by David P. Greisman
NEW YORK — There were more than 21,000 people in Madison Square Garden, and few of them were prepared to say goodbye.
Most of them were there to see Miguel Cotto, to support their champion who had represented the island of Puerto Rico, home to some, homeland for the rest, in the 2000 Olympics; who had come up as a young professional prizefighter at a time when the career of their charismatic icon, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, was nearing its end.
They were there to support a fighter who, like Tito, thrust left hooks into the liver and ribs of his opponents as if his glove were a shovel breaking the earth and making it crumble beneath him.
He had brought them triumphs, with the world title reigns at junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight. He brought them out by the thousands and tens of thousands, fans who would chant his name at arenas in Puerto Rico named for athletic legends and famed figures, in storied venues in New York City and New Jersey, and in casinos in the American boxing capital of Las Vegas.
They lived vicariously through his victories, be they battles or slaughters, and they were desolate following his defeats, the losses to Antonio Margarito and Manny Pacquiao in which he could no longer withstand the punishment, and the decisions dropped to Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout, in which the tangibles that were his skills and technique and the intangibles that were his heart and guts still would not be enough.
They recognized that he was the underdog against Sergio Martinez on Saturday night, that Cotto was — despite his name being listed first on the marquee and being announced second in the arena — still the challenger going up against the champion, a smaller junior middleweight moving up to take on a taller middleweight. They understood that Cotto’s accomplishments at 154 pounds did not compare with his own achievements at 147 and 140, that he had not beaten someone of Martinez’s class in years. They knew, too, that Martinez was very good and very intent on proving this again, this time at Cotto’s expense.
Yet they believed.
They believed like they did nearly two and a half years to the day, on Dec. 3, 2011, the last time that Cotto had won a fight at Madison Square Garden, the night that Cotto beat Margarito in a rematch, getting revenge that was just as important to them as it was to him.
They believed because that is what fans do. They buy tickets for seats, and then they hope that their fighters give them reason to stand.
Those who had come to support Martinez knew that their chances of standing depended largely on the fighter’s legs, particularly his right knee, and that their ability to applaud depended on the fighter’s hands, particularly his left. Those body parts had been injured against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in September 2012, and had been hurt again versus Martin Murray in April 2013. They were why Martinez had not returned to the ring for the remainder of last year and had waited 13 months to come back.
He needed to be able to move well against Cotto’s pressure and away from Cotto’s punches. He needed to be able to hit hard.
Despite Martinez’s claims on behalf of his health and wellbeing, these supporters would be uncertain as to his condition until they saw him in action.
And despite Cotto’s form in his three-round destruction of Delvin Rodriguez this past October, his fans were not certain whether that win marked a new beginning or if it was merely a mirage, a win against a lesser opponent that meant less than the losses in 2012 against better foes.
It was the first round of Saturday’s fight that provided the answers. Both Cotto and Martinez were closer to what they had been in their last fights. Cotto was swifter and powerful, while Martinez was slower and vulnerable.
It quickly became apparent that this would be a revival for Cotto and a requiem for Martinez.
Cotto’s right hands split Martinez’s guard in the opening moments of the first round. His first left hook was sent on a scouting mission, sweeping above Martinez’s right arm and brushing the right side of Martinez’s face. That gave the signal to call in the heavier artillery, a left hook that countered Martinez’s jab less than a minute in and sent Martinez stumbling across the ring and toward the ropes.
Martinez tried to shuffle from one side to the other and back again, and so Cotto merely stood still and watched before jumping forward, targeting Martinez’s body with a left hook, then turning his attention back toward the head. Martinez was left not knowing where or how to defend. He resorted to fighting back on instinct.
But Cotto was fighting with killer instinct.
Cotto walked through a few of Martinez’s southpaw left crosses. Cotto is a converted orthodox fighter, which means his lead hand, the left, is his stronger one. He hooked that left hard into Martinez’s body. And then, when Martinez sent out a jab, Cotto again responded with a hook aimed upstairs. Because Martinez had leaned forward, Cotto’s shot caught him toward the back of the head, hurting Martinez, pulling him forward and putting him in position for another hook in a similar spot. Martinez was reaching forward in a vain attempt to hold on when that second punch came in, hitting him before he knew it, and before he knew it he was falling face first to the canvas.
