Cotto says he's focused on Urkal; he better be
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Miguel Cotto's homecoming for his first welterweight title defense is being treated here as one big party by his legion of fans.
They are expecting Cotto (28-0, 23 KOs) to blow away mandatory challenger Oktay Urkal (38-3, 11 KOs) of Germany on Saturday night (9:45 ET, HBO) at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum so Cotto can move on to a much bigger June 9 showdown in New York against former undisputed champion Zab Judah.
Judah will be ringside praying that his meal ticket wins and that Urkal is not a party pooper. But even if Cotto wins, Judah will have to do his part by winning an April fight against an opponent to be named in order to assure that the June match with Cotto takes place.
In other words, Cotto and Judah each must win the most dangerous kind of fight there is -- the dreaded tune-up bout.
So much can go wrong.
So much has.
Remember that night in Tokyo in 1990, when Mike Tyson took a tune-up fight with that guy named Buster Douglas? It was supposed to be an easy heavyweight title defense and an easy payday on the way to a much-anticipated fight with Evander Holyfield.
Ten rounds later, Tyson had been knocked out and the best-laid plans went up in smoke.
There will be a lot of people worrying at ringside on Saturday, hoping nothing like that happens to Cotto.
There are the HBO executives who agreed to pay a whopping $2.5 million, or so, for Cotto-Urkal in order to secure a future with Cotto, one of the sport's young superstars the network hopes to ride for years to come.
Then there is Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who already has a lot invested in June 9.
"You're always nervous, so, of course I am," Arum said of the tune-up scenario. "They're always a danger. They are a calculated risk."
Cotto must fight Urkal if he wants to keep his WBA title, which he does. The fight is the result of a deal under which Urkal stepped aside in December so Cotto could fight Carlos Quintana for the vacant belt.
"Quintana refused to step aside and Urkal agreed, which is why we are stuck with the Urkal fight now," Arum said. "But he is a seasoned guy. This is a fight we have to do so Miguel can keep his title. It's a prelude to the June fight and you don't want to do a tune-up fight against an experienced guy like Urkal because you just never know what is going to happen."
Judah also must take a tune-up fight in order to qualify for a title fight. He is coming off two losses and must record a win before he will be allowed by the WBA to challenge for the title.
If anyone knows about the sort of havoc a tune-up fight can cause, it's Judah. He had a big-money deal set to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. in April 2006. First, however, he needed to defeat mandatory challenger Carlos Baldomir, a fighter even more obscure than Urkal, in January.
Judah was a massive favorite, but Baldomir pulled the upset of the year in Judah's hometown of New York. Judah still got his fight with Mayweather four months later, but his purse was radically cut because of the loss.
Cotto, of course, is playing the whole thing very cool. He seems relaxed and ready to go, claiming Judah is not on his mind.
"In boxing, you never look past your opponent," said Cotto, who scored a spectacular fifth-round knockout of Quintana to win the vacant belt. "All of my focus and concentration is on Urkal. I am defending my title in Puerto Rico and in my mind I am only thinking of Urkal. I know he is in top condition, has excellent skills and can fight. He will be one of the most experienced fighters I've ever met in the ring."
Assistant trainer Miguel Diaz supported Cotto's claim: "He's always focused on the opponent in front of him. He takes the fight as serious as a heart attack. He's been concentrating only on this fight, living on top of the mountain training with his sparring partners. He's focused, focused, focused. He's the type of kid who won't take Urkal lightly even though there's a big fight waiting for him.
"I can see why people would think he is looking ahead, but that is not the way he thinks. This kid is like a robot. He trains for Urkal and only thinks about Urkal. He will handle that and then move on to Judah."
One person who doesn't buy it is promoter Tony Holden, who is here because he promotes middleweight contender Allan Green, who faces Edison Miranda in the potentially explosive co-feature.
"I think tune-up fights are extremely dangerous. I hate 'em," Holden said. "I absolutely hate 'em. I don't care what anybody says. The fighter that's supposed to win takes the fight lightly. They can say they're not until they are blue in the face, but they are. The underdog can have the best fight of his life because he knows it's his one shot. You put them together and you see the upsets."
Tune-up fights are even more dangerous when they are in the favored fighter's hometown, Holden said.
