The great ones know that they can always improve. Whether it's Michael Jordan adding a turnaround jumper or Cal Ripken changing his swing, the best are not satisfied on their exalted pedestals. They have an almost pathological desire to stay on top. As elite athletes age and their bodies become less forgiving, the mind, pride and desire play more prominent roles in achieving and maintaining excellence.
Miguel Cotto somehow took away Floyd Mayweather's best two punches this weekend – the jab and the straight right hand – yet he still lost the fight. Cotto was competitive throughout the bout, but couldn't find a way to turn the fight in his favor. Mayweather was just a few small steps ahead. This was like second-dynasty Michael Jordan, where Mayweather had just enough skill and guile to get by Cotto, who played the role of the Utah Jazz. It was a clear victory, but it wasn't easy. The great ones find a way.
Mayweather won the early rounds in the judges' eyes (and on my card), but he was barely topping his opponent, the one who was supposed to have a leaky defense and slow hand speed. It was shocking to see Mayweather unable to land his jab or right hand with his typical pinpoint accuracy.
Suddenly, in the fourth round, Mayweather started connecting with looping right-hand shots which landed on Cotto's left ear. It was a punch which I had never seen Mayweather throw previously. Philosophically, this punch seemed counter to everything that Mayweather was about – it was wide, instead of compact, and it left him open to be countered. When Mayweather threw this right hand, his whole right side was exposed for Cotto's punishing left hook. Yet he threw it; and it landed.
After the fight, Mayweather was asked about the looping right hand. He said that he was watching Cotto's bout against Shane Mosley, where Mosley landed that same punch throughout the fight – so Mayweather decided to incorporate it into his arsenal.
I think that this moment revealed a lot about Mayweather as a fighter. As good as he has been throughout his career, he's still looking for ways to get better. Essentially, it wasn't beneath him to crib a punch from a fighter whom he had previously dominated; it was a way to help him win.
Cotto's technique has improved substantially under Pedro Diaz. Conventional wisdom said that Mayweather would win a jabbing war, counter Cotto's right hand with the left hook and land his straight right between Cotto's high guard. But Cotto was picking off or avoiding those punches almost the whole night. He kept his left glove up high to ward off Mayweather's right hand. He used his reach advantage to stay out of the way of Mayweather's jab. His own jab was tight and he quickly returned it to a defensive position after throwing it. His right hands were short and he didn't reach with his left hook. His balance was excellent.
After a competitive first few rounds, Cotto started to land his jab frequently in the center of the ring. This in it of itself was a shocking development. Cotto, known as having a solid – but not spectacular – jab, was never supposed to land that punch on such a defensive wizard. But there he was, hitting Mayweather with the stick and busting him up.
For whatever reason, Cotto abandoned that plan after the sixth round. Perhaps he, or his corner, realized his success was fool's gold. Maybe it was. Maybe the game plan was to win the fight along the ropes. Perhaps Cotto was unwilling to make the same type of adjustments during the fight that Mayweather was.
Throughout most of the match, Cotto attacked Mayweather along the ropes. This led to a lot of "ooh aah" moments for the crowd, but most of his forays were examples of ineffective aggression. Of the five or six punches he would throw along the ropes, perhaps one squeaked by cleanly.
Cotto's one unadulterated round of success along the ropes was the 8th, where he teed off on Mayweather's body with right and left hooks. This was the Cotto that his supporters expected to see. It's not that Cotto didn't try throughout the fight, but Mayweather's defensive skills stymied most of his efforts along the ropes.
Having landed a few earlier in the fight, Mayweather featured his uppercuts in the later rounds. These punches cemented his victory. He countered with a single shot or started combinations with them, like left uppercut-straight right hand-left hook or right uppercut-left hook-straight right hand. His uppercuts were short and powerful, landing consistently on Cotto's chin. In the 12th round, he connected with a right uppercut that almost knocked Cotto out cold.
Don't let the wide (but accurate) decision obfuscate the reality of the fight; this was not the bout that Mayweather had signed up for. Sure, many thought that Mayweather would win a comfortable decision. 117-111 or 118-110 sounded very likely before the fight started, but this was not the typical Mayweather match whatsoever.
Mayweather often starts deliberately, dissecting his opponents and taking away their best weapons. As the rounds progress, he scores with single power shots and gradually incorporates his entire arsenal. He eventually lands at will. The last few rounds of his fights are usually mere academic exercises.
That is certainly not what happened on Saturday. Mayweather won the fight only because he edged out Cotto in a lot of close rounds. Mayweather didn't land with his customary precision and only in the 12th could it be said that he dominated the fight. He kept his jab safely by his side as the match progressed and his straight right hand only landed sporadically. Yes, he exhibited defensive mastery throughout the fight and displayed the intelligence, athleticism and skills that make him a great boxer, but it wasn't enough to truly outclass Cotto until the final few moments.
In short, Mayweather was unable to take away Cotto's will. Cotto thought he was in the fight throughout the entire 12 rounds. Mayweather is supposed to dissuade opponents from that kind of ambitious thinking.
Similar to one of the judges, I scored the fight 118-110, but it was not a wipeout victory like those against Mosley or Juan Manuel Marquez. To my eyes, there were small edges here and there which swung rounds in Mayweather's favor. He had to work hard for this victory.
True, Mayweather isn't as mobile as he used to be, but credit for the competitive nature of this fight belongs to Cotto. His conditioning was excellent. He demonstrated new defensive prowess. He fought within himself and was determined to pull out a victory. This Cotto was far superior to the weight-drained, self-trained fighter who faced Manny Pacquiao.
Ultimately, the great ones adapt. In addition, through skills, intelligence and working at their craft, they have more ways of winning than their opponents. Mayweather was able to secure a victory with his left and right uppercut – perhaps his 4th and 5th best punches – and a looping right hand, which wasn't even in his arsenal until this fight. (Think about how many recent champions don't even have three good punches.)
Cotto fought with spirit and determination but Mayweather made the crucial adjustments. Cotto was able to neutralize Mayweather's speed and take away some of his best weapons; however, he still came up short. For Mayweather, it wasn't his prettiest effort. He may not have been at his sharpest but Saturday's fight showed him at his most intelligent and versatile. This is one tough fighter to beat.
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