by Kieran Mulvaney
It would be easy to say that Miguel Cotto turned back the clock in a virtuoso performance against Sergio Martinez on Saturday night. It would be easy, but it would be wrong. Cotto, 33 years old and with 42 professional bouts and many ring miles under his belt, didn't look like the contender who 14 years ago began his body-punching assault on the 140-pound division. He was far superior to that young man, combining offense and defense more effectively and beautifully than at any stage of his long and glorious career; and the 21,090 in attendance at Madison Square Garden, which has applauded so many of the greatest nights of that career, roared in celebration when the bell rang to begin the tenth round, Martinez stayed on his stool, and Cotto was crowned the middleweight champion of the world.
By that stage it was remarkable the fight had even lasted that long. Cotto, bouncing on his toes and working behind a stiff jab and his trademark impassive mien, hurt Martinez in the opening 30 seconds of the first round with a left hook and, smelling blood, moved in instantly for the kill. A flurry put Martinez down as the crowd exploded in euphoria; seconds later, he was down again, and before the round was over the champion had been bowled over a third time. The excitement of the moment was matched only by the astonishing improbability of events: Martinez was supposed to be the stronger, faster, harder-hitting man, and yet Cotto was physically dominating him from the outset.
The Puerto Rican's hands were faster, his punches were harder, and despite being the smaller, lighter man, he dominated in the clinches, pushing Martinez around like a rag doll. Martinez survived the first round, and the second, and the third, but even as he began to clear his head, began to get his feet back under him, began to fight back and land southpaw right hooks and left hands, there was nothing to suggest he had the ability or the strategy to turn back the tide.
Cotto, constantly on his toes, showed perfect balance as he kept coming forward, putting Martinez under pressure. He switched his jab from head to body, keeping Martinez guessing and on the back foot, all the while looking to land that vaunted left hook - following it on occasion with an equally effective right hand.
Even when Martinez was able to launch an assault, Cotto's defense kept him out of trouble. In the ninth, Cotto slipped away from a lunging Martinez right hand and landed a short counter that caused Martinez to stumble and touch his glove to the canvas for a fourth knockdown. By then, Martinez, troubled by Cotto's punches and by his own balky right knee, was all but done, prompting his trainer Pablo Sarmiento to ignore his charge's entreaties for "just one more round," and to call for a halt to the contest.
Cotto landed a remarkable 54 percent of his punches, more than twice as many as Martinez, and almost every one of them detonated with greater authority than any of those thrown by the deposed champion.
"This is the biggest achievement of my professional career," said Cotto afterward, who thanked trainer Freddie Roach for "the most beautiful camp of my career."
Roach returned the love in spades.
"I think we passed the audition," he smiled, channeling John Lennon. "I'm so proud of Miguel. He worked very hard in camp. He deserved his historic victory. He was picture perfect. We won every round. He didn't get hit with nothing. His defense was beautiful. I kept telling him the same thing after every round: 'That round was better than the last one.'"
Of Martinez, Roach offered that, "He's got a lot of balls," for peeling himself off the canvas three times in that opening round. But such compliments were of course of little consolation to the Argentine.
"I got hit with the punch [in the first round] and I was cold and I never recovered after that. I tried to do my best and I want to apologize to the Argentine fans and I want to thank all of the Puerto Rican fans for coming out. You've got to know when to win and you've got to know when to lose and I give all congratulations to Miguel Cotto."
On this night, more than any other in a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, such congratulations were richly deserved.