Boxing is, sometimes, tragedy and triumph all at once. I’m not talking about how unfortunate it is that someone has to lose, or how nice it is that someone gets to win. I’m talking about tragedy, in the dramatic sense of a great figure brought to ruin, and about the exultation that accompanies the kind of great victory that can be labeled a triumph.
Saturday night on HBO Pay-Per-View, we witnessed both extremes. Miguel Cotto defeated the most accomplished opponent of his career, Sergio Martinez, turning in one of his most sterling performances to become the middleweight champion of the world. For as storied as Puerto Rico’s boxing legacy is, no other PR heroes of the sport, not even Felix Trinidad — inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend — could achieve this feat. While Cotto had a strong candidacy for the Hall of Fame even prior to the Martinez triumph, on Saturday, he sealed his Hall bid.
Wearing the mask of Melpomene was Martinez, who after giving us so many wonderful years in the ring is now clearly finished at the top of the sport. His steady crumbling has been plain to witness for some time, but the act was completed this weekend. Martinez, his 39-year-old body betraying him, was helpless before Cotto’s onslaught. I would not go so far as our Jeff Pryor did this week in suggesting Martinez was not so good as we thought, but I agreed with him in so far as he argued that Martinez burned as brightly as any boxer could for a relatively brief time and then struggled against weaker competition than foes he once demolished, barely clinging to what remained of his incandescent past. That he clung to it under the circumstances is still praiseworthy — sometimes, it’s not how you get the win so much that you do at all.
Usually in a tragedy, the great figure is brought low by a flaw. Martinez’s age is not a flaw, per se. But his age compounded the flaw inherent to Martinez’s success, namely his reliance on speed and reflexes at the foundation of a style that rejected boxing fundamentals — his hands-down strutting is a recipe for disaster for almost everyone who tries it. It worked for Martinez at his physical peak because it invited boxers to throw punches at him and give chase, and Martinez thrived when given opportunities to counter while circling the ring evasively. The flaw would still rear its head to Martinez’s detriment with the occasional off-balance knockdown, but these were blips that he always overcame. On Saturday, his excessive reliance on speed and reflexes over traditional boxing technique finally felled him, the way it did Roy Jones, Jr. once he slipped just enough.
This is not to diminish Cotto’s triumph. Martinez nobly refused to blame his loss on his broken down body, in part so as not to steal from Cotto the credit he deserved. Cotto moved up to a weight he could barely inflate to despite eating enormous amounts of calories. On Friday, he weighed a mere 155, one pound over the junior middleweight limit and five pounds below the middleweight limit. He went out and dominated a naturally larger man. It wasn’t only Martinez’s age or flaws that brought about his demise at the hands of Cotto: It was what Cotto did, just as much. Cotto was the most technically astute opponent of Martinez’s career, and it showed. Offensively, Cotto has always, even in his losses, made an awful lot of contact against opponents who aren’t usually so prone to getting hit so frequently. And he did real damage with his punches, owing to fully committing to them in a fashion he had gotten away from, and relying more on punching with forward momentum. Defensively, he has always been adequate (if not wildly vulnerable to uppercuts), showing flashes of tremendous skill at times, but Saturday he was surprisingly exceptional from start to finish, as bruised and scuffed as his face was.
We can, and should, question how Cotto — whose reversion to an earlier, more destructive style of boxing under Freddie Roach these past two fights is real — would fare against someone more talented than Delvin Rodriguez or against a middleweight less worn than Martinez. We very well might find out soon, should he rematch Floyd Mayweather or take on young, growing Canelo Alvarez, the two most lucrative fights available to him. I’ll always wonder whether a peak version of Martinez, or even a slightly off-peak version, would’ve beaten this version of Cotto. I’m inclined to think so, but based on Cotto’s showing, it’s not a sure thing for me as it would’ve been before this weekend. And that says plenty about what kind of win this was for Cotto.
If there’s a secondary tragedy here, it’s that we didn’t get to see the stellar fight we might’ve gotten had Martinez retained a hefty portion of his old magic. Instead, we were left saddened by the conclusive ending of one fighter’s greatness, and impressed by what might have been the finest win of another fighter’s career. How you feel about the connection between those two extremes is a matter of individual taste.