Oh, the haters. Before 2008, Kelly Pavlik and Miguel Cotto were young undefeated superstars, among the elite in the sport, until, golly, they both got one loss each against top-flight opponents, and now we have to acknowledge that their entire careers are jokes. Attacking this kind of pervasive narrow-mindedness is an ongoing crusade of mine, especially recently, and this week, with both Cotto and Pavlik back in action on an independent pay-per-view card, it’s offered fresh opportunities to revisit just how clearly wrong we were about both men if we thought they were quality boxers. Pavlik lost to an all-time great in Bernard Hopkins, therefore he never was very good, obviously. Cotto lost in July to a man who just got busted cheating by loading his gloves before a fight in January, Antonio Margarito, so his whole damn country of Puerto Rico’s turned on him, naturally.
Even without the haters spouting their nonsense, Cotto and Pavlik both nonetheless need some rehabilitation. It is unclear how either have recovered mentally or physically from their first losses, both prolonged beatings. As such, Pavlik, the lineal Ring magazine middleweight (160 lbs.) champion, is fighting someone who’s wholly unlike the well-schooled B-Hop, Marco Antonio Rubio, who is the more dangerous of the two rehab opponents Saturday night. That’s because Cotto’s opponent, Michael Jennings, may be one of the most unqualified boxers to ever fight for a sanctioning organization’s vacant title belt, but then, the welterweight (147 lbs.) Cotto appears to be more likely than Pavlik to have suffered great mental and physical setbacks. So this is no criticism of either man’s choice of opponent. I’d say both are just right.
Pavlik-Rubio looks like a good slugfest on paper, while Cotto-Jennings is something of a mystery owing to Jennings’ short resume and the uncertainty about Cotto. A third significant fight on the card, John Duddy-Matt Vanda at middleweight, has the makings of a REALLY good slugfest. But it’s a pretty simple fight requiring little analysis, which is not to say it won’t be close. Both men want to turn every boxing match into a brawl, although Vanda has lost to men far less talented that Duddy, while Duddy has the superior skill level and has spent some time sharpening those skills, so I expect him to come away with the decision win. The other two fights demand further breakdowns, and I’ve decided to go ahead and fork over the $45 for the card, despite my reservations about whether I’ll be getting my money’s worth.
The split card is headlined in New York by Cotto-Jennings, which also hosts Duddy-Vanda, because Cotto’s Puerto Rican following and Duddy’s Irish following are both big in the Big Apple. Ticket sales are said to be brisk if not overwhelming, but in Youngstown, Ohio, the show is sold straight out, owing to local boy Pavlik fighting Rubio there. Some people, it seems, know the value of not abandoning a quality fighter at the first hint of imperfection.
MIGUEL COTTO – MICHAEL JENNINGS
Just last week, I was saying I haven’t seen enough of lightweight (135 lbs.) Ali Funeka to make a prediction about whether he can beat Nate Campbell. I’ve seen even less of Jennings, but I still feel pretty comfortable making a call on this one. The central question is not how good Jennings is. The central question is whether Cotto is more than a shadow of his former self.
“His former self” is a top-5 in the world caliber fighter. With his relentless body attack and withering power, he conquered plenty of quality fighters in the junior welterweight (140 lbs.) division, often by grinding them down to the point of broken faces or retirements, before weight woes made him sluggish and vulnerable to big punches. At welterweight, he got shook a couple times — by Zab Judah and Shane Mosley, and no shame in that — but seemed to recover more quickly. And against Mosley, he unveiled some excellent boxing skills that had been in hibernation. He tried to use them against Margarito, and it worked, for a while. He also kind of abandoned his body work and refused to tie up Margarito when he got in close and cornered him along the ropes. It meant Margarito had the energy for a late charge and turned the tables by grinding Cotto down and forcing him to concede.
The accumulation of punishment Margarito suffered in that fight appeared to contribute to his loss to Mosley in January, so it only stands to reason that the man on the losing end of that July Fight of the Year nominee, Cotto, might be in worse shape himself. He says “no.” We’ll see, especially now that there are real questions about whether Margarito’s power was artificially inflated by loaded hand wraps. Cotto is only 28, and he arguably took less punishment than Margarito — it’s just that Margarito could have cared less about it. The mental issue is another one. In the story link about Puerto Rico turning on Cotto (which some readers have written its author to dispute), there’s also a lot of anecdotal information about Cotto going into an emotional downward spiral, getting tattooed up and getting a little too infatuated with alcohol. There’s also the distraction of the Margarito wraps controversy and his related fall-out with mutual promoter Top Rank over the whole thing. None of it sounds good, but there also aren’t any reports about Cotto having a bad camp. Considering that reports of Cotto having a difficult camp are legion in previous fights, especially because of semi-regular drama with his uncle/trainer, that means either he has had a good one or everyone’s gotten better at keeping their mouths shut.
