Continuing a Great Tradition: Miguel Cotto versus Antonio Margarito

cotto takes on margarito 12.07.08 - By Michael Klimes: The heavyweight division is currently experiencing one of its seasonal depressions. It always does after the heavyweight champion of the previous generation retires. Lennox Lewis’s absence has left a void. If I was a doctor and the heavyweight division was my patient, my diagnosis would be that it is clinically obese with far too much mediocrity to resuscitate its asphyxiation. There are two sides to every experience and tradition is no different. Current boxing fans and heavyweights are suffering from the inescapable shadow of tradition haunting them. Following the standard of greatness someone has set before you is a daunting task as you try and carve out your own reputation in history. It is intimidating since you are not fighting your opponent in the ring but their reputation and image, which is enshrined in the collective memory of fans. Thus far, no heavyweight has emerged to purge Lewis’s presence from our collective memories: He was the most recent great of the division we have seen and is therefore the immediate standard others will be measured by..

However, tradition does not render us completely hopeless. If we go through history behind Lewis, we will then see that there was a void between him and Mike Tyson. There were also slumps after Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. A more positive aspect of tradition among the heavyweights is that the history is rich enough to instruct us that a saviour will eventually restore glory to the capital of boxing. At the moment, it’s more of a ghetto than imperial Rome but then it takes time to build an empire. Fortunately the little men have risen to the occasion and are shouldering the burden. The welterweights have again demonstrated themselves to be a bastion of strength and those two important boxing nations of Puerto Rico and Mexico are supplying the gladiators in Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto. Again, we encounter another meaningful tradition: The long rivalry between Mexican and Puerto Rican boxers. The classic shoot ups between Salvador Sanchez and Wilfredo Gomez or Wilfredo Gomez and Lupe Pintor in the early eighties were clashes of historical significance. We can only pray that Margarito and Cotto will live up to the expectations being forced onto them.

In theory, their championship match has the potential to level or even exceed that excellent fight between Oscar de la Hoya and Sugar Shane Mosley in 2000. I was silly in thinking that a Cotto versus Mayweather fight would be the definitive welterweight bout of this generation. Mayweather’s defensive cuteness would probably spoil the desire to see close exchanges on the inside. He has successfully dismantled pressure fighters with a class that one envies. His skill against Ricky Hatton, Jesus Chavez, Philip N’Dou, Diego Corrales and even José Luis Castillo are beyond doubt. What could Cotto do that would different and even then, would it be exciting? Many do not find Mayweather’s safety first style of fighting exhilarating. Margarito and Cotto should generate explosiveness while Mayweather seems to induce comas. Larry Merchant looked older after the fight with Carlos Baldomir when he attempted to dissect Mayweather’s performance with his dry wit.

It is exceptionally hard to pick a winner out of the contest between Cotto and Margarito as both are meeting in their primes or close to them. Cotto has the aura as he is undefeated in thirty two bouts and has been improving ominously in his successive fights, especially recently. Cotto has evolved into the complete package and his rapid rise to superstardom commenced with the victory over Zab Judah in June 2007. Cotto was presented with tough questions: How would he deal with Judah’s dangerous hand speed, power and experience? Cotto answered these questions stupendously as he employed vigorous body shots and admirable resilience to stop Judah in the eleventh round. In his next fight against Sugar Shane Mosley, Cotto was again facing a worthy opponent. He utilised an excellent jab to neutralise Mosley’s aggression and even displayed the ability to fight off the ropes and he did it well. Of course Cotto was not James Toney but he revealed another dimension to his fighting. In his last fight with Alfonso Gomez, Cotto was his efficient self, dispatching the gallant but doomed adversary in five brutal rounds. Cotto has now found his style, a punishing jab to set up hurtful body attacks.

His chin is not bullet proof but he always manages to bounce back. Cotto also likes to fight at a steady pace. He is a very patient hunter like Joe Louis and applies steady pressure. He increases his pace of fighting but only when it suits his interests. Cotto is also economical with his punching, not quite as much as Arthur Abraham, as he will look to seize the initiative and make opportunities. Cotto will not simply wait for the other boxer to show him a chance with a mistake. Cotto is not tall for a welterweight; he is 5’ 7’’ and has a reach of 67’’ but he compensates for this with his stockiness, strong frame and skill. Similarly, another facet of Cotto which is daunting for anybody who squares off against him and that is his confidence. He exudes a silent assertiveness just like Clint Eastwood or George Foreman. When he plays Dirty Harry or a protagonist in any Western, Eastwood imbues his characters with a body language which says, “Whatever you do, I’m going to get you. I don’t have to tell you this because you already know it.” Cotto is a man of few words and just processes any information whether good or bad and accepts it as part of the situation. There is no complaining or second thoughts, just an acknowledgement of the mission. His silence is discomforting. Cotto is turning into a great fighter, he is no there yet but he is very, very good.

