Cotto - Malignaggi, Separating The Contenders From The Pretenders

10.06.06 - By Ryan "Asian Sensation" Songalia - Team Pinoy - On June 10, Puerto Rico's Miguel Cotto, 26-0 (22 KO) will face off with the slick and confident Paulie Malignaggi, 21-0 (5 KO). At stake is the designation as the most promising of the young junior welterweights, a deep and promising division that will garner much attention from the public over the next few years. Aside from that obvious distinction is an even more critical entity, that of significantly greater importance. At stake in this fight is both fighter's futures.

When these two square off in New York's Madison Square Garden, two of the most charismatic pugilists in the sport will get an opportunity towards further interest in the sport. Miguel Cotto, Caguas, Puerto Rico, is attempting to gain the respect of the public, while Italian-American Paulie Malignaggi of Brooklyn, NY, will try to prove that he's more than just hype.

This fight is intriguing because of the contrast in style. Both fighters' style seem to be perfect foils for the other man's strategies. Malignaggi is a quick-handed boxer who likes to flurry and move, making him a very elusive target. In stark contrast is Cotto, who for the 140 pound division, is a very strong fighter. Cotto is a paralyzing body puncher who dismantles his opponent's with his stalking pressure and fluid combinations. This fight will come down who is the mentally stronger fighter, who can impose their game plan more effectively.

The brash and outspoken Paulie Malignaggi of Brooklyn, NY is looking to stamp himself as a legitimate title applicant in the rich junior welterweight division. Undefeated through his first 21 bouts, he believes now is his time to make the leap from prospect to contender. Against his favor is his inexperience at the next level of opposition. His record is devoid of any recognizable names, a serious question mark as to whether or not he is adequately prepared for the task at hand.

In his last fight against the rugged Donald Camarena, Malignaggi was able to outslick his much slower adversary and dominate the fight from start to finish. In that bout, we saw the prototype of what Malignaggi likes to do. At the top of his game, Malignaggi used his much quicker hands and feet to frustrate Camarena, whose 16-1 record proved to be as deceiving as the Brooklyn fighter's feints. While I was impressed with his performance, I still was not sold with the idea of him being ready for the division's elite.

Malignaggi has been very effective against the level of opposition he has faced, which is what I thought of Kermit Cintron right before he faced Antonio Margarito in 2004. In a similar situation as Malignaggi, Cintron was a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time fighter who was rushed into a fight with a more experienced veteran who was ready for any situation. Given the roughness of the combat that is to be expected from Cotto, Malignaggi's inexperience with overcoming adversity against credible and seasoned opposition makes his prospects for this fight contingent upon how mentally fortified he is internally.

Malignaggi's only difficulties in the sport have come from his brittle hands. As he began to build momentum in his career, Malignaggi suffered a career setback in his 2004 fight with Sandro Casamonica. During the course of winning a 7 round technical decision, he broke his right hand and was forced to have major surgery on his damaged fist. Following the surgery, Malignaggi contemplated an early retirement, feeling dejected and discouraged from the obstacles preventing him from making the most of his career.

By boxing standards, Malignaggi is devoid of punching power. He does not commit to his punches, preferring to let go with quick flurries and hopping on his bicycle to avoid the incoming fire from his opponents. Many in the industry theorize that his lack of punching power is a direct consequence of his hand problems. However, Malignaggi has stated prior to this fight that because of his confidence in the health of his surgically repaired right hand, he will be a much more authoritative puncher. For my part, having read many press releases intended to throw an opponent's game plan off, I am somewhat skeptical about Malignaggi's claims.

While Malignaggi is certainly confident in his chances to win this fight, I believe he is simply cashing in on his ticket early. Malignaggi's chronic hand problems may be OK for the time being, but they will eventually give way and force him into an early retirement. His last opponent, Camarena, is not the kind of tuneup fight necessary to ready a fighter to face a fighter of Cotto's esteem. Having already entertained the thought of hanging them up early, Malignaggi is seeking a couple of big paydays before calling it an early career in the next couple of fights.

For Malignaggi to successfully unseat Miguel Cotto, he will have to fight his typical fight plan. Being the naturally smaller man, he will need to move around and pop the jab. Jabbing Cotto will keep him off balance and make him have to reset, which will give Malignaggi ample time to land his combinations and dip out of danger. Cotto has been criticized in the past for being too patient, so Malignaggi will be better served to get off first and then retreat before Cotto can return fire. Malignaggi will need to keep this fight at a distance because he cannot afford to deal with Cotto's withering body assault. Cotto's left hook to the liver is the most devastating body shot this side of Barrera, and if Cotto can land it with consistency, it will slow down Malignaggi's movement and force the smaller man to trade with a dramatically stronger man. However, if Malignaggi is able to befuddle Cotto for 12 rounds, he has the boxing skill to dominate his opponent. If this fight goes the distance, it will be because Malignaggi's technical flair and speed of foot and speed were too much to overcome. If this occurs, Malignaggi will be in position to win a decision.

Miguel Cotto is in a unique position as a fighter. As a former 2000 Olympian representing his native home of Puerto Rico, his star began rising as the star of native legend Felix Trinidad began to descend into the horizon. Considered the natural successor in the long history of Puerto Rican national heroes, Cotto has done his best to act the part in and out of the ring. The precocious and mature Miguel Cotto has accepted the responsibility with remarkable poise in spite of the legendary warrior who preceded him. In the middle of all the adulation he receives from his countrymen is the criticism from boxing pundits who are questioning the potential of young Miguel Cotto.

As he emerged from the 2000 Olympics, most boxing experts considered Cotto to be the most promising prospect of that class. He quickly gained momentum riding the growing ethnic fan base that supported his every move.

