By Kieran Mulvaney
When last we saw Miguel Cotto in a boxing ring, he was annihilating Sergio Martinez in perhaps his greatest performance to date, bouncing the Argentine off the canvas to annex the legitimate, lineal middleweight championship of the world. The merciless manner in which the veteran Puerto Rican – whose first world title came 20 pounds below the middleweight limit and who, barely 18 months previously, had been the subject of numerous career obituaries – swatted Martinez aside appeared to presage a glorious, final run at the top.
Then, for month after month, there was nothing.
There were rumors: of a flirtation with Floyd Mayweather or a clash with Canelo Alvarez. Cotto (39-4, 32 KOs) waited and bade his time; but finally, 12 months minus one day after winning the middleweight crown, he makes his first defense of it on June 6 against Australian Daniel Geale on HBO World Championship Boxing (10:30 PM ET/PT).
At 34 years old and with 43 professional bouts under his belt, the time away from the ring was rejuvenating, says Cotto.
“After 14 years in boxing, the best decision I could have made was to take the last year off. My mind was not in boxing, but since I got here with Freddie [Roach, his trainer], everything is working perfectly again,” he told reporters at recent open workout. “It will have been 364 days to the day on June 6 since I have been in the ring. It’s not difficult to get back in after this long stretch. I’ve been focused on my work. I have gained more knowledge during my time off in order to get myself ready to fight again.”
When the announcement of his opponent came, the reaction was underwhelming, not least because the month after Cotto’s win over Martinez, Geale (31-3, 16 KOs) took on middleweight marauder Gennady Golovkin and was battered to defeat inside three rounds. It was a night on which just about everything that could have gone wrong for the Aussie did go wrong: The first round was four minutes long, the second saw him tripped by a photographer’s errant camera strap, and in the third, he landed his best punch of the night only for Golovkin to respond with the final, concussive blow of the contest.
But Geale – unlike Cotto a legitimate middleweight, who owns impressive wins against the likes of Sebastian Sylvester and Felix Sturm (in Germany, no less) and engaged in a terrific battle with Darren Barker in 2013 – hopes that Team Cotto has focused on the events of last July 26 to the exclusion of what has otherwise been a solid career.
“I believe they looked at the Triple G fight and, knowing Miguel Cotto’s style, they figure if he comes at me real hard, then I’m not going to be able to take the pressure,” the affable challenger explained during a conference call last week.
In some respects the matchup carries an air reminiscent of another, not-so-distant Cotto outing, when he faced Austin Trout in his home-away-from-home, Madison Square Garden, in December 2012. Heading into the Trout fight, Cotto was 8-0 at the Garden (Saturday’s fight with Geale will be Cotto’s first at the Garden’s upstart rival, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center) and coming off a battle with Mayweather in which, although he lost on points, he gave the best boxer of this generation some anxious moments and a bloody nose. Sitting in the crowd as Cotto and Trout got to work was Alvarez; assuming all went to script, the Mexican and Puerto Rican would tangle next. But Trout ripped up the screenplay, using his lanky frame to thoroughly outbox the favorite.
Now a Cotto-Alvarez matchup is again in the offing following Canelo’s destruction of James Kirkland last month. But once again, it is contingent on Cotto making it past an unheralded opponent who nonetheless just may have the physical strength and boxing style to upset the applecart.
“It’s my job to ruin those plans,” said Geale. “Miguel and his camp are definitely looking past me. They see me as one of the not-so-strong middleweights right now, and especially weakening me by making me drop a few pounds.”
Geale’s primary advantage is arguably the fact that he is the naturally bigger man, but that advantage may be somewhat negated by Cotto’s contractual demands that the bout be contested at 157 pounds., three pounds inside the middleweight limit. It’s a stipulation that does not please Geale promoter Gary Shaw.
“I do not believe in catchweights,” Shaw grumbled. “If you’re the middleweight champion, you can fight at any weight you want. But let your opponent fight at 160.”
Cotto shrugs at the complaint, pointing out that he had to do something similar to secure a big fight in 2009.
“When I fought Manny Pacquiao [at welterweight], to make the deal I had to fight at 145 pounds. [two pounds below the division limit]. If you want to fight Miguel Cotto, you have to fight at 157.”
Following the Trout debacle, Cotto joined forces with Freddie Roach, who steered Pacquiao to victory in that 2009 battle; and in two bouts since – against Delvin Rodriguez and Martinez – he has looked sensational, at least as imperious as in his 140 pound pomp. The question, however, is whether his performances have flattered to deceive: the result of Rodriguez being outclassed and Martinez being hopelessly hobbled by oft-operated-upon knees.
It remains to be seen whether Geale, recently battered by Golovkin and possibly drained by weight restrictions, is the man to provide the answer. Either way, Canelo will be watching and waiting once more.