Antonio Margarito is also a man of few words as well but appears less intrusive on his surroundings. He melts into the background more and that is perhaps reflective in his career as Margarito has had to work extra hard for attention. He is the quintessential blue collar fighter. Margarito does not command respect with his silence or body language but with the size of his body. He is 5' 11' and has a 73’’ reach. His size, style and conditioning will be problematic for Cotto. If there is an adjective that encapsulates Margarito it is grinding. He grinds his victims into powder with horrific body punching. Perhaps his body attack is as potent as Cotto’s. He is not economical with his punches and prefers to work at high speeds. Margarito does not take his time like Cotto.

Margarito enters the ring with forty one professional fights. He has won thirty six of those and lost five. On the surface, Margarito looks crude and clumsy, perhaps bearing some comparison to Rocky Marciano in that regard but when the skin is peeled away, he is a fighter of considerable ability. He has been a professional for fourteen years as opposed to seven for Miguel Cotto and although he does not have Cotto’s Olympic pedigree one cannot dismiss him.

Margarito has some significant names on his record like Daniel Santos, Joshua Clottey, Kermit Cintron (twice) and Paul Williams. All of these fighters have varying styles and Margarito has seen many different fighters. Furthermore he has taken down solid operators like Antonio Diaz in 2002. Diaz may not be a marquee name but consider his record. He has fought Sugar Shane Mosley, Ivan Robinson, Mickey Ward and Emmanuel Augustus. That is not bad opposition at all and just because one has not heard of Margarito’s opposition does not mean they should be forgotten. Do a little probing and one finds Margarito is a true world class welterweight and one of the finest of his generation. He is a two time world champion and until he was defeated by Paul Williams last summer had made numerous defences of his WBO belt. I counted nine on boxrec. In his last bout against Kermit Cintron, Margarito displayed disciplined ring generalship and a competent arsenal of accurate punches. Margarito is more polished than some pundits think. There was an element of grace to his ungraceful technique that night.

Clearly, both fighters have a very hard evening ahead of them. Margarito has to use his precious physical advantages. He needs to push Cotto into the phone booth but he will have to be patient which is not one of his virtues as he has an aggressive style. Cotto, for all of his power will be wary of Margarito’s size and must use a combination of defence and attack to overwhelm the bigger man. Going toe to toe at Margarito’s optimal distance will spell suicide for the Puerto Rican. Cotto can try and use Margarito’s arm reach against him by staying in the pocket, feinting and keeping Margarito off balance with fluid combination punching; alternating between the head and body. It is said Margarito is one dimensional, so Cotto must introduce his versatility into his strategy. Margarito is pretty flat footed and prefers to plant his feet so he can throw straight punches and maximise his power. Cotto could perhaps make his punches a little more roundhouse rather than straight and give Margarito a degree of awkwardness.

The deciding factor in this fight will be which fighter locates the best range. Margarito has the clear superiority in his arm reach but does he have the footwork to put Cotto in the tight spots and then does he have quickness to unload his debilitating body shots? The fundamental issue for Cotto is navigating his way behind his sterling jab that is his safety net and confusing Margarito with his skill. Cotto must make himself an elusive target. Previous fights Cotto can look to for advice to are Carlos Quintana’s defeat of Paul Williams and Mayweather’s defeat of Philip N’Dou. Mayweather’s fight against N’Dou was an exemplary masterpiece of staying in the pocket and using a larger fighter’s work rate, size and aggression against him. Quintana used lateral movement and well executed one two combinations to neutralise Williams. If Cotto can combine elements of Mayweather and Quintana, he should claim the victory but if he falls into a full on brawl, he does so at his peril.

As always, the fighters themselves will decide on July 26 how the cards will land. So may Margarito and Cotto go forward under those lights and represent two noble traditions. Firstly the calibre of welterweights to produce classic fights throughout history is not interrupted. Secondly, Mexico with Puerto Rico continues to churn out such noteworthy fighters. The welterweights and these nations are the final refuge for boxing. They are in a word the sport’s best hopes and, yes, perhaps the last ones.

Article posted on 12.07.2008

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