Martinez rose quickly and walked to the neutral corner, shaking his head out of frustration. The fighters returned to the center of the ring. The next punch Cotto landed was a left hook. Soon came another, a shot that started as a feinted jab toward the chest and turned into a hook to the head. Martinez’s legs stiffened. He wobbled forward and attempted to hold Cotto again, failing to do so and then falling again to the mat, a right hand helping direct him down.
He got back up, but his legs weren’t there. The action resumed, and Cotto landed another left hook to the head, then a few to the body, and Martinez collapsed straight back onto his rear.
Martinez beat the count. The referee allowed the fight to continue. Martinez survived the round.
He never truly recovered.
Before the fight, those who favored Martinez to win — depending on the state of his hand and knee — did so because they felt he would be too fast and hit too hard for Cotto, that he could box well and make Cotto miss and hurt him with shots that had shaken and stopped bigger men.
After the fight, Cotto’s trainer — Hall of Fame coach Freddie Roach, working with Cotto for the second time — said he’d been confident that Cotto was the better boxer.
“He’s [Martinez] a great athlete, yes, but I never thought he was a great boxer,” Roach told members of the press. “He makes too many mistakes. You can’t fight with your hands down that low and expect to win fights.”
Roach was right. In some ways, Martinez was similar to Roy Jones Jr., an unorthodox fighter who liked to break the rules but could get away with it because of the speed of his reflexes and the force of his responses.
Reflexes slow with age and damage, though. Martinez was 39, inactive and recovering from injuries. Cotto was 33, had a good game plan and was in great shape, a lean 155 pounds on the scale for a fight that had a catch-weight limit of 159. He was quick and strong, performing like a sports car that had just gotten tuned up and was now getting revved up.
The head movement and footwork that Martinez had used before and during his middleweight championship reign could not keep him from taking Cotto’s shots. Even if Martinez’s knee injury had healed, the first concussive blows Cotto landed robbed Martinez of his stability, which limited his ability to move, and which left him with little power when he planted and threw.
Cotto both boxed and stalked, controlling the action in the ring, setting up opportunities, hurting Martinez again in multiple rounds, compiling a complete shutout lead on the judges’ scorecards and then giving Martinez’s team good reason not to let their fighter go on to the final bell.
Martinez’s attempts to box weren’t turning the tide. He was only landing about 11 total shots per round, according to CompuBox, including fewer than seven power punches per round. Cotto, meanwhile, was hitting Martinez with more than half of everything he threw, averaging nearly 24 landed shots per round, including about 17 power punches per round.
And Cotto’s power punches weren’t just more measurable in quantity, but were more meaningful in quality.
It got so good for Cotto, and so bad for Martinez, that a Cotto jab toward the end of the ninth buckled Martinez’s knees. The referee incorrectly called it another knockdown. The error wouldn’t matter. Neither would the additional point deducted from his score.
Between rounds, Martinez’s trainer told the fighter that he was going to stop the bout, that Martinez’s knees weren’t working. If Cotto was a fine-tuned sports car, then Martinez was an aging vehicle with a rusty chassis and a flat tire.
The end officially came at six seconds into the 10th round. The end truly began 59 seconds into the first.
The end for Martinez, at least.
Recognition via fame and world titles eluded him until late in his career. He debuted on HBO at 33, won the middleweight championship from Kelly Pavlik at 35, and didn’t headline his first pay-per-view until he was 37.
There are other boxers who excel at 39 and older. Most have not had the injuries that Martinez only recently recovered from. Most also do not have the styles with which Martinez found success. Instead, they are intelligent boxers like Bernard Hopkins who know how to manage space and timing, and whose bodies have been kept in the kind of shape to still allow them to do so.
This is a new beginning, meanwhile, for Cotto.
He is the true champion at 160, and he is the first Puerto Rican to capture world titles in four divisions. He is working well with Roach. He showed Saturday that he still belongs in the biggest fights against the best fighters.
There were more than 21,000 people in Madison Square Garden, most of them there for Cotto, and few of them were prepared to say goodbye.
They won’t have to just yet.
The 10 Count
1. This was quite the weekend for Puerto Rican fight fans.
Once again, Miguel Cotto headlined at his home away from home, Madison Square Garden in New York City. This was his ninth time fighting in one of boxing’s most storied arenas, and when you include his 2010 win over Yuri Foreman at Yankees Stadium in the Bronx, Cotto has now headlined in New York City a total of 10 times.
