First, we talk business. Then, we talk the fight.
Sergio Martinez, the 39-year-old middleweight champion of the world, has waited his whole life to fight someone who will give him the kind of payday big-name Miguel Cotto will get him Saturday on HBO Pay-Per-View. Martinez’s 2012 tilt with Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. was probably somewhat comparable, but Cotto — a proven ratings and PPV draw over a much longer period of time than Chavez — likely means a career-high payday for Martinez. If you can snag a fight like that so late in your career, especially against a fighter who has never competed at middleweight, especially when the alternative is a still-developing attraction like the far more threatening killer Gennady Golovkin, you do it, and when you do maybe you ought to lay off the complaining about who is introduced first. But whatever: The fight, overall, makes total sense for Martinez.
For Cotto, Martinez is physically the biggest fish of his career. That might not make sense as a thing to do on the back end of your career if not for a couple considerations: Cotto, who turned down a reportedly lucrative and almost assuredly preposterously false amount of money to face fellow junior middleweight Canelo Alvarez, can blame any loss to Martinez to size, then take the big Canelo payday, too. If he wins, he secures a victory over the most esteemed opponent of his career, has his hands on the undisputed middleweight championship belt and can command an even more absurd amount of cash for a rematch with Floyd Mayweather, or else against Canelo. And Martinez’s age and general condition gives him a path to victory he wouldn’t have had in Martinez’s prime.
Sometimes it’s helpful to know where a fight came from to get a sense of where it’s going. The skeptical take on Martinez-Cotto is that it’s a fight born of cynicism on both sides. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that it will be a stellar evening of combat. It’s true that Cotto’s chances are enhanced in direct proportion to the severity of Martinez’s knee problems, but at least it’s something that could steer the fight into the direction of competitiveness when otherwise it would be brutally one-sided. And if Martinez’s right knee is truly jacked, the Golovkin fight would be uncompetitive in the other direction. What we end up with is a big fight at Madison Square Garden, where Cotto fights produce a thunderous crowd, with the potential for an exciting outcome that hinges on something less-than-ideal, namely the hinge that connects Martinez’s thigh to his shin.
Top Rank and Lou DiBella, the promoters of the event, surely know where the appeal lies. It’s almost as if the knee is being promoted rather than Miguel Cotto vs. Sergio Martinez. The speculation about how it’s doing, based on the injury suffered at the end of the Chavez fight and exacerbated by competing against Martin Murray without it fully healed, is at a fever pitch. We’ve seen Martinez wearing knee braces in training; we’ve heard him talk about how he hasn’t been able to do any road work since the Chavez fight; we’ve sized up whether he looks thicker than he should at this hour if he’s going to come in at 159 pounds as contracted (and what sign that is of whether he’s been able to train well at all). New York regulators pulled the rug out a little further, barring his knee braces on fight night, then reversed that decision. Under the circumstances, Cotto’s prospects get better all the time, making the fight more and more competitive on paper — and no one could be blamed for being skeptical about whether that’s why we’re hearing so much about those circumstances.
Martinez has also been out for a year — plus was out for a year before that, too — and in addition to some extensive knee surgeries, is coming off ankle surgery. For a fighter who thrives so much on his speed and reflexes, the age and wear is serious. Martinez was certainly not at his best against Murray. Taking another glance at the Murray fight and even the Chavez fight, Martinez doesn’t quite have the lightning he once did. He was faster than both, sure, but slower in each than before and definitely slower from one to the next. Related to both the decline in speed and his physical condition is that his power no longer is so ruinous. He bruised up Chavez’s face, but didn’t demolish it like he did Kelly Pavlik’s. He hasn’t knocked anyone out quite so destructively as he did his Fighter of the Year campaign in 2011 against Paul Williams and Serhiy Dzinziruk. Some of that you can attribute to Chavez’s enormity, but why did it take 12 rounds for Martinez to shake up Murray, who was hurt as bad or worse in the same final stanza by Felix Sturm, a solid puncher but no knockout artist?
As fully as Martinez dominated Chavez before getting dropped at the very end, Chavez didn’t have an especially hard time tracking Martinez down. He just didn’t know what to do with him once he got there. The longer the fight went on, the more Murray found Martinez, too. In the mean time, he was giving them the hands down rooster strutting, firing some off balance junk mixed in with some truly hard left hands. He was relentless with the body punching from the outside, in particular, although that didn’t slow down late rallies from Chavez and Murray. He was better off from the outside with both men, but outdid Chavez up close, the place where Chavez likes to be.
Cotto is a better overall and more well-rounded fighter than Chavez and Murray, by far. When he gets his man trapped the way Chavez did with Martinez, he makes contact, and lots of it. He did it with Floyd Mayweather, younger, quicker and more defensively astute than Martinez. Now with trainer Freddie Roach, the determination to get in close is even more pronounced, harkening back in the Delvin Rodriguez bout to the fully committed body punching terror Cotto once was. Rodriguez is definitely no Martinez, which means that Cotto won’t catch Martinez quite that easily and will pay a higher price in counters than Rodriguez could extract. Cotto showed he could avoid some unnecessary punishment with recent prior trainers, working his jab and paying closer attention to his defense, but the ultra-aggressive attacking style demands that he take more punches in return.
Here’s where Cotto’s more metaphorical handicaps come into play. At 5’7″, Cotto is no middleweight. He was too broad for junior welterweight, and just right at welterweight. He has overachieved a smidge at junior middleweight. Now, moving up to middleweight, he has to try to keep the weight on by eating a ton of calories. We don’t know how much he’ll be able to hurt Martinez when he does find him, and we don’t know whether he’ll be able to withstand Martinez’s power as well as a real middleweight would. One would guess not.
The more Martinez’s messed up joints, age and inactivity have taken center stage, the more my call of a surefire Martinez win melts. But Cotto’s handicaps are also pronounced. Unless Martinez’s knee collapses a la Cotto’s win over Yuri Foreman, he should have enough left in the tank to top a squat, blown-up welterweight who’s slower than him. But Martinez is going to know he was in a fight, one way or another, until it ends. Martinez by close decision or late stoppage.