- Kieran Mulvaney, Boxing
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LAS VEGAS -- For some fighters, there is "the moment" -- a definable, demonstrable point at which they explode into public consciousness and force people to take them seriously as contenders or champions.
Lennox Lewis' destroying Razor Ruddock inside two rounds was a moment, as was Samuel Peter's almost beheading Jeremy Williams and David Tua's needing just 19 seconds to render John Ruiz unconscious.
Not everyone has one obvious, identifiable moment. A select few have a veritable catalog from which to choose. What, for example, would be Floyd Mayweather's moment? His shockingly easy defeat of Genaro Hernandez to annex his first world title after just 17 fights? His almost embarrassingly easy blowout of Angel Manfredy in his first title defense? Or the way he dismantled Diego Corrales with consummate ease in 2001?
The moment reflects the man: For Lewis, Peter and Tua, it was explosive; for Mayweather, the moments were sublimely skillful, breathtaking displays of talent and speed.
Which perhaps explains why Miguel Cotto, who will defend his welterweight crown against Antonio Margarito on Saturday in Las Vegas, doesn't have a moment on his résumé. There hasn't been one particular fight, one spectacular knockout, one evening above all others that has served as an official announcement of Cotto's arrival. Instead, Cotto's career has been a steady, grinding progression, a relentless reflection of his fighting style.
Cotto is neither an explosive fighter nor a flashy one. Inside the ropes, he is a no-nonsense slugger, a throwback to an earlier era. He moves forward inexorably, chin tucked, steadily beating the resistance out of his opponent with a bombardment of punches to the head and particularly the body. Outside the ropes, he appears to neither solicit attention nor shrink from it, conveying only the confident but serious countenance of a man for whom fighting is a profession, his brows knotted into a seemingly permanent scowl, the corners of his mouth rarely turning up into anything resembling a smile.
In conversation, he is all business, eschewing expansiveness and boastfulness. Whereas a certain recent welterweight champion could be easily goaded into bleating about an alleged lack of respect, Cotto professes that he is unconcerned about his perception and legacy.
"If you give me the opportunity to put myself on the scale of boxers, I'm going to put Miguel Cotto at the highest level I can," he told reporters last week. "But my work is just to train and box. It is the work of the people who know about boxing, the writers, to put Miguel Cotto in the rank they think. It's not my work to put myself on a list. I'm just here to fight, to do my work the best I can."
"You understand that as far as Miguel Cotto is concerned, he's just in the ring to win the fight," added his promoter, Bob Arum, as if further explication of Cotto's position was needed. "That's what a professional fighter who knows what he's doing, who's a great fighter, does."
The nearest the Puerto Rican comes to bragging -- or displaying any kind of emotion -- is when conversation turns to the improvements he has made in recent fights.
"The last two years for me were wonderful because all the people who write about boxing, they saw another Miguel Cotto, not just the Miguel Cotto who can put pressure on opponents," he said. "A Miguel Cotto who can box and move. When you can do those kind of things, people can tell you you're a complete fighter, and those are the kind of fighters people want to see."
His is not an isolated opinion.
"He is a better all-around fighter, yes," agreed boxing historian Graham Houston, who occasionally writes for ESPN.com. "The jab has improved, and he switches to southpaw very nicely, and he has shown he can box as well as fight."
It is an evolution even his opponent acknowledges.
"We have been on a couple of cards together, and I have watched him fight," Margarito said. "He has gotten better every year. He had a really good run at 140 and now 147, and he has turned into a very good fighter."
Part of the reason for that improvement, assert Cotto and his handlers, has been the move to 147 pounds. Cotto describes making the 140-pound limit at which he had fought until the end of 2006 as "destroying" himself, and Arum argues it was responsible for some of the wobblier moments in his fighter's career -- being rocked by DeMarcus Corley, of all people, and knocked down in a slugfest with Ricardo Torres.
"After Miguel's last fight at 140 pounds, Todd [DuBoef, Top Rank's president] took him to Los Angeles to Personal Velocity Training," Arum said. "And they did a complete evaluation, and they said to Todd that we had to be crazy to have Miguel fight at 140 pounds, because in order to make weight, he was burning muscle. And in the 24 hours between the weigh-in and when he got in the ring to put the weight back on, he didn't put the muscle back on. So he was getting tired, he was getting weak and he was getting hurt by punches. At 147, he's his natural weight, and that's changed him tremendously. Having him fight at 140 pounds was a tremendous disservice to Miguel, and the change has been dramatic since he moved to 147."
Houston agrees Cotto looks "more durable" at 147, and the Puerto Rican likely will need that durability and his improved skills against Margarito.
In his first full year at welterweight, Cotto has defeated such top-drawer talent as former champions Zab Judah and Shane Mosley. Yet Margarito stands as the most meaningful and dangerous test of his career thus far.
Despite boasting 32 wins from 32 outings, despite the fact that only six of those 32 wins have gone the distance, despite a WBO belt at 140 pounds and the WBA strap at welterweight, Cotto still has his doubters. They claim that his early scalps were too small or too old and that his later signature wins came against foes who were past their primes. They dismiss his style as robotic and metronomic, and they wonder aloud how he will fare when forced to fight at a more frenetic pace.
Most of all, though, they question whether his chin will hold up when cracked by a genuinely hard puncher.
To all those questions, Margarito is the perfect answer. Unlike Judah and Mosley, he still is considered to be at the top of his game. He is four inches taller than Cotto, with a longer reach. He is a pressure fighter with a granite chin who, at his best, appears to derive an almost singular joy from inflicting punishment on his opponent.
His most recent bout, a six-round demolition of Kermit Cintron in Atlantic City, N.J., was almost frightening in the quasi-masochistic way Margarito seemed to enjoy walking through Cintron's punches as he tore forward to land his own.
If there is a consensus on the matchup, it is that it will come down to a clash of Cotto's all-around skills and brutal body punching and Margarito's physical advantages and relentless aggression.
"I think [Cotto] wins by decision against Margarito," Houston predicted. "I think his jab is going to be important here. I think he can use the jab to break up Margarito's attacks. The body punches against a tall, rangy Margarito can be effective, too. Of course, he will be under intense pressure, and this is a very tough fight for Cotto, it goes without saying."
Margarito certainly makes no attempt to disguise the questions he plans to ask of Cotto when they meet in the ring at the MGM Grand on Saturday night.
"I am the type of fighter that throws a lot of punches and puts a lot of pressure on my opponent, and we'll see how he comes out and how he reacts to it," he said. "I think my strength is my power and my stamina and to be on top of him all the time."
Cotto, predictably, is less expansive in discussing his own strategy.
"I will use whatever I need to use to win this fight," he said. "I can't tell you what style I will have to use, and until I get in the ring, I don't know what style will win this fight -- move or box. But I will try and use everything."
It is a typical Cotto response. It is as if there is no point in discussing a strategy in advance, in speculating on how events might unfold, any more than there is in contemplating how the fight fits into the long-running ring rivalry between Mexico and Puerto Rico or whose fans will be ascendant in the arena.
"I don't have to talk to anyone about this rivalry," he said. "I only need to know about Margarito and myself. It does not matter to me what kind of person is going to be in the crowd that night. The only people inside the ring are going to be the referee, Margarito and me."
At that point, when the corner teams and officials have stepped outside the ropes, when the bell rings and the fight begins, Cotto will do what he always does: Tuck his chin, move forward and go to work.
And if all goes according to plan, then maybe, when it is over, Miguel Cotto finally will have his moment.
Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.