A few hours before Miguel Cotto (39-4, 32 knockouts) challenged Sergio Martinez (51-3-2, 28 knockouts) for the middleweight championship, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini told me, "Everyone thinks the way to beat a southpaw is with the straight right down the middle, but it's really the left hook."
Cotto proved Professor Manicini's point on Saturday night when he soundly defeated Martinez, the lineal 160 pound king, in front of 18,000 fervent fans at Madison Square Garden.
Early in the first frame, Cotto closed the gap, dipped to the side and dropped Martinez with a concussive left hook. In those same three minutes, Martinez was laid horizontal twice again. Early on, it seemed as though Martinez would not last six minutes with the Puerto Rican icon, not only on account of Cotto's power, but also because it was manifest that Martinez, who has always relied on his unorthodox but balletic movement, was working on bad legs.
The 39-year-old Argentine fighter was coming off a 14-month layoff during which he had both shoulder and knee surgery. Right from the first gong, Martinez seemed to be on stiff and unsteady pins.
Round after round, Cotto, who has been training under the expert tutelage of Freddie Roach, bored ahead, lamming Martinez with compact left hooks and right hands to both the body and head.
Cotto is a converted southpaw, which means his left, his power hand, is up front. Martinez sought to avoid Cotto's famous hook by moving to his left, but Martinez's mobility was a memory and Cotto was nailing him hard with both mitts.
By mid fight, it was evident that Martinez's only path to victory was by way of a knockout. The now former champ possesses formidable punching prowess, but when a fighter's knees don't respond, he can't rotate his hips; hence, his power is much diminished.
Cotto, who had an enthralled crowd behind him, boxed brilliantly. He jabbed and kept enough cushion between himself and Martinez so as to avoid smothering his power. He cut off the ring beautifully and even at those moments when "Maravilla" showed glimmers of his old magic self, Cotto out-boxed him.
As the fight progressed, the damage to Martinez accumulated and by the eighth round, the HBO commentators were beginning to hint that it might be time for the Argentine's corner to run up the white flag.
It takes a lot of gumption for a cornerman to put a halt to a championship contest, especially when his or her fighter has the capacity to turn a fight around with one strike of his gloved fist.
But after the ninth stanza, Pablo Sarmiento, Martinez's trainer, started yelling that it was his responsibility to protect his man and that he was going to stop the contest. Again and again, an emotional Sarmiento screamed, "Champion, you knees aren't functioning, I'm going to stop it."
A profile in courage, Martinez begged and pleaded for just one more round, but Sarmiento wisely refused to let a man that he described as his "friend and brother" go back into battle. And the fight and Martinez's reign was over.
Puerto Rico has an immensely rich boxing heritage and New York is home to a huge population from the island, many of whom are ardent Cotto supporters. After the contest, a tearfully proud Cotto indicated, "This was my greatest achievement as a professional boxer."
For his turn, Martinez refused to put any of the blame for his defeat on his knees but instead insisted, "He caught me cold, he caught me hard at the beginning and I didn't recover from it."
Boxing has given itself plenty of black eyes, but Saturday night the unique virtues of great champions was on full display. Martinez's valiant attempt to campaign on with bad legs and after three knockdowns was an object lesson in courage and resilience.
And the heavily tattooed Cotto, who has the dark visage of a Roman gladiator, was fighting like someone who had the Muse of violence on his shoulder. Whether the result would have been the same against the Martinez who knocked out Paul Williams is an open question but there can be no denying that Cotto's relentless compact combination punching was nothing short of fistic artistry.
Martinez is a veteran of 56 ring wars. Though the klieg lights of big time boxing can be hard to walk away from, one can only hope that Martinez recognizes that between his age and injuries, he has reached the end of his boxing tether.
The new middleweight champion, and the first Puerto Rican to hold that title, has of course previously suffered a knockout loss to Pacquiao and dropped decisions to Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout. But based on his Oscar winning performance last night, Cotto is back on the "A" list of pugilists who can routinely command multi-million dollar purses.
Boxing is the most ethnic of sports. Matchups between Puerto Rican and Mexican fighters have always been a magnet for fans. Before the sweat on Cotto's face was dry, Bob Arum was gesturing towards a mega-bout between Cotto and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (43-1-1, 31 knockouts). It would be a pay-per-view bonanza.
However, the contest that the boxing cognoscenti are craving is a unification fight between Cotto and IBO/ WBA middleweight king Gennady Golovkin (29-0, 26 knockouts). A native of Kazakhstan, Golovkin will defend his title against Daniel Geale (30-2, 16 knockouts) on July 26th in Madison Square Garden. A veteran of over 400 amateur bouts, Golovkin has superb balance and wrecking balls for fists. If only he were from south of the border, a showdown between these consummate combatants would surely be in the offing. But as matters stand, I have a feeling that the boxing world will, a la Mayweather vs Pacquiao, be tapping its foot for a while, waiting for Golovkin vs. Cotto. In the meantime, Cotto and a few others have been shifting the capital of the gloved game back from Las Vegas to New York and the "mecca of boxing" - Madison Square Garden.