So continues our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2009, Manny Pacquiao against Miguel Cotto, culminating in a live blog of the bout Saturday. Previously – the importance of Pacquiao-Cotto, the two top questions for each man and keys to the fight, part I. Tomorrow — a review of the undercard, and a final preview and prediction for the main event.
Boxing is part mental and tactical, part physical. It won’t be any different for Miguel Cotto and Manny Pacquiao when they step into the ring this weekend to do battle. First, I took a look at the physical aspects of their match-up; now, I’ll look at the mental and tactical.
Offense. I was tempted to call this category “even.” There’s not a lot missing from either man’s repertoire. That both boxers are such spectacular offensive machines is what makes this fight so mouth-watering. Both are two-handed fighters who can lead or counter and have the complete arsenal of punches at their disposal. Both are sharp, accurate punchers who fight aggressively but efficiently. But in truth, I think one man has the slight edge.
Pacquiao’s best weapon once was his straight left, but he’s gotten so diverse in his attack I don’t think he landed many of them in his last fight, a knockout of Ricky Hatton. It was a left hook that did in Hatton. And it was his right hook that set it up. He punches well to both the head and body, and his jab has gotten much better. He is probably most comfortable leading, but he’s become a fairly lethal counterpunch artist, decking Juan Manuel Marquez and others when they’ve made mistakes — or with quick shots that land when his slower opponents throw. He’s a southpaw, which annoys most everybody, although Cotto’s record against southpaws is mixed. Most importantly, he’s got a very nice uppercut that he showed against David Diaz. I’ll explain why it’s so important in a minute. On the negative side, he used to be very limited, and he used to overreach and have problems with balance after throwing. In his last three fights, there’s been not a whiff of that any of that. I’m not sure if it’s dormant; during the 2nd round against Hatton, he got a little sloppy, and he does have a tendency to get overeager against a hurt opponent.
Cotto also has the complete arsenal. His left hook to the body is historically his most fearsome weapon, but he’s gotten away from it in recent fights. When he lands it, you can see the pain it delivers via his opponent’s body language. His jab, once a neglected weapon, knocked down iron-chinned Joshua Clottey. He’s naturally left-handed but fights right-handed, which means he carries huge power in his right from a southpaw stance. He can switch from orthodox to southpaw when he wants, and usually it will lead to him stealing at least one good round from his confused opponent. Whereas Pacquiao scores well with unconventional punches from odd angles, Cotto is quite technically proficient. And while Cotto, too, is best when he leads, he’s much better at fighting off his back foot. Pacquiao can counterpunch, but when you push him backwards, he isn’t as effective. If you push Cotto backwards, you’re better off, but he’ll make you pay. And Pacquiao doesn’t like counterpunchers. In fact, his team thinks Cotto will try to stay in countering mode because of that.
I’m giving the edge to Cotto here because I see him as the more skilled and more versatile boxer. But it’s a narrow edge. Still, Cotto’s the best offensive fighter Pacquiao’s faced since Juan Manuel Marquez, and by a long shot. Advantage: Cotto.
Defense. Once upon a time, there wasn’t much to separate either of these dudes here, either. Both got hit a lot. A lot. That’s changed for one of them.
Cotto has defensive skills. He can block punches with his gloves pretty well. He has a good feel for when punches are coming at him and where, and when he wants to move his head, he can. He can skip backwards or laterally pretty well when he’s under pressure. Problem is, there are more defensive deficiencies to Cotto than there are strong points. If you throw combos at him, he’ll freeze for a while and try to block all of them, but he’ll inevitably miss a few. Antonio Margarito scored on him that way, just continuing to punch, especially when he trapped Cotto on the ropes. Cotto comes in with his gloves high, but you can punch around them or down the middle, and he rarely moves his head when he’s in offensive mode. Most fatally, he is vulnerable as all get-out to uppercuts. Even though he hasn’t focused on his body attack as much of late, he still fights like that’s what he’s looking for, stalking in low with his head in prime uppercuttable position. Somebody’s going to knock him out with an uppercut some day; the most damaging blows Margarito landed, anyway, were uppercuts. (See Pacquiao’s uppercut, above.)
Pacquiao used to be so much more hittable than he is now. But he’s gotten way, way better. Used to he would just storm in and land, and if someone landed on him, so be it. Now, he keeps his hands up very well after punching. He punches, then steps to one side or the other, making him hard to pinpoint. He’ll step out at times and reset, too, instead of just going lateral. He moves his head a bunch more as he comes in, and even the much taller Oscar De La Hoya didn’t have much luck keeping him on the outside and picking him apart that way. He used to get trapped on the ropes, but he keeps the fight at the distance he wants these days. Cotto’s team says he has a tendency to drop his right hand when he throws his left, but when they said it on “Pacquiao/Cotto 24/7,” they were watching his second fight with Marquez, and Pacquiao has evolved tremendously since then. It’s possible that the slow Diaz, the clumsy Hatton and the old, weight-drained De La Hoya just made Pacquiao’s defense look good, but I really saw massive improvement in all his fundamentals and in his focus on not getting hit.
