by Hamilton Nolan
It seems impossible that Miguel Cotto is only 32. His peers atop the list of "Most Popular Veteran Boxers in the World" are all in their late 30s. Cotto (37-4) has the disposition of an old man, a kind of grim and quiet nature borne of many, many wars. And he has seen more than enough wars for a single career. He's walked through wars that would have retired an ordinary fighter long ago. Still he is able to not only fight on, but to thrive, and sometimes to conquer. Perhaps he will regret this fact down the road.
After being beaten to a bloody pulp by Antonio Margarito (who may have been using loaded hand wraps) in 2008, it would have been reasonable for Cotto to retire. Instead, he came back to easily beat Margarito three years later. After being brutally dismantled by Manny Pacquiao in 2009, it would have been reasonable for Cotto to retire. Instead, he went on to fight the only fighter more famous than Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, in 2012, and gave him the hardest fight he'd had in years. It would have been reasonable for Cotto to retire after that, having climbed (but not conquered) the two highest mountains in the sport. Instead, he carried on against the talented but unheralded Austin Trout--who beat him last December, in a display of canny prowess that disappointed those who considered it a stepping stone back to the top for Cotto, who remains one of Puerto Rico's greatest boxing heroes.
Watching Cotto take those vicious beatings, one could hardly help but to hope that he would retire gracefully. Watching him snap back the head of the greatest boxer in the world, one could hardly help but to hope that he continued fighting into old age. Cotto is not an elusive fighter. Nor is he speedy--not as speedy as he was when he was younger, and never particularly fast for his division. He relies on heavy hands, a shell-like defense, and a determined, stalking style that eventually corners his opponents and chops them down. He also relies on the fact that he can take a punch. And a knockdown. And he does take both. His warrior mentality and his hittability go hand in hand.
Miguel Cotto is still capable of hanging with--and sometimes beating--the world's best fighters. On the other hand, he has already won the belts, earned the money, fought the best, and proven exactly where he falls in the pantheon. He has talent, still, but nothing left to fight for. So what does he do? He is, at heart, a fighter. He fights on.
Delvin Rodriguez (28-6-3) is a fighter too. All you need to do to determine that is to look up the video of his July 15, 2011 fight against Pawel Wolak, one of the most rock-em sock-em displays of grit we're likely to see this lifetime, a draw that left Wolak's eye looking like a rotten pomegranate. Rodriguez, a tall light middleweight from Connecticut who's spent his career dancing on the edges of boxing's highest tiers, won the rematch, rather easily. Then he dropped a decision to Austin Trout (no great crime) before notching two TKOs and earning a shot against Cotto.
Though he's lived a boxing life under a much smaller spotlight than Cotto, there's a lot to admire about Rodriguez. He gives the impression of a naturally gawky fighter who's trained his way into some semblance of athleticism, and he always fights with the fierce sort of furrowed-brow determination found in boxers who succeed not with genetic gifts but with hard, hard work.
Rodrigueze is a year older than Cotto, but he's taken marginally less wear and tear. He lacks Cotto's heavy hands, and his devastating hooks to the gut. But he proved in the Wolak fight that he can handle pressure fighters who come forward. He tends to use a nonstop lashing jab, move constantly, and fold his long upper torso up into the shape of a question mark to save himself from body shots. Cotto is not particularly fleet of foot, but he has a way of closing distance during the course of a fight until he is just inches from his opponent's chest, driving his arms relentlessly into open spots like pistons in a perpetual motion machine. It seems doubtful that Rodriguez can knock Cotto out. But if he can whip his face with jabs all night and stay away, he has a chance to win. The fight will likely turn on whether or not Cotto can get up close and personal with Rodriguez's body. If he can, he can unleash power that few in the world can stand and face.
This is the biggest fight of Delvin Rodriguez's career. He can only hope that his own determination and Miguel Cotto's hard years of punishment meet somewhere in the middle.