This weekend marks a return to high-level, quality boxing match-ups when competing double-headers Saturday night on HBO and Showtime bring us stars big and small in all stages of evolution. There is the certifiable “now” star in Miguel Cotto, one of the top attractions, and talents, in the sport, capable of filling Madison Square Garden to sold out capacity but still not across the precipice of breaking out into broader public appeal. There is the star of recent vintage trying to hold on to it as age catches up, Antonio Tarver, who was the first to knock out Roy Jones, Jr., played the top villain in the recent Rocky film and has spent the last couple years in decline. There is Antonio Margarito, something of an underground, cult star, if there is such a thing, popular with hardcore fans of the sport because of his in-ring style. There is Clinton Woods, a star in one country only, Great Britain. There is Chad Dawson, a star-in-waiting, if only he gets the chance and delivers when his moment comes. There is Alfonso Gomez, the star of a boxing reality television show. And there is Glen Johnson, the star of 2004 when he was Ring Magazine’s “Fighter of the Year,” but never able to capitalize on that to any great effect.
For today, let’s just look at four of them — the ones battling each other on HBO.
COTTO – GOMEZ
ESPN Classic has, lately, replayed a couple old Cotto fights from when he was a prospect, and I watched them even though I knew the outcome and knew they were mismatches. That’s how good he is, and how fun he is to see in action. I just flat like the way he does his thing. Fortunately for fans of the sport, he’s only fought an undeserving opponent every now and then since about 2003, when he began his rise from prospect to contender to belt-holder to one of the 10 best fighters around today. In 2007, when he was a runner-up for Fighter of the Year on most everyone’s list, he was in two candidates for the best matches of the year — his stupefying brawl with Zab Judah, which he won by knockout, and his sharply-boxed, tense, dramatic and close decision win over Shane Mosley. On his resume over the last four years are four different previously-undefeated fighters who would go on to become title-holders themselves. The last of them, Carlos Quintana, went on in particular to glorify Cotto, since Cotto defeated him easily and Quintana looked great this year against fellow top welterweight (147 lbs.) Paul Williams.
So I can give Cotto a bit of a pass for taking something of a breather on Gomez.
I say “something of a breather” because Gomez is no pushover. He’s ranked the #10 welterweight by ESPN.com, having ended Arturo Gatti’s legendary career last year and most recently beaten the always-tough Ben Tackie. Graduates of “The Contender,” the TV show where Gomez earned his fame and adoration for both his personality and his guts, have proven dangerous opponents of late when they have been expected to lose. Brian Vera showed it by knocking out the hottest prospect in the sport, middleweight (160 lbs.) Andy Lee, just a few weeks ago. More recently, junior middleweight (154 lbs.) “Contender” grad Cornelius Bundrage derailed former belt-holder Kassim Ouma’s comeback bid. There have been other, scattered instances of “Contender” people, even in losses, giving great accounts of themselves, proving that they aren’t just reality TV creations.
What you have to ask yourself here is, what can Gomez do that Cotto can’t? Gomez has a great big heart, sure, and that gets one pretty far in boxing. But Cotto has a mighty ticker of his own, as he’s shown over and over again when his chin has failed him and he’s shrugged it off, dusted off the seat of his pants and gone back in for the knockout. That neutralizes what might have been Gomez’ only advantage. Gomez can box a little, but Cotto boxes plenty better, demonstrating great ring intelligence against Mosley. Gomez can punch some, but I’ll take Cotto’s 25 knockouts in 31 wins over Gomez’ eight knockouts in 18 wins against lesser competition.
Basically, Gomez just has to hope Cotto has an off-night.
But because Cotto’s in against credible opposition, and because that credible opposition is going to fight his big ol’ heart out, and because Cotto’s one of the sport’s premier television fighters, and because he needs to win to make a fight against a more deserving foe — I’ll get to that next — I expect this one to offer plenty of combustion and enough close moments to make you wonder if Gomez can pull off the upset and deliver some entertaining drama.
