cross over. Pacquiao-Cotto is the kind of bout that has a chance to give non-boxing fans religion. So there’s plenty at stake.
Amongst those things, obviously, is whether the fight will be as good as it can be. Cotto, as both a junior welterweight and welterweight, has been in no fewer than four fights over the years that were finalists for the best fight of the year (Ricardo Torres, Zab Judah, Shane Mosley, Antonio Margarito) and that doesn’t include some honorable mentions (Paulie Malignaggi, Joshua Clottey). Pacquiao, who started his career as a junior flyweight, has been in five Fight of the Year finalists (his three fights with Erik Morales, both fights with Juan Manuel Marquez) since moving up to featherweight and becoming a boxing star who now is fighting at 145 pounds. And I’ve never once been bored by a Pacquiao fight or Cotto fight. It’s never happened. Even when they steamroll their opposition, the way Cotto did Carlos Quintana or Pacquiao did Ricky Hatton, I’ve gazed in awe at what destructive forces of nature and nurture both men are. So best-case scenario, they combine to produce another Fight of the Year-caliber thriller. Worst-case scenario, one man looks amazing blowing away the other. OK, worst-worst-case scenario, somebody gets disqualified or there’s a bad cut that ends the fight in the 1st round as a no-contest. But that kind of thing hardly ever happens in fights of this scale.
If the fight lives up to its expectations, or exceeds them, it could be very good for the sport. There was a recent article in Ring magazine that postulated that it wasn’t Oscar De La Hoya who saved boxing all those down years, it was Arturo Gatti. The thinking is a little like this: People tuned in to watch De La Hoya because they knew his name, but anyone who saw a Gatti fight became a fan for life. Pacquiao is somewhere between De La Hoya and Gatti: a big name, the kind the average person on the street might have heard, albeit not on the scale of De La Hoya; but an action star whose fights provide electricity every time out, a la Gatti on a smaller scale. Cotto is himself on the Gatti side of the equation, but like Pacquiao, significantly better than Gatti ever was.
Besides the sizzle, there’s steak at stake, too. Pacquiao, as I mentioned, is the #1 man in the sport according to most fans, although some put Mayweather there. A win over Cotto would have to cement Pacquiao as #1, right? There might still be some holdouts, but look at it this way: Mayweather’s never beaten anyone as good as Cotto, that I know of. De La Hoya, Hatton, Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo, Genero Hernandez — those are the five best opponents of Mayweather’s career. De La Hoya has had a better career than Cotto, but when Mayweather beat De La Hoya he surely wasn’t as good as Cotto is now. Hatton was pound-for-pound top-10 material when Mayweather beat him, but he was moving up in weight and at any rate wasn’t as good then as Cotto is now. Neither Castillo nor Corrales climbed quite as high on the pound-for-pound charts as Cotto currently resides, and Hernandez is a borderline Hall of Famer but is the least of Mayweather’s top five opponents. Cotto, meanwhile, might be able to make his own claim to the pound-for-pound throne if he beats Pacquiao. Cotto’s strength of schedule since 2004 is virtually unmatched, and his one loss, to Antonio Margarito, has a cloud hanging over it because Margarito got caught with loaded gloves in his very next fight. Beating the #1 pound-for-pound fighter doesn’t automatically make one the #1 pound-for-pound fighter, but take Cotto’s resume, factor in his win over Shane Mosley — whom I currently have at #3 pound-for-pound — and throw in a win over the current #1 man, and you can make the case Cotto would leap to the top spot.
I’m not sure how many non-hardcore fans know this, but Pacquiao isn’t just an exciting fighter, he isn’t just the top fighter in boxing right now, but he’s building an argument for being one of the all-time greats. I currently have him in my top 25, and a win over Cotto would have him climbing higher. (If he loses, it probably doesn’t affect that status very much, since Pacquiao has accomplished so much already and losing to Cotto might just mean he’s climbed one weight division too high.) I’m not the only one who has Pacquiao in the top 25, either, with noted boxing historian Bert Sugar placing him in the top 20. Cotto isn’t in that league, but he’s certainly one of the handful of best Puerto Rican fighters ever, which means a lot for a tiny island which has produced a disproportionate number of all-time great boxers. For all the love he gets there, there’s still a sense that he hasn’t been able to come close to making people not miss Felix Trinidad. Beating Pacquiao does that, or nothing will.
For Pacquiao, there’s yet more history on the line. Beating Cotto would give him a belt in his seventh weight class, something no one has ever done. I don’t put much stock in the alphabet title belts. There are more belts every day, and Cotto didn’t exactly win his in a way that proved he was the champion of anything: He took a vacant belt against Michael Jennings, a fighter who probably wasn’t a top-20 welterweight or hell, maybe even a top-30 welterweight. The only reason the belt was made available for Cotto-Jennings was because the sanctioning organization knew that having Cotto as their “champion” would bring them some money. To me, Pacquiao made all the belt-winning history he needed to in his last bout, when he beat the lineal Ring magazine junior welterweight champion, Hatton, to claim his fourth such belt. The lineal championship carries more weight with me, since it represents the belt lineage that goes back to the days of one champion per division, and no one ever had won the championship in four divisions. Still, Pacquiao getting a belt in a seventh division is at least noteworthy, since, as ESPN’s Dan Rafael has said, someone would have done it by now if it were easy.
Then there is of course the business side. Mayweather-Marquez has the 2009 pay-per-view lead, doing 1 million buys to the second-place Pacquiao-Hatton with 850,000. How Pacquiao-Cotto fares could decide what happens next at the elite ranks of boxing. Almost all the top fighters right now are boxers who do or can fight at welterweight — Pacquiao, Mayweather, Mosley, Cotto and Paul Williams all make up my top five. Pacquiao-Mayweather is the one of biggest-ever fights in boxing if Pacquiao makes it past Cotto, but there are a lot of egos and depending on whether Pacquiao-Cotto does better or worse than Mayweather-Marquez in PPV buys, the fight could get easier or harder to make. Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions, Mayweather’s de facto promoter, has said a 50-50 split might be doable if Pacquiao-Cotto does as good or better than Mayweather’s last fight. I don’t see either man settling for less than a 50-50 split. And hell, that fight may not be doable anyway. I remember writing for my preview of Pacquiao-Hatton how that fight might lead to Pacquiao-Mayweather, but who knows whether Pacquiao promoter/ex-Mayweather promoter Bob Arum will get in the way because of a personal vendetta, or if Mayweather will keep fighting subpar opponents, or if one man will get all obstinate and insist on a 60-40 split, or whatever. And if Cotto wins, he lines himself up as a very viable option for Mayweather. After all, Mayweather-Cotto is the fight everyone wanted more than any other, myself included, before Mayweather undertook a brief retirement and Cotto lost to Margarito.
But there will be plenty of time to think about all that “what happens next” stuff afterward. For now, what’s right in front of us is nearly as enticing as it gets.