Madison Square Garden will be rocking harder than a Led Zeppelin concert from the 1970s when Puerto Rican superstar Miguel Cotto challenges chic Argentine Sergio Martinez for the middleweight championship of the world on Saturday night.
Stoic as ever, Cotto has remained unruffled during the pre-fight buildup while Martinez has made one stuffy pronouncement after another. It takes an outsize ego to be a world-class prizefighter, and Martinez is nearly as puffed up as Evita Peron was during her heyday. No matter. These two unique fighters—one, Martinez, who has built a glittering career after years spent toiling in Spain; the other, Cotto, who has become a box-office star by sheer professionalism—will meet to settle their differences, both real and imagined, before a sold-out crowd in the most famous arena in America.
This fight has enough variables in it to fascinate a game theorist. Age, weight, and injuries are only a few of them. After two outings where he hit the deck, Martinez, 51-2-2 with 28 knockouts, looks like he has finally found himself where the sidewalk ends. But so does Cotto, who is 1-2 in his last three fights and has had several rough outings in a career that began in 2001.
Cotto, who has won titles at junior welterweight, welterweight, and junior middleweight, is taking a calculated risk by moving up a division and betting that Martinez is only a ramshackle version of the dynamic fighter who smacked Kelly Pavlik around in 2010 and left Paul Williams on his face a few months later. Little by little, Martinez, like the big rig driven by Max Rockatansky in The Road Warrior, is falling apart. Two knee surgeries over the last couple of years and a frail left hand have combined to keep Martinez inactive for long stretches. Although Martinez says he has recuperated fully, if his knee gives way again on Saturday night, he will have a hard time keeping Cotto at bay.
With his hands dangling at his sides, his feet in perpetual motion, and his head and shoulders constantly feinting, Martinez has an idiosyncratic style likely modeled on bullfighters. But in his last few fights he has resembled a novillo in the ring more often than he has resembled El Juli in his prime. Designed to draw leads so he can counterpunch, his modus operandi relies on quick reflexes and—like the art of the knife thrower—fractions of inches. Now 39, it is possible that Martinez has slowed down enough that his mannerisms will work against him when the bell rings. In his last fight, against Martin Murray in Buenos Aires, Martinez took hard shots he might have been able to avoid in 2010. An inch here, an inch there, and Cotto, 38-4 with 31 knockouts, may be able to land the finisher that neither Martin Murray nor Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. could against Martinez. Still, the fact remains that under different circumstances, Cotto would have had any number of difficulties against a quick southpaw stylist like Martinez. A few years ago, Martinez, faster, stronger, more mobile, and more creative, would have run Cotto, 33, out of the ring. Since “Maravilla” is past his prime, however, a sure bet seems out of the question.
Ironically, in pursuing his fourth title in as many weight classes (something no other Puerto Rican fighter has achieved) Cotto will also have to face down a host of sporting legends in the making. Not only will Cotto have to compete for media coverage with California Chrome at Belmont Park and the New York Rangers preparing for the Stanley Cup finals, but he will also have to share the spotlight with another fighter—Felix “Tito” Trinidad, who will be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame over the weekend. Indeed, fight coverage at El Nuevo Dia is dominated by reminiscences of Trinidad. But Cotto has a chance to make history of his own if he can topple Martinez down on Eighth Avenue. And, a dozen hours later, maybe, the Puerto Rican Day Parade would have one hell of a float in its midst.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine, and Esquina Boxeo.