I was first drawn to Miguel Cotto when I saw him dismantle the battle tested Victoriano Sosa, a fighter who gave Paul Spadafora hell and was competitive with Floyd Mayweather. In 4 rounds, Cotto's massive punching power, proficiency in combination punching and overwhelming body punching sent Sosa to the canvas three times and catapulted Cotto to the top of every boxing writer's prospect list.

After getting by B-Level opposition in his next 3 bouts and picking up the vacant WBO Junior Welterweight belt along the way, he faced Demarcus Corley in what was supposed to be an easy fight to build his record against. Someone forgot to tell Corley that. Cotto, who had put on 15 pounds since the weigh-in, outweighed his opponent by that margin, giving him a clear physical strength advantage going into the bout. Fighting before a very partisan crowd in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Miguel Cotto came out strong searching for a spectacular knockout of a respected, durable veteran who had never been stopped as a professional or an amateur.

In the first round, it appeared he was on his way towards the stoppage, as he overwhelmed and dropped the Washington D.C. fighter in a very chaotic first round. Showing guile and surprising force behind his punches, Corley took advantage of his opponent's tendency to walk straight in and lack of head movement and landing effectively. In the third round, Corley caught Cotto with a vicious right hook and from there had Cotto on rubbery legs. It appeared for the moment that Corley was in position to stop the rising contender, but as he had shown in past fights, he is not an effective finisher. Having let Cotto off the hook, Miguel came back and finished off his pesky challenger by a somewhat premature stoppage.

After that bout, many boxing insiders began to theorize about Cotto's chin. Corley, who was not regarded as a powerful puncher, was able to visibly shake and almost knock out Cotto. After forcing former Olympic rival Mohamad Abdullaev to resign, he faced late replacement Ricardo Torres.

In a seesaw battle between undefeated sluggers, Torres was able to badly stun Cotto on atleast three occassions, including sending the Puerto Rican fighter to the canvas for the first time in his career. Unwilling to yield to his challenger, Cotto collected himself, battling back to knock him out in 7 wildly entertaining rounds.

In the wake of his inconsistent performances, many felt that Cotto's vulnerable chin and defensive liabilities were an indictment against him and would hinder his potential. I took a more positive interpretation of the events that unfolded. I saw a young contender struggle through difficulty, overcome it, and then win both fights by knockout. Every champion needs to experience adversity, its how they learn and become complete fighters. Cotto has that edge over Malignaggi, having become an experienced contender in the last few years.

Miguel Cotto's best plan is to keep the fight on the inside. Malignaggi is going to depend on his footwork, so keeping the action in close will neutralize his movement and give Cotto the opportunity to take the fight out of his opponent with consistent work to the ribs. Cutting off the ring is also a must, because following a skilled boxer around is an easy way to lose a decision. It will also be in Cotto's best interests to make the fight very rough and physical. Malignaggi is an over-sized lightweight who has never been in the rough kind of dog fight that Cotto forces opponent's into, and Cotto will be the more comfortable fighter in that scenario. Making Malignaggi fight a very rough fight will wear him down and give Cotto the opportunity to end this fight inside the distance. Cotto needs to jump in on his man and strive for a knockout.

Given Cotto's ability to survive in a crisis situation and revert to a plan B, I will have to give him the edge in this fight. He is simply too big and strong for his man, and if he can maintain his poise and concentration, he will wear down Malignaggi and stop him some time after the eighth round.

Even if Cotto knocks Malignaggi out in impressive fashion, I'm not sure it means much in the context of his career. Malignaggi is not considered one of the elite contenders in his division, but a well known prospect with less than intimidating punching power. Cotto's career has fallen off track as he has not been facing the fighters he needs to be fighting. Matchups at 140 with guys like Jose Luis Castillo and Ricky Hatton would be all action affairs, the kind of entertaining bouts that would stick in the fans' subconscious and cement him as the best fighter in the division. I'm not sure what a win over Malignaggi at this point in his career means.

In the event that Cotto loses this fight, his career will hit a wall and there will be many in the sport who will withdraw faith from him for losing to an unproven contender. His popularity with the fans will diminish significantly, even in the Puerto Rican community. Malignaggi is a loud-mouthed, inexperienced prospect who is a clear underdog in this fight. If Cotto fails to pull off this victory, not even a dominant performance in a rematch will be able to restore him to his previous pedestal in the sport. This is a must win fight for Miguel Cotto.

If Malignaggi is able to pull off the upset, he will suddenly find himself as one of the most talked about fighters in the sport. In addition to acquiring the WBO Junior Welterweight title, he will get more big money opportunities, including a rematch with Cotto. His speedy style will be very tricky for Hatton to figure out, but Malignaggi would simply be outwilled by Castillo. Other than a Cotto victory, I don't see Malignaggi succeeding that much further into the upper echelon of the sport.

A Malignaggi defeat would almost certainly be the end of the road for the flashy New Yorker. His opponent selection hasn't made him much of an investment as far as contenders go, and with his hand problems liable to return, it is unlikely he will be able to rebuild his reputation. If he is unsuccessful Saturday, he will probably fight one or two more up and comers for decent paychecks and call it a career.

As both opponent's prepare to discover what the boxing fates have in store for their careers, the importance of this fight continues to harbor on the minds of both men. As remarked by the late Howard Cossell, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat await the fighter who grabs each distinction. Two undefeated fighters will meet on Saturday night and only one will walk away with an unblemished record.

Ryan Songalia is a syndicated boxing columnist. If you would like to contact him, his e-mail address is - His Myspace address is . Special thanks to Matt Nash.

Article posted on 10.06.2006

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