My prediction: Cotto by late knockout. If Gomez refuses to back down, I don’t see any other possible result. Maybe he survives to the bell. It’s not as if anyone’s knocked him out, although Tackie rocked him a few times. Gomez is a good fighter who’s earned my respect for the way he fights and I underestimated him badly against Gatti. Maybe I’m underestimating him here, but I don’t see any reason to believe he’s in Cotto’s league.
My confidence: 95%. Hey, everyone has an off-night. Maybe Cotto’s overdue.
My allegiance: Cotto’s one of my top-five favorites. If he’s not one of yours, I’m not sure you like boxing very much. I can understand rooting for Gomez, though, if you like the underdog and have a sentimental attachment to him from getting to know him on “Contender.”
MARGARITO – CINTRON
It is a welterweight rematch between Margarito and Cintron that is the real draw of the evening. That almost sounds strange to the ear if you saw the first meeting between the pair, in 2005. In what was then a career-defining bout for both, Margarito defeated Cintron nearly as soundly as a man can be defeated in a sporting event, driving him to tears after a whole slew of knockdowns. Margarito, following that win, became one of boxing’s most-feared men. Unlike when most fighters respond to a punch with a smile as a means of cloaking their inner pain and trepidation, one got the impression Margarito really, sincerely found the power shots of Cintron amusing, which was scary then and still is, since Cintron was and still is one of boxing’s hardest punchers, with 27 knockouts in 29 wins. Cintron, a hot commodity coming in to that night, was practically left for dead, not because there was any shame in a youngster losing to a tough, tough, tough vet, but because he clearly panicked and looked an emotional wreck, and once a boxer can allow that to happen to himself in the ring, you have to question whether he’s got the makeup for the sport.
Since then, however, Margarito has lost, to Williams, and nearly lost just prior to that, to Joshua Clottey before Clottey injured a hand, appearing sluggish early in both bouts. His last win proved he can fight well early, in an impressive-looking first round blowout of no-hoper Golden Johnson. Cintron’s career has been almost inverse since that fight, having picked up famed trainer Emmanuel Steward. He proved he could stand up to the pressure against tough vet David Estrada, then scored two conclusive knockouts over borderline top-10 welterweights in Mark Suarez and Walter Matthysse, before looking shaky again in his knockout win over tough, pressuring Jesse Feliciano — of “Contender” fame.
Cintron is indubitably a better fighter than he was in his 2005 loss to Margarito, having better established his jab and overall boxing abilities to assist him when his devastating straight right doesn’t produce what it usually does: a knockout. But there are still questions about his emotional nature. Margarito says he has learned the lessons of his loss to Williams, showing that he can start fast as he did against Johnson, but Margarito’s demonstrated a career-long tendency to start slow.
I expect this to be a slugfest, I really do, with lots of points of intrigue. Margarito is slow of foot, yes, but he catches up to everyone eventually with his swarming, pressuring style, and he doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Cintron is no fleet-footed boxer, so even if he keeps Margarito at a comfortable distance for a while, he’s going to have to stand and trade eventually, and address those demons of his head-on. What happens when he does?
The winner probably gets Cotto next, so the stakes are high — it would be the biggest fight of either Margarito’s or Cintron’s careers, with lots of money and potential fame and, frankly, a real Fight of the Year candidate regardless of who gets the Puerto Rican superstar.
My prediction: Margarito by later knockout than last time. He got Cintron in the 5th last time, and I think Cintron’s skills are such that he won’t have to start answering those aforementioned demons until several rounds after they confronted him in the first fight.
My confidence: 75%. I’ve really only seen Margarito’s chin even dented once, against Clottey, and that was probably due to his rustiness and conditioning as a result of having not been in the ring much prior to that. But if anyone can dent it, it’s Cintron. Cintron says that injury and turmoil with his promoter are to blame for his loss last time, so if he’s right, he’s got a shot. Really, though, I still have severe doubts about Cintron’s mental toughness.
My allegiance: I’ve never been a Margarito guy. The shrillness of some of his boosters have turned me off to him more than he ever has, because he comes across as a gentleman away from the ring and he’s an exciting fighter. I’ll be ever-so-slightly rooting for Cintron, whose mental fragility disturbs me but whose power keeps me coming back for more.