We're in something akin to a fall sweeps period for HBO boxing, with this weekend and last spotlighting various titans of TV ratings in the sport. Up last Saturday was Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., and he reportedly delivered the biggest cable boxing ratings of the year so far. Up this coming Saturday are Miguel Cotto and Wladimir Klitschko. Later in October and the rest of the year we'll get red meat for hardcore fans with the likes of Juan Manuel Marquez-Timothy Bradley, Mike Alvarado-Ruslan Provodnikov and Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios in what stacks up as an exceptional final quarter of 2013 for the network. But for now, here at the start of the semi-sweeps, it's three superstars in very winnable fights with at least a hint of danger.
Chavez probably had the easiest assignment on paper of the trio, but we saw how his middleweight turned super middleweight turned light heavyweight clash against Brian Vera turned out for him — a win that should've been a loss or a draw at best.
The main event Saturday features junior middleweight Cotto in a fight that a few years ago would have been at least as easy as Chavez-Vera figured to be, but Cotto isn't what he once was and as such fringe contender Delvin Rodriguez very well could be a handful for him. And if Cotto is renewing his focus on offense the way new trainer Freddie Roach says he is, it could be a damn good time, because a Cotto focused on offense is exciting as fuck and Rodriguez pretty much always brings the excitement himself.
The action actually begins live from Germany in the afternoon at 3:30 p.m. (replayed later in the evening) with top heavyweight Klitschko being given a chance to erase any doubt he's the real heavyweight champion as he faces Alexander Povetkin for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board crown. Whether it will be any harder than any of the other Klitschko walkovers is probably an easy question to answer, alas. But he's facing the most qualified, esteemed opponent in the division on paper, and it's only the enormity of the gulf between the Klitschkos and the rest of the heavyweights that does any damage to the merit-based interest in this fight. Yet as much as Wlad is knocked in the United States for being "boring," people always watch when he's on domestic airwaves, which shows once more how much more there is to a boxer's potential appeal than how frequently he's in a slugfests.
The card also features lightweight Terence Crawford, a sort of "Great Black Hope." We'll defer to our colleague Alex McClintock on that fight here.
MIGUEL COTTO-DELVIN RODRIGUEZ
You wouldn't know from Cotto's loss to Austin Trout in his last bout, but he was one fight removed from arguably the greatest performance of his career. That was the loss to Floyd Mayweather, in what ended up being one of the most difficult few fights of Mayweather's career. Maybe the punishment Cotto soaked up in getting into range against someone who lands so many clean punches diminished him one fight later against Trout. Maybe the rapport he had established with Pedro Diaz began to fade, as Cotto has a habit of tuning out trainers over time. Maybe Cotto had turned his attention to life after the ring, as he spent a great deal of time before the Trout fight talking about retirement. Or maybe Cotto merely struggled with the first natural junior middleweight he faced with even a modicum of power (Yuri Foreman had no power, Ricardo Mayorga and Antonio Margarito weren't natural junior middleweights). Whatever the answer, Cotto, whose demise as an elite fighter had been prematurely declared before, against Trout showed more signs than ever of decline.
As is often the case, I'll blame some combination of all of the above. Cotto's conditioning and tendency to fade late has always been an issue, and you have to imagine that was exacerbated by a disaffected camp and Trout's hard body shots. Once a fearsome, unrelenting pressure-fighting bodypuncher, Cotto had evolved into a tactical boxer/puncher who targets the head more than the ribcage. His height is more befitting a welterweight, even if his width is more 154. And his power at 154 is not so ferocious as it was at 147 or 140. While the evolution of his defense has lengthened his career, and while his intelligence got him into the ballpark with Mayweather, against Trout he was still a squat, semi-checked out, undersized, aged fighter. That intelligence carried him in the middle rounds against Trout, but the rest hurt him. Roach said he has restored Cotto's offensive mentality, and his body attack, and if so it could lead to more punishment for all involved, both Cotto and Rodriguez.
That's because Rodriguez is a long puncher/boxer, a fighter similarly sized to Trout but with instincts to brawl more than box and the capacity for both. He is not a pure puncher, sure, but he commits to everything like he is. He can jab at range but he wants to mix it up, throwing punches with both fists and power, mainly to the head. His defense is lacking, too, although he has shown he can get a little bit done in that category with his movement and range. His style is such that he always does damage, yet he also lacks the skill to do much against world-class fighters — he lost comprehensively to Trout — and against fighters just short of that mark, he has a tendency to be in close battles and get the short end of the stick. (He has had some struggles with semi- or non-contenders, like Pawel Wolak, but he also demonstrated when he chose to in the rematch against Wolak that he could outbox lesser fighters and demolish the unproven brawling likes of "Comanche Boy" George Tahdooahnippah). Trout beat Cotto by boxing sometimes and fighting when he had to. Rodriguez figures to fight Cotto mostly and box at times.
Based on accomplishment, this is no contest. Cotto has proven he can hang with the best fighters of his generation, Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, at least for a while. He's beaten one pound-for-pounder, Shane Mosley, and edged top divisional contenders like Joshua Clottey and Zab Judah. His losses are to Mayweather, Pacquiao, Trout and a version of Antonio Margarito that pre-dates proof of glove-loading. Rodriguez isn't as good as any of those men. None of them. But he's also just good enough to make Cotto sweat at worst, and a faded Cotto who shows up like boxing is not his religion anymore could find himself in a world of hurt against a sturdy, long, hard-hitting and at least reasonably intelligent fighter like Rodriguez.