"It's even more dangerous because there are more distractions," he said. "There is worrying about tickets, your family, your friends. You don't want to do it in your hometown. An hour before the fight they're worried about where their mother is sitting while the underdog is sitting in the dressing room getting ready. What does Urkal have to lose?"
Nothing, according to Urkal.
"The ring in Puerto Rico will be no different from the rings in Germany," Urkal said. "I have faith in my speed and shape. I will try to put him under pressure even though I expect him to be quite aggressive."
Urkal has fought top fighters before but come up short. All three of his losses came in junior welterweight title bouts to Kostya Tszyu and Vivian Harris (twice). He is undaunted, however, by his underdog status and hopes to upset Cotto's future plans.
"It's not the first time that I'm in the same ring with a world-class fighter," Urkal said. "Just like Cotto, Tszyu had a great record with a lot of KOs. I have learned from that experience. Getting four world title shots tells you something about my heart and my class.
"Cotto is very strong. He is a great champion. I watched five Cotto video tapes and spent a lot of time watching Cotto against Quintana. I was going to give it my all and if I see an opening [and] get him hurt, I am going to pounce on that opportunity. He is a strong champion, but I'm not certain if he has what it takes [in his chin]."
Urkal's words could haunt Arum, who knows firsthand just how badly tune-up fights can go.
"Nobody has been burned worse than me by tune-up fights," Arum said.
He and Holden were co-promoters on the wrong end of one of the most disastrous tune-up fights in boxing history.
Flash back to October 1993. Hot heavyweight contender Tommy Morrison had an $8.2 million deal in place to challenge champion Lennox Lewis a few months later.
However, Morrison and his manager, the late Bill Cayton, insisted on a tune-up fight. Morrison was at his best when he was busy, they said. Besides, there was an easy payday to make in front of an adoring hometown crowd in Oklahoma while waiting for Lewis.
Arum didn't want to do the fight. Holden didn't want to do it, either. But Cayton and Morrison insisted.
"They had to have this tune-up to keep busy and the easiest guy we could get was Michael Bentt," Arum said. "Tommy went out to get him out in one round so he could go back to partying and he got hit on the chin and that's all she wrote."
Bentt knocked Morrison down three times and finished him in the first round. Instead of $8.2 million in his next fight against Lewis on pay-per-view, Morrison made $60,000 to fight journeyman Tui Toia on ESPN. When Morrison finally did meet Lewis almost two years later, he made only about $2 million.
"You've got to understand Tommy Morrison. The fight with Lennox was three or four months down the road and if you didn't keep Tommy in the gym he would get in trouble," Holden said. "You had to fight him a lot. So we did the Bentt fight. I still regret it."
But Holden learned his lesson. When the opportunity for Green to face Miranda came up, Green was scheduled to fight Sherwin Davis, a hard-punching journeyman, in late January. Holden thought about going through with the fight until reason prevailed.
Green's hand had been sore and, more important, Holden didn't want to risk the Miranda fight because of the invaluable HBO exposure Green would receive, not to mention his first six-figure payday.
"I just canceled it," Holden said of Green-Davis. "I said, 'I'm not going to do it.' This fight with Miranda is a pivotal fight in Allan's career and I wasn't going to risk it, so I pulled him six days before the fight."
Arum has some close calls, too. He had a huge fight between Oscar De La Hoya and then-welterweight champ Pernell Whitaker all set to go in mid-1997 as long as both fighters made it though tune-up fights.
De La Hoya easily handled his business by defending his junior welterweight belt against Miguel Angel Gonzalez. The following week, however, Whitaker was losing badly to Diobelys Hurtado and it looked like the mega-fight with De La Hoya was going down the drain until Whitaker rescued it with a shocking 11th-round knockout.
"Please, don't remind me of that fight," Arum said. "I thought I was going to have a heart attack."
Arum didn't have one. Cotto will do what he can to avoid giving Arum one on Saturday.
"You just have to keep it in perspective," Cotto said. "[Saturday] it's going to be Urkal. That's the one I'm thinking about right now and getting ready for. Then, come June 9, I'll be ready and thinking about Judah. Right now, it's first things first. One step at a time."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.