Suppose a famed arena right in your hometown was hosting a sellout crowd for one of the year’s most anticipated, sure-to-be-action-packed events in any given sport. You’d think the paper of record in your town might cover the thing, right? Not so much for Miguel Cotto-Joshua Clottey this Saturday in Madison Square Garden. The New York Times hasn’t even mentioned it in the last month, drawing justifiable rage from the event’s promoter, Bob Arum, although maybe they’re planning on deigning to write something Friday or Saturday.
That’s OK. The New York Times can pretend boxing doesn’t exist, even when the sport is blowing up the spot in its own backyard. For one, a far more in touch with New York City tabloid, the New York Daily News, is all over it, with days’ worth of coverage. And besides, we in the boxing world are more than a little used to short shrift from the mainstream media, aren’t we? We can have our “tiny” boxing match that will be witnessed by approximately 20,000 people live and many more on HBO, and it can be our own “private” “niche” delight. It stands on its own merits, even if nobody was watching. Cotto-Clottey is about as good a boxing match as anyone could hope for, between two of the five best boxers in the top division in the sport and featuring one of the 10 best boxers in the world in any weight class. Given both welterweight’s styles, it’s almost assuredly going to be a Fight of the Year candidate. We’ll know. It can be our “little” secret.
I spent some time this week examining what might have been of Cotto’s career if not for his solitary loss, a taxing knockout by Antonio Margarito, whose entire career is now under suspicion since he got caught with loaded gloves this year. But here’s who Cotto is now, unhypothetically:
An ultra-exciting boxer/puncher who’s been in four Fight of the Year-caliber boxing matches over the last four years, and is going for his fifth in five years. The 6th-best fighter on the planet, in my view, having beaten all the top men he got his hands on at junior welterweight and welterweight, except Margarito, including Shane Mosley. The #2-ranked man at welterweight. A popular warrior both in his native boxing-mad Puerto Rico and with many hardcore fans for his no-nonsense, “I’ll fight anyone” approach. A fighter still on the rebound trail from his first loss, honest or no, who bounced back with a win against the hopeless Michael Jennings, where he appeared to have shaky confidence at first but quickly gathered steam and eventually looked like a reasonable version of his old self. A man whose old self is a ferocious body puncher with good speed and steadily improving defense and versatility, but who has a shaky chin even at his best.
I guess I should say that’s what we KNOW about who Cotto is now, the last bit excepted. What we don’t know about who Cotto is now is this: Has he fully recovered, mentally and physically, from the prolonged beating he took from Margarito? Is he a distracted fighter for other reasons, such as the falling out with his uncle/trainer that led to an ugly cement block throwing scene, emergency room visits and more? And how prepared is he, being trained for as he is for at least the time being by a man, Joe Santiago, who had been an assistant trainer but was brought in as a nutritionist?
Clottey is the far lesser-known of the two, and perhaps that’s why he’s more of an underdog with bettors than I think he should be. A Clottey upset win should not — I repeat, not — come as any great surprise. He and Cotto share some similarities, but not others. He, like Cotto, has a loss to Margarito and a win over Zab Judah on his record. He, like Cotto, has steely nerve in whom he’s willing to fight (he’s one of the only men talking up a bout with Paul Williams). Both like to systematically break down their opponents with constant pressure, especially with mean nasty body blows. Both are multifacted and sharp, if not A+, boxing technicians; they are accurate, crisp punchers. They have similar height and reach. Both have a weakness in that they have shown signs of fading late in fights, if they don’t force their opponent to submit.
In other ways, they are different. Clottey is a huge welterweight, weighing as high as 170 the night of the fight, whereas Cotto is a strong welterweight who fully inhabits the division now since moving up from junior welter but isn’t on the borderline of too big for it. Whereas Cotto can be hurt and stung, knocked down and out, Clottey hasn’t even come close, that I’ve seen. Cotto is a good defender, but Clottey, with his high guard, is an exceptional one. And Clottey isn’t nearly the put-’em-away puncher Cotto is, instead tending to buzz and hurt his opponents, even sometimes knock them down, but rarely finish them decisively. You have to go back to 2004 to find the last for-real Clottey knockout, since the Jose Luis Cruz KO was a questionable call, although Clottey looked like he was on route to KOing the very KOable Judah before a clash of heads forced the fight to the scorecards.
Tactically, each poses the other trouble. Clottey’s high guard means his body is more vulnerable to punches, where Cotto specializes. Clottey’s work rate dips at times, and Cotto has shown, as he did in the early part of the Margarito fight, that he can outwork his man. Cotto’s style, coming in low like he does, leaves him vulnerable to uppercuts, and Clottey has a doozy of one. Margarito eventually caught up to Cotto by repeatedly trapping him against the ropes, and Clottey is awfully good at cutting off the ring himself.
The dynamic of Cotto-Clottey, at least early, is probably going to be similar to Margarito-Cotto. I can see Cotto getting the better of Clottey for the first half of the fight with a superior output, and dancing enough to avoid the worst of Clottey’s stuff. Clottey will connect some, though — he’s faster than Margarito, picks his spots better and is the superior counterpuncher. My assumption is that Cotto’s work doesn’t force Clottey to fade — Clottey did so against Margarito because of a hurt hand, which showed a touch of mental weakness, but I don’t think he’ll be in bad shape by the middle of the fight, since he can take a hell of a wallop. Then we find out a few things about Cotto over the second half of the fight, as Clottey’s work begins to accumulate. Clottey isn’t the puncher Margarito is, but he may not have to be, if Cotto’s damaged goods. We’ll also find out if Cotto has learned anything from his loss to Margarito. If only he had been willing to hold on the inside, as Mosley discovered in his fight against Margarito, he could have done himself a lot of favors. Clottey’s the better inside fighter here, in my opinion, so Cotto would be much better off making the occasional grab, even though that’s not the macho Latino way.
I’m betting on this: Cotto isn’t permanently damaged goods. And he probably won’t hold very much. The former will be good enough to keep him from getting knocked out. The latter will make the fight harder than it needs to be for him, but more competitive and exciting. It’s a gamble, betting that Cotto is his old self. There is a small degree of wishful thinking in my bet, because Cotto is one of my favorite fighters, easily, and I want nothing more than to see him make a full comeback. That he’s fighting Clottey at all shows what a freaking stone-cold fighting machine he is, given Clottey’s risk/reward ratio, and hopefully another thrilling performance against an elite foe hands him a fight with the likes of a Floyd Mayweather, Jr., or at least a Mosley rematch. But it’s the bet I’m making, wishful or no. If he is vintage Cotto, I see him as the better offensive fighter, the more active fighter, and he won’t get knocked out by Clottey. I doubt Clottey gets knocked out either way. So: My prediction is for a close decision win for Cotto.