He’s gone 9-1 in those fights, beating: Muhammad Abdullaev in 2005; Paulie Malignaggi in 2006; Zab Judah and Shane Mosley in 2007; Michael Jennings and Joshua Clottey in 2009; Foreman in 2010; Antonio Margarito in 2011; and Martinez this past weekend. The only defeat came against Austin Trout in 2012.
This was also the fifth time that Cotto fought in New York City on the same weekend as its Puerto Rican Day Parade. His triumphs were in essence part of the festivities in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009.
The Puerto Rican population in and around the city has made Cotto New York’s top boxing attraction. When Barclays Center in Brooklyn opened its doors to boxing for the first time, there were six fighters on the late 2012 card from the city’s boroughs (Luis Collazo, Eddie Gomez, Daniel Jacobs, Paulie Malignaggi, Peter Quillin and Dmitriy Salita) and one from its suburbs (Boyd Melson). The show drew less than 10,000 people.
Cotto’s first main event, against Abdullaev way back in 2005, had an announced attendance of 10,231.
Cotto’s win over Martinez had an announced attendance of 21,090.
Cotto didn’t attend the Puerto Rican Day Parade this time. Instead, he traveled to Upstate New York, to the tiny town of Canastota and the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
After all, that’s where beloved Puerto Rican fighter Felix “Tito” Trinidad, who was lineal champion at welterweight and also held world titles at 154 and 160, was getting inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
One island legend gets enshrined. Another star gets the biggest win of his career.
And on Saturday’s undercard, four of the six other Puerto Rican fighters competing at Madison Square Garden scored victories.
2. Also inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this past weekend were:
In the modern category: former 168- and 175-pound champion Joe Calzaghe; and Oscar De La Hoya, who held world titles from 130 and 160 and was the lineal champion at 140, 147 and 154.
In the old-timer category, for fighters whose careers ended between 1893 and 1942: George Chaney, who fought at bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight; Charles Ledoux, who fought at bantamweight and featherweight; and former middleweight champion Mike O’Dowd.
In the pioneer category, for fighters whose careers ended in or before 1892: heavyweight Tom Allen.
In the non-participant category: referee Eugene Corri (inducted posthumously, as he was a referee during the old-time era), promoter Barry Hearn and referee Richard Steele.
In the observer category: writer Graham Houston and photographer Neil Leifer.
3. Speaking of the Hall of Fame, future inductee Erik Morales announced his second (and hopefully final) retirement last week.
Morales had stepped away from the sport once before, after his August 2007 loss to David Diaz, a defeat that had marked four losses in a row, including two to Manny Pacquiao and one to Zahir Raheem. At the time, he cited a ringing in his head when Diaz hit him.
Morales’ comeback began in March 2010, and he won three in a row before stepping into the ring with Marcos Maidana at 140 pounds in April 2011. Morales gave Maidana a tougher-than-expected fight but ended up losing a majority decision.
He then won a vacant junior-welterweight title in September 2011, stopping Pablo Cesar Cano. Morales failed to make weight in his first title defense, losing a unanimous decision in March 2012 to Danny Garcia. He lost in his contractually mandated rematch with Garcia, suffering a one-sided four-round knockout in October 2012. Before that rematch, Morales tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol.
That loss dropped his record to 52-9 with 36 KOs. He hadn’t fought since. Morales had hoped to fight Jorge Paez Jr. He had to pull out with a hand injury, however. At the time, he told ESPN Deportes’ Salvador Rodriguez that he wasn’t sure if the injury would allow him to be able to fight again.
And now, with the news that he is about to have another child, he is retiring again, the 37-year-old fighter told Rodriguez.
Morales won his first world in 1997 when he knocked out Daniel Zaragoza. He defended that belt successfully nine times, culminating with a split decision win over Marco Antonio Barrera in the first fight of their legendary trilogy. Barrera would win the second and third bouts.
Morales soon added world titles at featherweight, junior lightweight and, during his comeback, junior welterweight. Among the other fighters he beat during his Hall of Fame-worthy career were Wayne McCullough, Kevin Kelley, Guty Espadas Jr., In-Jin Chi, Paulie Ayala, Jesus Chavez, Carlos “Famoso” Hernandez and Manny Pacquiao (in the first fight of their trilogy).
