Photos: Will Hart
By Eric Raskin
“Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.” The words of Breaking Bad’s Mike Ehrmantraut apply not only to chemistry teachers turned aspirant meth kingpins, both also to world champion boxers. More than four years ago, Sergio Martinez beat Kelly Pavlik (who beat Jermain Taylor, who beat Bernard Hopkins, who beat everyone out there), making “Maravilla” the middleweight champion. Not a middleweight champion, but the middleweight champion.
With the win, Martinez climbed high on pound-for-pound lists and emerged as an HBO headliner. But becoming the legit champion didn’t automatically make Martinez a superstar. A star? Sure. But not a superstar. Certainly not on the level of Miguel Cotto, a beloved, crowd-pleasing, someday-Hall-of-Fame-bound fighter who, it should be noted, has never been the undisputed champion of any division he’s competed in.
On June 7 at Madison Square Garden, one of boxing’s unique traditions continues: A dominant middleweight champion defends his title as the promotional “B-side” against a bigger-name challenger rising in weight. Hopkins conceded top billing and the juicy side of the purse to get his opportunities against Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad. A generation before, Marvin Hagler made his own assorted concessions for the right to defend his title against Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, and Roberto Duran. Now Martinez carries that torch, having given ground at the negotiating table before fighting Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in 2012 and doing it again to lock in a defense against Cotto.
If Martinez defeats Cotto, it won’t make him Cotto, in terms of popularity and earning power. Those qualities are not directly transferable.
Lineal championships, however, do work that way. And that’s why Cotto was drawn to this fight: because he can be Jesse James. Because he can exit the ring as both the “A-side” and the champion of the world.
In order to secure the fight, Martinez and his team allowed Cotto to be billed first, to appear on the left side of the poster, and to fight at a catch-weight of 159 pounds, one pound below the middleweight limit. That one pound rates to be as superficial a detail as the billing order and the poster positioning. But if the idea of all of the hard bargaining was to wound Martinez’s ego, it might have worked.
“There were a lot of concessions that were made due to Cotto’s star value, concessions that he wanted that a champion doesn’t normally give,” said Martinez’s promoter Lou DiBella. “But Sergio’s attitude was that he wanted Miguel Cotto and he wanted this fight badly. In order to get the fight we had to swallow some things we didn’t want to swallow.”
An uncommonly athletic, quick-fisted, and mobile southpaw, Martinez (51-2-2, 28 KOs) should theoretically be a heavy favorite in anything resembling a pugilistic chess match. The shorter, slower, but kayo-capable Cotto, therefore, would appear to need to get close and lure the Argentine champion into a slugging match (one in which Cotto doesn’t get hit on the chin too regularly, of course). Getting under a boxer’s skin and making his temperature rise is a classic method for upping the chances that the technician deviates from his most prudent game plan.
Now in the second fight of his partnership with trainer Freddie Roach, the 33-year-old Cotto (38-4, 31 KOs) seems to be getting back to the power-punching – and bodysnatching – ways of his junior welterweight and welterweight prime. It’s a small sample size, of course, but that was the impression given last time out in Cotto’s three-round blowout of Delvin Rodriguez.
“I think Freddie Roach helped Cotto out a lot, because he brought him back to the Cotto that we knew – standing his ground, and sitting on his punches to get that power,” Rodriguez told HBO.com. “The power is especially there in his left hook. He needs to sit down on his punches, that’s the style that suits him because of how strong he is.”
Roach concurs regarding his new charge’s power: “Miguel is one of the hardest punchers I have worked with. We are working every day on the mitts with my body protector on, and that doesn’t help that much anymore – Miguel goes right through that.”
All that said, Cotto is still the underdog. He’s giving up height, weight, hand speed, foot speed, and defensive reflexes. Sure, if he can land the perfect hook, especially to the body, all bets are off. But conventional wisdom says Martinez has all the tools to control the fight.
But there’s an “unless.” Martinez is the logical pick unless he is not the masterful artist we saw for 11 rounds against Chavez Jr. but rather the compromised old man who nearly crumbled in round 12 and then struggled to a controversial win over Martin Murray last April.
The 39-year-old champ has been off for more than a year since injuring his hand and re-injuring his knee in the Murray fight. Sources had suggested going into that fight that Martinez wasn’t going to be 100 percent – and even that he would never be 100 percent again. If that turns out to be true, a gimpy knee alone would be enough to reverse the perception of who should be the favorite on June 7.
“I think the outcome of the fight is going to come down to how well did Martinez recuperate from his injuries,” said Rodriguez. “Cotto still has a lot to give the sport, and he’s going to press Martinez hard. But if Martinez is in good shape and he’s well recovered from his injuries, then I see Martinez winning the fight. His skills, his size – he should win as long as his injuries are behind him.”
Whether it’s just the expected positive public-relations spin or the plain truth, Martinez insists he is indeed healthy. “Right now I am just the same as when there were no knee problems,” he declared a couple of weeks before the fight. “I have overcome all obstacles. The recuperation was very painful. I was on crutches for nine months and it is very hard to come back from that, but this is the road that I chose and I enjoy the achievement of coming back from something like this. My knees are feeling great … I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”
Needless to say, Martinez will feel even better if he gets through the fight injury-free and retains the world middleweight championship for the seventh time. Winning won’t make him as beloved as Cotto; if anything, many in the packed house at the Garden will resent Martinez if he puts a beating on the Puerto Rican icon. That’s the way it goes. Leonard will always be more famous than Hagler, De La Hoya will always be more famous than Hopkins, and, one would assume, Cotto will always be more famous than Martinez.
But fame, as they say, is fleeting. Having your name in the history books as the middleweight champion of the world? That lasts forever.