I'm going to give Cotto a bump for his trainer switch, because he does have a tendency to perform well at the beginning of a new trainer relationship. Cotto being too aggressive could be very bad for him, because Rodriguez does have the capacity to make Cotto pay for being too eager. But a slightly reenergized, slightly more offensive-minded Cotto should be enough to beat someone of Rodriguez's abilities. I do think it will be close, however — maybe even a split decision. That there will be enough Puerto Rican fans there in Orlando, Fla. to cheer on Cotto ought to be enough to sway any judges who are thinking about giving it to Rodriguez.
WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO-ALEXANDER POVETKIN
Klitschko has developed a system for victory so efficient that it ought to be something you can buy off a late night infomercial. Sure, it requires you to be 6'7" or 6'8"; it requires you to be in superb shape; it requires you to perfect a small number of punches, technically; it requires supreme reflexes; and it requires you to pack a serious wallop. But if you can manage those few easy steps, you, too, can be the best heavyweight in the world!
It's been a 100 percent effective system, at least against what the heavyweight division of today has to offer. Klitschko hasn't lost in 18 fights and nine years. Only a few fighters gave him any difficulty whatsoever over that span — in reverse chronological order, there was David Haye, the most explosive opponent of Klitschko's streak who won a handful of rounds with his speed and power; fellow physical giant/skilled southpaw Tony Thompson in their first meeting; and clubbing brawler Samuel Peter in their first meeting near the beginning of Klitschko's transformation from weak-chinned aggressor to jabbing, cautious, controlled tactician. Whether Klitschko would fare so well in any other era of heavyweights is a constant source of debate. He certainly would give trouble to any top heavy, just because of his combination of size, athleticism, power and intelligence. Whether Mike Tyson or Joe Frazier or Joe Louis could figure a way past those things to make hay of his lackluster punch resistance is the question.
It's the question for Povetkin, too. Povetkin is a fundamentally sound fighter with no exceptional attributes. That does put him near the top of the list of people Klitschko has faced, believe it or not. He's like a younger version of Ruslan Chagaev, a fighter Klitschko easily beat and Povetkin also easily beat a faded version of, not that it's Povetkin's best win. That's the one he scored against a young Eddie Chambers, whom Povetkin outworked and outboxed even with a speed disadvantage. That was back in 2008, when Povetkin flashed signs of being the future of the division. Between, there was a dalliance with trainer Teddy Atlas than ran aground, a canceled fight against Wlad and various wheel-spinning bouts, most notably a disputed decision against cruiserweight Marco Huck that spoke ill of Povetkin as a top-notch heavyweight. Yet it's also the case that Povetkin has been good enough for long enough without losing that he has hovered around the top four of the division for a while. When Vitali Klitschko and Haye reached one year of inactivity that was sure to turn into many more months of not fighting, both were dropped from the TBRB rankings, and voila, we now have the #1 heavyweight Wlad against the next best active heavy, Povetkin. Whether you think the Board should've made an exception to its strict #1 vs. #2 to fill a divisional vacancy because #2 had long been Wlad's brother, time has worked out a way for the most dominant heavyweight of his era to erase any question of whether he deserves the monicker "lineal champion."
Beating Wlad right now demands either sudden dramatic impacts of aging — at 37, he is at least nearing the end of his prime — or a serious decay of his work habits, or a set of traits that no fighter in his division currently possesses. Equivalent size gives Wlad some problems; top-notch speed does; adaptability is essential once the initial game plan inevitably falls short; a body attack and an ability to work one's way inside and stay there is necessary for shorter fighters; and the power to dent Wlad's chin with a single punch is crucial. Wlad is going to jab you to death from distance, maintain that distance at all costs, pull back smartly from any true power shots and tie you up if you get close at all. Assuming that works, and it always does, he'll eventually, slowly torture you with heavy rights and left hooks to the head, never to the body. That's why you need so many of the things listed above to have a prayer. Of these qualities, Povetkin does have a body attack with both hands, and he's technically astute enough to deploy it. He is not slow, per se, and he can hit semi-hard. He is nowhere near Klitschko's size. He has some demonstrated ability to take what his opponents give him.
That is not enough of what you need to beat Klitschko. As such, Klitschko ought to do to Povetkin what he does to almost everyone — dominate, punish, KO. It won't take much more time than usual, if any, for Povetkin to realize he's in over his head and acquiesce either consciously or subconsciously, and once the damage begins to accumulate, eventually fully succumb. I figure Povetkin's chin is good enough to keep him in the fight as many as 10 rounds. (I doubt it goes the distance, but if it does, watch out: Povetkin is the more pure Russian fighter in a bout that's taking place in Moscow, with Klitschko a Ukranian representing a nation with some tension toward the old Soviet Union.) After the 10th, Povetkin takes a nap on the canvas or his corner decides to save him for another day. In a post-Klitschko era, Povetkin would be a contender for the throne. Instead, Saturday, he will be the means for Klitschko's undisputed ascension.