A couple of years ago, a proposed match between Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto would have been considered laughable. Back then, Martinez was a top-three pound-for-pound entrant who was surging with victories over Paul Williams, Sergiy Dzinziruk and Darren Barker while Cotto had been stopped by Manny Pacquiao and looked good but not overwhelming, against Yuri Foreman, Ricardo Mayorga and Antonio Margarito. Back-to-back losses to Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Austin Trout didn't help his case either.
But one smashing performance against Delvin Rodriguez combined with Martinez's vulnerabilities in his last three fights against Matthew Macklin, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (at least in rounds 11 and 12) and Martin Murray have closed the gap considerably. And with Saturday's fight being staged at Madison Square Garden during Puerto Rican Day parade weekend -- a scenario that, so far, has resulted in a 4-0 (2 KO) record (Cotto is 7-1, 4 ko's overall in the big room at MSG)-- and the 39-year-old Martinez coming back from a career-long 15-month layoff, the perception gulf closed even more. Cotto is making his middleweight debut and looks to become the first Puerto Rican fighter to win titles in 4 different weight classes. Martinez is a 9-5 favorite (as of 5/28).
The intrigue come fight night will be as overwhelming as Cotto's crowd support promises to be.
Statistical factors that may determine the victor include:
Good, Bad and Ugly: First, the good. When Martinez is on his game he can produce high volume and excellent accuracy. Against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., he averaged 41.8 jab attempts and 11.7 landed jabs per round and enabled him to rip through the undisciplined Mexican's defenses (36% overall, 28% jabs, 45% power and connect gaps of 322-178 overall, 140-49 jabs and 182-129 power). Chavez was kept to 32.5 punches per round, below the 43 he recorded in the three fights before facing Martinez and the 63.8 in the three fights before that. He averaged 78.3 punches per round vs. Sergiy Dzinziruk and out-jabbed "The Razor" 147-80 and 38%-33% and against Darren Barker he averaged 65.8 per round, landed 38% of his jabs and limited Barker to 38.9 per round.
The bad: The formerly slippery Argentine is now very hittable. Chavez landed 46% of his total punches, 37% of his jabs and 50% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts. Barker landed 38% of his total punches and 42% of his power punches while Dzinziruk was 39% overall, 33% jabs and 47% power. Martinez defended somewhat better against Murray (29% overall, 36% power) but the shakiness of his performance in the middle rounds still engenders doubt. That surge by Murray enabled him to out-land Martinez 160-134 overall and 128-87 power, margins that brought the unanimous 115-112 scores in Martinez's favor into question.
The Ugly: Martinez's legs have betrayed him in his last two fights as they suffered injuries that required long rest. Also, "Maravilla's" chin has turned to china as he has been floored in each of his last three fights and save for a botched call by the referee and replay officials he would have suffered a second knockdown against Murray. Cotto has carried his punch up the scale and his devastating performance against Rodriguez has created the possibility of a KO scenario for the debutante middleweight.
Which Martinez will we see Saturday? For Martinez's sake, he'd better be the Good one because if Bad and Ugly show up we could have a new middleweight champion.
Cotto vs. Lefties: When Cotto faces excellent left-handers like Austin Trout and Manny Pacquiao, he really struggles. The taller Trout comprehensively out-boxed Cotto (238-183 overall, 46-29 jabs, 192-154 power), was the more precise puncher overall (31%-29%) and in power punches (45%-34%) and made Cotto look like a shopworn fighter. Pacquiao, at the positive peak of his powers, destroyed the Puerto Rican, especially in the fight's second half. He out-landed Cotto 336-172 overall and 276-93 power and enjoyed big percentage gaps (43%-29% overall, 49%-31% power).
But if the left-hander is less than elite, Cotto fares much better. He out-landed Zab Judah 292-132 overall, 78-42 jabs and 214-90 power while landing 43% total, 39% jabs and 44% power. Yes, Judah landed a sky-high 57% of his power shots but he threw just 14.5 per round. In stopping Carlos Quintana in five rounds, Cotto led 85-69 overall and 72-51 power while landing 30% overall and 33% power. But Cotto was hit with 34% of Quintana's power punches. The same pattern took place against DeMarcus Corley in 2005: 117-73 overall, 110-70 power, high accuracy (41% overall, 30% jabs, 42% power) and taking a higher-than-expected percentage of power shots (36%). The last 3 southpaws Cotto has faced (Trout, Pacquiao, Judah) landed 49% of their power shots.
The Game Changer: Cotto looked sensational in his first fight under Freddie Roach's guidance as he out-landed Rodriguez 55-16 overall and 47-7 power while connecting on 50% overall, 35% jabs and 54% power while taking a modest 24%, 21% and 27% respectively. The hook that destroyed opponents earlier in his career appeared to be back at full strength and execution as two tremendous hooks finished the job. And, being a converted southpaw, Cotto knows that hooks and right leads work best against lefties.
Prediction: Cotto will receive tremendous crowd support from his fellow Puerto Ricans and if he hurts Martinez early he has the goods to finish the job. However, Martinez is a supreme athlete who probably used the time off to get completely healthy. And a healthy Martinez is a real handful for anyone. Martinez by decision.