4. I hope that the International Boxing Hall of Fame doesn’t make Morales wait five years from his announced retirement, and instead bases it on when he last fought. In that case, I believe Morales would be eligible to be on the ballot at the end of 2017.
“El Terrible” was in Canastota this past weekend for a ceremony that draws popular boxers of the past and present. Hopefully in 2018 we can officially commemorate an accomplished and entertaining career.
5. I don’t know what’s more depressing:
- That Shannon Briggs has embarked on yet another comeback, returning to the ring at 42 years old and three and a half years after taking such a bad beating from Vitali Klitschko that he spent days in the hospital. Briggs has scored three first-round knockouts over designated opponents in the span of 37 days. He’s bragging about being “in shape,” which, well, is true in terms of aesthetics. And he’s seeking a shot at Wladimir Klitschko.
- Or that Hasim Rahman — who was a non-entity in his loss to Wladimir in 2008 and was blown out by Alexander Povetkin in 2012 — returned to the ring last week after 20 months out of the ring, taking part in a one-day “Super 8” tournament for the hope of winning it all and taking home the prize money. Rahman, the 41-year-old former heavyweight champion, lost a three-round decision to an opponent whose record was listed at 3-2.
Usually I’d call for an “elimination bout” in which the loser must finally retire for good. But I don’t want to see Briggs-Rahman. And that’s because I don’t want to see Briggs. Or Rahman.
6. It’ll be interesting to see how well (or not) Ruslan Provodnikov does, ratings-wise, in his first broadcast as the A-side when he faces Chris Algieri this Saturday on HBO.
Of course the victory will be the most important thing to him. But the network wants to attempt to build him into a star, which is one reason why it recently aired an excellent “2 Days” feature on him.
I wrote last year that I didn’t think we’d see Provodnikov be an A-side in 2014, but that he should be OK with that so long as it meant he was stepping in there against major stars and receiving major paydays. I was wrong.
Provodnikov will be assisted by having the replay of Martinez-Cotto as a lead-in. He better hope that his co-feature, Demetrius Andrade vs. Brian Rose, retains most of those viewers.
7. As Adam Abramowitz of the Saturday Night Boxing blog noted on, well, Saturday night, your new North American Boxing Federation titleholder at 154 pounds is Andy Lee…
…of the North American city of Limerick, Ireland.
To be fair, the NABF rankings list Lee as being out of Michigan, which is where he lived when he was working with late trainer Emanuel Steward.
Lee lives in London now, however.
8. Boxers Behaving Badly, part one: Former lightweight title challenger Michael Katsidis is facing one count each of “unlawful possession of a restricted drug and possessing dangerous drugs” after police searched his home in Australia and found half a dozen pills that the fighter allegedly did not have a prescription for, according to newspaper The Chronicle.
The pills are meant to help people sleep, the article said. “However, The Chronicle has been told the tablets did not belong to Katsidis, [his attorney] had obtained a statement from the owner of the tablets, who does have a prescription for the medication,” the article said.
A hearing in the case has been scheduled for July 1. That is a few days before Katsidis’ rematch with Graham Earl. The two fought an entertaining battle back in February 2007, a bout Katsidis won by fifth-round stoppage.
Katsidis, 33, last fought this past March, returning after a layoff of 23 months and making quick work of a 27-17-5 foe named Eddy Comaro. The win brought Katsidis’ record to 29-6 with 24 knockouts.
9. Boxers Behaving Badly, part two: Three-time middleweight title challenger Matthew Macklin was taken into police custody in Ireland last week on “public order offenses,” though he received a caution from authorities instead of being charged with a crime, according to Irish newspaper The Herald.
The article, citing an anonymous source, said Macklin “got involved in a bit of a scrap and had to be arrested … and was released a few hours later.”
Macklin, 32, lost to Felix Sturm by controversial split decision in June 2011, to Sergio Martinez by late stoppage in March 2012, and to Gennady Golovkin by body-shot knockout in June 2013. He returned in December, outpointing Lamar Russ on HBO to move to 30-5 with 20 knockouts.
10. I had a dream this weekend in which not only did Richard Steele get inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Meldrick Taylor then showed up and cut off Steele’s speech with two seconds left…
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]