By Diego Marilla
Sergio Gabriel Martinez and Miguel Angel Cotto were both born left-handed. Later in life, they both became professional prizefighters.
Under other circumstances, that commonality could have set their lives and their careers on very similar trajectories. But in their case, it would trigger two wildly contrasting ways in which each of them reinterpreted their natural condition. In time, those approaches would reveal much more about the two men.
Cotto decided to reinvent his natural handedness and adjusted his ring stance to accommodate every known boxing standard into his technique.
Martinez, on the other hand (so to speak), decided to break all molds to exploit his own condition in a similarly unusual way. He neglected the advantages and disadvantages of what purists would consider a "natural" ring stance in favor of a completely unorthodox one. He stands alone with his chin held high and unguarded, his hands hanging low below his waist, his irregular footwork, and his outbursts of punches from all angles in solid combinations.
So far, in their separate effectiveness, the decisions for both men have worked out quite well, as they are now world champions, millionaires, and idols in their respective countries.
But on their upcoming fight night, the early career-defining choices on the angle from which they approached boxing may come back to either haunt or to vindicate them. And their stylistic collision, with the differing philosophical approaches it implies, promises to create one of the most intriguing matchups in recent memory.
"Cotto comes from a very orthodox school of boxing, and I am the exact opposite," says Martinez. The stark difference in boxing styles will become evident when they meet in the ring of New York City's fabled Madison Square Garden with the world middleweight title at stake.
"Cotto has a very orthodox, ‘by the book' type of style. He fights the way everyone is taught to fight. He has a very neat style. He has a good hook to the body. He has a good straight right. Technically, he is quite ‘square.' And I am the opposite: I am anything but square," says Martinez.
Martinez's description is mostly accurate, except that Cotto's "square" fighting style has one decidedly un-square component: Cotto is what is known as a converted southpaw, which means he fights from an orthodox stance (leading with the left hand). This translates into greater speed and accuracy (and power, to a certain degree) for his jabs and hooks, and less versatility but more brute strength for his right hand. And this could become a factor for any unsuspecting foe who may be expecting the usual level of accuracy and strength of a naturally right-handed fighter only to end up facing a completely different combination of abilities instead.
Cotto made the conscious decision to box from an orthodox stance at a very early age, unknowingly taking a huge gamble on a technique that takes years to develop and which is not guaranteed to work for everybody. But when it does - as it did for famous converted southpaw Oscar De La Hoya, among others - it is something to behold.
Without a doubt, it's worked for Cotto for some time.
"It was simply a matter of feeling comfortable," says Cotto. He made the decision at the tender age of 11, when he was taking his first steps in boxing under the guidance of his father, Miguel Sr., and his uncle, Evangelista. "I felt I could fight more comfortably from an orthodox stance instead of the southpaw stance. I did start out as a southpaw, I tried to make it work, but I switched to the orthodox position and I've been fighting like this ever since."
The circumstances behind Martinez's decision to continue in the opposite direction bear some similarity to Cotto's.
After searching in vain for videotapes of left-handed role models, Martinez's handlers had an idea. "Back when I started training with my uncles Raul and Carlos Paniagua, they put a mirror in front of the TV set and said ‘Look, there they are, all of them fighting left-handed,'" reminisces Martinez.
The trick, as simple as it may seem, opened a host of new possibilities for the aspiring southpaw. And suddenly, what once was a modest library of boxing videotapes became a generous menu of different choices to enjoy. Liberated from the traditional southpaw model, he could choose any fighter, at any weight class, and with any ring stance imaginable for himself to imitate.
And he did steal a little bit from each one, creating his own collage of boxing idiosyncrasies that, together, comprise one of boxing's most unique stylistic mosaics. It was only the starting point of a lifelong way of approaching boxing differently - and pretty much everything else too.
"That was the beginning of seeing things from another angle," says Martinez. "And it was spectacular. It taught me, up until today, to see boxing from a different perspective. It helped me a lot. I don't need the mirror anymore, but I keep trying to turn things around in my favor. We all know that everything has been already invented in boxing. We need to look for the things that are still in our brains, the things that we can't see. And that's probably the reason why I have such an unorthodox style, where I get up in the ring and I fight in my own way, and when I do it, it ends up being the exact opposite to what people teach you and totally at odds with what my opponents have assimilated technically and physically."
Cotto is unfazed by the unique challenge posed by Martinez. "I don't have to really compare my style to his," he says. "All I have to do is perform as best as I can, and he has to make sure he'll be able to neutralize Miguel Cotto's ‘orthodox' style on June 7th.
Martinez, unsurprisingly, sees his singular approach tilting the fight in his favor.
"I am almost the anti-boxing. Every day, my stance is more loose and awkward, and my style is more and more unstructured. I am the antithesis of Cotto, and I believe this will make this fight so attractive. We'll see who is more intelligent. This fight will not go to the fastest or the strongest one - which is me, by the way - but rather to the most intelligent one. Which is also me."
Surely, neither one of them have ever faced someone else with the skill set that they will have in front of them on June 7th. Martinez quite likely never took on a fighter who could carry in his hands the unevenly distributed power of a converted southpaw with such efficiency, and Cotto certainly has never faced the human riddle that Martinez poses every time he steps in the ring.
The differences in their styles spill out of the ring as well. Cotto is Felix Unger to Martinez's Oscar Madison; a tongue-tied, subdued gentleman against a quick-witted, loquacious playboy; a short and stocky old-school fighter against a clownish and flamboyant ring performer.
And while their whole Shrek vs. Prince Charming act may look great on camera outside the ring, it isn't just a sideshow. Their styles are set and established, and the personal animosity that brewed between them during the buildup of this event could become the wild card that causes one of them to steer away from the game plan.
Martinez, for one, has already been exploring that avenue by provoking Cotto's ire and fueling it, little by little.
"He has a disrespectful way towards people, but he's neither bad nor good because of this, maybe this is his defense mechanism," says Martinez about his foe. "It is simply his way of being. Spiritually and psychologically, he is very strong."
Cotto's been defining himself on his own terms his entire life - even when it meant overcoming his own natural tendencies. And he's not about to let Martinez dictate the fight for him.
"The only person from whom I have to shield myself is my true worst enemy, which is me," he says. "It's a personal matter for me to win on June 7, and I'm working towards it."