One of the truly intriguing fights of 2014 unfolds on Saturday between Miguel Cotto (38-4, 31 KOs) and Sergio Martinez (51-2-2, 28 KOs) at Madison Square Garden, New York City. Cotto seeks a title belt in his fourth weight class while Martinez (off over a year because of injuries) wants to reestablish himself as the dominant middleweight of his era. The buildup to the fight has featured all sorts of gamesmanship, from the maximum weight limit (159-lbs.) to the boxers' placement on the marketing materials to who walks in first to whether Martinez can wear a knee brace in the ring. Although both fighters have represented the sport with class and dignity, there is certainly no love lost between them.
Martinez is the betting favorite in the fight but Cotto will certainly have the crowd in his favor and he has a history of winning close decision at the arena. Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.
1. Martinez's health.
This key overrides all other factors for the fight. Since his victory over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in September of 2012, Martinez has had multiple knee and hand surgeries. During his last fight in April of 2013 against Marty Murray, Martinez's mobility and punching power showed marked signs of decline. After the fight, which he won via a competitive decision, Martinez went under the knife again.
Martinez's health is the mystery that surrounds Saturday's fight. Should he be close to 100%, he theoretically has advantages in power, size, speed, height and reach. However, his full recovery is anything but certain. Prior to the Murray fight, Martinez was barely able to spar. For this fight, it's unclear how much roadwork or sparring Martinez has actually done during training camp.
Pablo Sarmiento, Martinez's trainer, has eschewed lengthy sparring sessions for Martinez in the past, believing that gym wars could very well diminish his fighter, who is now 39. However, have they adequately tested the knee? Is the punching power still there? What about his reflexes? If Martinez isn't the same fighter as he was in his prime, Cotto could have many opportunities to impose himself in the ring.
2. Cotto must pressure Martinez early.
I think that Freddie Roach, Cotto's trainer, has the right idea here. He has repeatedly talked about an early-round knockout as his prediction for the fight. And although this outcome many not occur, the opening rounds may be Cotto's best opportunity to cause damage. Roach wants Cotto to test Martinez's knee, resolve and confidence immediately. Perhaps Martinez's knee can't take the stress of the fight and gives out. If Martinez hasn't sparred a lot, it's possible that he might need a number of rounds to get into the match. Maybe after such a long time out of the ring, the fire isn't there for him any longer. Also, his reflexes could have significantly deteriorated. Ultimately, it's up to Cotto to find out these answers by using pressure to force Martinez into uncomfortable situations.
Although Cotto isn't fleet-a-foot, he certainly has the tools for this game plan. He's excellent at cutting off the ring. He can use his jab, short right hand or left hook to get inside against an opponent. At close range, he can be deadly with body punching.
However, in recent fights Cotto hasn't always displayed the same killer instinct that he did when he was at his best. He looked terrific in his last fight in blitzing an overmatched Delvin Rodriguez but will he show the same type of aggression against an accurate and hard puncher like Martinez? If he doesn't, he may be in for a long night.
3. Martinez needs to be first.
Martinez can fight in a number of different styles but waiting to counter or sharpshoot Cotto may not be the best idea. Opponents seem to underrate Cotto's jab and right hand. Given the opportunity to land these punches, he certainly will. He even scored with a number of them against Floyd Mayweather, probably the best defensive fighter in boxing today. In Martinez's fights against Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin, he stayed in the pocket firing single, knockout-type counterpunches. The stoppages eventually happened but he lost a number of rounds in the process. Martinez can't wait for the knockout against Cotto; one big shot isn't the way to be beat him.
Cotto has excellent recuperative powers and a solid chin. He has lost to the pressure of Margarito, the hand speed and athleticism of Manny Pacquiao and Austin Trout and the intelligence of Floyd Mayweather. If Martinez gets off first, he will limit Cotto's opportunities, but if he waits for a big shot, he will put himself in harm's way far more often.
4. Cotto has to stick with the jab throughout the fight.
With the exception of outgunned opponents like Rodriguez or Carlos Quintana, where he was able to destroy them with left hooks, Cotto has been at his best when he works off of his jab. His jabs were critical in helping to secure victories against Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley. Even against a southpaw, like Zab Judah, his jab was able to set up his power punches.
In his 2012 fight against Trout, who, like Martinez, is a southpaw, Cotto never established his jab with any type of regularity. The only punch that he stuck with consistently was the straight right hand. After Cotto had some success early in the fight, Trout moved wonderfully to his right and essentially nullified that shot for the rest of the bout. Martinez is also cagey and very intelligent in the ring. If there is nothing coming from distance from Cotto's left side, Martinez will move to his right all night. In addition, even if Cotto can't land the jab consistently against Martinez, the stick will help establish other shots. The jab will help keep Martinez honest.
5. The more movement for Martinez the better.
Cotto is not exactly a lumbering fighter but he can't match Martinez's foot speed in the center of the ring. In addition, Cotto needs time to plant his feet to throw his power punches. For Martinez's best chance of winning rounds, he should fire off quick jabs and combinations and then step out, turning Cotto with footwork and angles to make him continually reset his feet.
Martinez has enough natural power (or at least had) that he should be able to cause damage even by keeping his punches and punch sequences short. This strategy will also minimize damage. If Martinez decides to remain in the pocket for long stretches of rounds, Cotto could seize those opportunities to land his best shots. However, if Cotto is constantly turning and unable to get into his power punches, he will be far less effective.
I'm going to assume that Martinez is close to healthy. He's had over a year to heal. (However, if he's far from his best physically, then all bets are off). With the stipulation that Martinez is close to 100%, in my estimation this fight is his to lose. He could beat Cotto with just his reach and speed alone.
However, Martinez can get cocky and overconfident in the ring, trying daredevil escape routes or pulling back with his hands by his waist. There is a showboat inside Martinez that can be exploited by a disciplined fighter. Furthermore, Martinez isn't as difficult to hit as he used to be. As his age has crept up, his speed and reflexes have decreased from their peak powers. If Martinez sticks to basic boxing without getting greedy for a knockout, he could win the fight in the walk – but I'm not sure that he will. Facing Chavez's menacing size and power, Martinez remained disciplined for a good 11 rounds. However, he still got caught in the final round being careless. Martinez underestimated Chavez's reach and got crushed by a right hand, leading to all sorts of problems.
Cotto will certainly have opportunities to land, but I think that he is in a bind with this matchup. I don't believe that he has the ability to win the fight legitimately on points and I'm not sure that he has the power to knock Martinez out. It's a conundrum that I don't think he will be able to solve.
Sergio Martinez defeats Miguel Cotto 116-112 (eight rounds to four).
Sergio Martinez defeats Miguel Cotto 116-112 (eight rounds to four).