Let’s say Pacquiao can’t knock out Cotto, or hurt him very much. If so, his defense will have to save his ass. But unless Cotto has made a quantum leap on defense, he’s just going to get hit by Pacquiao a lot, and he’ll have to hope his chin holds up. Advantage: Pacquiao.
Trainer. I wish I understood why Cotto hasn’t hired a world-class trainer. He says he’s comfortable with Joe Santiago, the man who replaced his uncle and trainer Evangelista when the pair had a falling-out. He’s comfortable with him, fine; Santiago and Cotto combined for a victory against Clottey, although it was a hard one; maybe Santiago is a hidden gem of a trainer, who knows? But Cotto could have someone proven, someone who could continue his development as a fighter, something Evangelista gave him but that no one has given him enough of. Doug Fischer of Ring magazine says he’s detected slippage in Cotto’s technique. Pacquiao’s trainer says that Cotto is bossing his trainer around rather than vice versa. That last point may just be head games, but all of this is cause for concern.
Especially because Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, is beyond world-class. He’s helped morph Pacquiao from raw talent into complete package. Roach knows Pacquiao, his masterpiece, so well that he has an uncanny knack for predicting what result will occur in Pacquiao’s fights. And he develops game plans that work to perfection. He sees the weaknesses of Pacquiao’s opponents almost perfectly, and he creates a blueprint for Pacquiao to exploit them. I think if Cotto loses, he’ll be wondering why he didn’t seek out a proven guy to lead his corner. Advantage: Pacquiao.
Heart. This one, too, appeared a toss-up at first. When I say heart, I mean — mental fortitude, determination, etc. Neither of these men are cowards, not in the slightest. Both fight whomever you put in front of them, and they fight like men when they get in the ring.
On Pacquiao’s side, though — although he’s been mildly wobbled and then regained composure since he burst onto the scene — we’ve seen him cut and really struggle, like he did against Erik Morales the first time and Juan Manuel Marquez the second time. He basically gives away rounds when he’s cut, at least until his cut man gets the cut under control. He just doesn’t know what to do, and that makes him like most fighters. Still, it’s a knock on him in comparison to Cotto. On Cotto’s side, we’ve seen him badly wobbled and come back. We’ve seen him get knocked down and come back. Especially, we’ve seen him get cut — like the cut that should have ended the fight against Clottey — and find a way to win. Now, Cotto did effectively quit against Margarito, but the guy was, as mentioned in an earlier piece, bleeding from his ears and bleeding tears. Margarito very well may have been using loaded gloves at the time. I think one instance of quitting, especially under unusual circumstances, doesn’t determine a fighter’s heart. Check out the career of Israel Vazquez.
I don’t want to foster any conspiracy theories here, but I thought it interesting that Cotto’s team has talked up the 8th round of Pacquiao-Marquez II as something that exposed Pacquiao’s weaknesses. That was the round where Pacquiao got a bad cut and then fought poorly. Are they saying they’ll figure out a way to cut Pacquiao…? Either way, given both men’s propensity for getting cut, I’d take a cut Cotto over a cut Pacquiao. Pacquiao hasn’t been badly hurt in a while, but if Cotto is badly hurt, I know he’ll get up if he can. I don’t know about Pacquiao. Advantage: Cotto.
The Rest. Thinking on the fly: I don’t mean this dismissively, but I’ve still never seen Pacquiao make an adjustment mid-fight. He always has a good game plan and executes if faithfully, but if his opponent adjusts, he usually has to rely on his speed and power to get him back into the fight. Cotto, meanwhile, is constantly adjusting, and does it well. Willingness to fight dirty: In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be something to factor in at all, but Cotto has repeatedly shown his willingness to bend the rules when he thinks it necessary. Pacquiao is too much of a sportsman for that. But insofar as fighting dirty can help a fighter win, Cotto’s a proven commodity. Hopefully, referee Kenny Bayless will keep that from happening. Experience: Cotto has more experience fighting different kinds of fighters than Pacquiao, but Pacquiao has been on the grander stages. I’ll call this one even.
Training camp: Cotto started his early, and may have overtrained. Pacquiao’s was riven with conflict, from feuds between his team members to disagreements between Pacquiao and Roach over where to hold camp (Roach complained Pacquiao wasn’t properly focused in his native Philippines) to storms that forced relocations. I think a camp that lasts too long is better than a camp that isn’t conducted under optimal conditions, so edge Cotto. Tendency to cut: Both Pacquiao and Cotto get cut up, but Cotto’s cuts seem to be the more fight-threatening kind. If anybody is cut in a way that forces a doctor to stop the fight, my guess is it’ll be Cotto, not Pacquiao. That last subcategory doesn’t go Cotto’s way, but overall… Advantage: Cotto.