As inspirational as Jennings’ story is, I don’t have any major questions about his mental toughness. It’s not a reach to expect he’ll be overwhelmed by fighting on such a larger stage, but his team says he’s convinced he can win. My questions are about how someone who’s never beat a boxer whose name is recognizable to anyone but the most devoted British fans is getting a title shot. Alfonso Gomez, whom Cotto creamed, came in with a much, much better resume. Jennings also is hand-picked — he’s got less than a 50 percent knockout ratio against mostly terrible competition, so if he could test whether Cotto’s chin has been permanently damaged by Margarito, I’d be really surprised. It’s theoretically possible that he could use his superior height and what British commentators deem good boxing skills to outpoint a diminished Cotto. But when the most common thing people say about an obscure boxer is that he’s “fit,” I have my doubts he’s got much to offer. I didn’t see anything in the highlight clips that suggested to me he’s secretly awesome and he just hasn’t had a chance to fight anyone to prove that secret awesomeness yet.
This fight, for both men, is more about how they look. If Cotto looks good, and Jennings is there to make him look good, he moves on to a big fight this summer. If Jennings survives beyond a few rounds, he will leave with a moral victory, a little confidence and the chance to get another big or semi-big fight. A Jennings win is a shocking upset that almost surely says more about Cotto than Jennings.
My prediction: Cotto should finish Jennings in three, but no more than six. Really, I think even a somewhat diminished version of Cotto destroys this guy. I hope he’s not diminished.
Confidence: 95%. I’m surprised Jennings is only an 8 to 1 underdog.
My allegiance: So easy. It’s Cotto. I am not even all that interested in Jennings getting a moral victory, and usually I have at least a tiny rooting interest in the underdog. It’s nothing against him personally, but I want Cotto to look sensational because he’s one of my favorites.
KELLY PAVLIK – MARCO ANTONIO RUBIO
With these two, I’ve seen plenty.
Cotto was getting a good deal of mainstream attention before his loss, but Pavlik had really begun to transcend hardcore boxing fandom prior to his. His style (unbelievable knockout ratio), his skin color (white) and his story (hailed from poverty-stricken Youngstown, got up from a near knockout via Jermain Taylor to score the knockout in return) had made him an irresistible object of profiles by all kinds of news outlets. And he had earned a good deal of it. Taylor was a top-10 pound-for-pound fighter when Pavlik beat him. He’d also knocked out a number of other top-10 middleweights, good enough to propel him into the top-10 pound-for-pound discussion himself.
Then, B-Hop happened. Pavlik is a fine boxer. He’s nothing special in that regard. He doesn’t think of himself as slow, but he is. He’d overcome that speed and boxing deficit with work rate, and that formula, combined with his power, has been enough to put him among the sport’s elite. But B-Hop is more than a fine boxer; he’s arguably the most crafty technician in the sport. And while Hopkins may be slower than Taylor, he was plenty faster than Pavlik. Hopkins’ speed and technical advantage, combined with an agreed-upon catchweight (170 lbs.) for which Pavlik seemed ill-suited and a couple Pavlik ailments, turned Hopkins-Pavlik into a rout. It looks to me like Pavlik and his team have chosen to ignore the fight as if it never happened, instead of viewing it as a learning opportunity. It’s one thing to be confident following a loss, but it’s another thing to be in denial. Physically, the beating Pavlik took wasn’t as bad as Cotto’s, and his team has dialed down his regular training camp so it’s not so punishing, which I think is a good move. And maybe they aren’t in complete denial — they said the focus of the camp was to hone Pavlik’s boxing skills.
Rubio’s status went up with me last year when he showed me more against Enrique Ornelas than I thought he had. He’s not a boxer, but he’s better than I perceived him in that regard. Ornelas isn’t a puncher, but Rubio, who’s been knocked out a couple times, stood up to his punches better than I expected. At his best, though, Rubio is like a lesser version of Pavlik: not that fast, not that skilled, plenty powerful. The diifference is that I think Rubio’s not as good as Pavlik in any category. He’s not as active. His chin isn’t as proven a commodity — you gotta admit, even in loss, that it was impressive Pavlik didn’t get knocked out by Hopkins. Rubio says he has a “secret” way of beating Pavlik. That’s one of my favorite scoff-worthy things boxers say all the time, and it’s even more scoff-worthy when I try to imagine Rubio suddenly demonstrating a sophisticated dimension in the ring he’s never before exhibited.
This fight is about equal parts putting on a television-friendly fight and giving Pavlik an opponent against whom he can look good. And maybe there’s a little carve-out for it being about a mandatory title defense, too, I guess, since Pavlik has other belts besides his lineal Ring magazine belt. Rubio has a puncher’s chance, at worst, and better if Pa
vlik isn’t in the right place physically or mentally. I might have given Rubio a tiny chance of beating Pavlik pre-Hopkins, which would have been a huge upset, but I think people would be less surprised to see it happen now. It’s seen as a more competitive fight than when it was mocked when proposed last summer.
My prediction: Pavlik by knockout, around the 6th. It’s really my belief that Rubio doesn’t have enough to make this fight all that hard for Pavlik, even. And Rubio has been knocked out by guys with less power than Pavlik.
Confidence: 85%. The puncher’s chance. It’s not like Pavlik’s defense is some kind of impenetrable Fortress of Solitude.
My allegiance: Again, Pavlik, easy. For the same reason as with Cotto.