Judah, who has a following of his own. Later, assuming both win, Cotto and Margarito would get together for their own battle, which would almost certainly be tremendous.
It’s not ideal, but it sure will do. As I’ve remarked before, I’d rather see Mayweather in against Cotto than anyone else. While Mayweather-De La Hoya I was by no means a barnburner, it wasn’t a bad fight at all, and it was much better than the borefest I feared it would be. I won’t revisit my arguments for why Mayweather-Cotto would be preferable, but Mayweather-De La Hoya II is a reasonably good fight that would put a second big helping of positive attention on the sport.
I’ve read some grumbling about the notion of Cotto fighting Gomez, which would not meet anyone’s definition of “the best fighting the best.” But Gomez’s a top 10 welterweight, so he’s not some kind of out-of-the-question soft touch — and his popularity as a result of becoming beloved on a TV show watched by many non-boxing fans ensures that at least a few of them will be tractor-beamed into watching. Top Rank, Margarito’s promoter, clearly believes that he’s a marketable commodity, and the large crowd for his July defeat at the hands of Paul Williams suggest they might be right, even if he’s not proven more than a hardcore fan’s delight before. Those hardcore fans, plus Judah’s fan base — New York, hip-hop — will make that a decent attraction. And it’s a decent scrap, too. Margarito and Cotto would both be favored to win, but both would be in reasonably tough, appetite-whetting fights.
If I ruled the world, Jones-Trinidad would be little more than a potentially interesting curiosity, and Cotto-Margarito would be the high profile fight. But I’d happily settle for Jones-Trinidad being a very competitive curiosity that helps make Cotto-Margarito, and other fights of its ilk, into what they deserve to be.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.