Cotto's fire may burn hotter than ever

2/18/2009 - Boxing

If there's one advantage that boxing has when compared to most other sports, it's the possibility of immediate redemption.

A soccer player who misses the chance to win a championship will have to wait until the stars align themselves again and a new team with a perfect balance of both collective and individual skills and ambitions gives him another shot at glory. The same can be said about all other team sports, as well as many individual sports. But in boxing, redemption is just around the corner every time a fighter climbs into the ring, ready to crack his knuckles on his foe's humanity in search for glory.

The choice of the word "crack" in this context is no fluke. In that same crackling sound that captures the sudden burst of flames in the fire of victory and the dying creak in the graying embers of defeat lies the key to understanding the future of two of boxing's most outstanding champions.

By the way, the word "crack" also is often used to describe the sound of plaster as it breaks after a strong impact. Similarities to any plaster-related situation currently being reported upon in the world of boxing is mere coincidence.

The situation we're actually referring to involves two of the most exciting fighters in the world, Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto.

We could say that, only a few months ago, during their intense fight at Madison Square Garden, it was Margarito's turn to revive the flame of his glory with a resounding victory, while Cotto saw his splendor reduced to a heap of reddish coals.

In any other sport, the chance for redemption would have depended on a number of factors and statistics that wouldn't tell the whole story. But this is boxing, and in this scenario even the softest breeze can revive a shimmering fire and, in a split second, turn it into a huge inferno.

Much has been said about the trials and tribulations of Antonio Margarito and his apparent decision (whether alone or with the help of his trainer) to use what appeared to be plaster-loaded hand wraps in his recent fight against Shane Mosley. The consequences of that decision and Margarito's subsequent defeat at the hands of "Sugar" Shane already have been analyzed. It's now time to analyze the future of Margarito's most outstanding victim, Miguel Cotto.

At first glance, Margarito's problems should not have a negative impact on Cotto's career, beyond the possible suspension of their rematch, originally planned to be fought in June. Even though Margarito is studying the possibility of fighting in Mexico, no one seriously believes that Cotto will give Margarito a rematch on Margarito's home turf under his own conditions. And even though it's frustrating to see the suspension of a great fight, all the other possibilities that are now open to Cotto can easily make up for the frustration.

Let's explore Cotto's options, first by looking past his almost meaningless fight against Michael Jennings (advice to young contenders reading this: Don't try this at home). Fact: The British fighter may have a sterling record (34-1), but he has never fought outside of Great Britain and there are no significant names on his list of victims. There's no reason to think that Cotto will do anything but crush Jennings to claim the vacant WBO welterweight championship.

What we're really interested in is the next fight, which, depending on the name of his foe, could easily turn Cotto into the man to beat in the always-competitive 147-pound division.

Among all the current relevant welterweights in the world whose last name is not Mayweather, Cotto has defeated them all, with the exception of Margarito -- and that loss is now tainted. Quintana, Judah, Mosley and many other fighters of lesser talent have been clearly beaten by Cotto, and among the veteran contenders only the always-dangerous Joshua Clottey represents a serious threat.

Among the youngest contenders, perhaps Andre Berto is the one man whom Cotto must take seriously as a menace to his (imminent) crown. Berto's recent and exciting victory against Puerto Rico's Luis Collazo opened the door for Cotto to avenge his countryman and add another belt to his collection. A victory against Berto would elevate Cotto to the top of a very deep division and leave him with very few challenges on the horizon.

In any case, this is a difficult fight to make. Both are young boxers whose best years remain ahead of them, and each will surely choose to wait a few years before taking on such a challenge. Right now, the best chance for Cotto would be to fight the winner of a possible Mosley-Clottey bout, a crossroads fight between two veterans that may signal the beginning of the end for the loser's career. Although this fight is by no means in the works (outside of our feverish imagination), it is perfectly doable given that Mosley doesn't have another fight planned right now.

In this sweepstakes, we must also consider the importance of the toughest rivals whom all boxers must face: the promoters. The "Arum factor" is a matter to be considered in this puzzle. Arum's Top Rank promotes both Margarito and Cotto, and Arum's spirited defense of Margarito during his recent legal entanglement may affect the way in which this situation plays out. Arum has already decided that he will examine every possible option in order to put Margarito back in the ring again, and this could put any possible Cotto-Margarito rematch on hold indefinitely.

On the other hand, if Arum fails to resuscitate Margarito's career -- a very likely possibility due to the Mexican fighter's loss of credibility among his fans, the press and the network suits -- he may turn his attention to Cotto and the idea of making the fighter his new cash cow, getting him better and bigger fights and turning Cotto into Arum's main attraction beyond Manny Pacquiao. Speaking of which …

Let's curb our enthusiasm for a minute. Although thousands of fans would stand in line for days to get a ticket to Cotto-Hatton or Cotto-Pacquiao, these fights are a few million dollars away from actually happening. Talk is cheap, and it's always better not to confuse a promise with a promissory note. Let's stay with the more open and immediate possibilities, and we'll find plenty of exciting and more feasible fights to make.

Whatever the end of this story may be, it's clear that Margarito's legal problems have paved the way for Cotto to clear his name and stay atop the division. He soon could find himself in a position of privilege that rivals his clout before the Margarito fight: virtually undefeated (at least from a moral standpoint) and with a crack (there it is again) at Floyd Mayweather being all that separates him from status as one of the brightest fighters of his generation and one of the greatest in the history of the welterweight division.

Diego Morilla is a contributor to ESPN Deportes.