Miguel Cotto and Ricardo Mayorga battle this Saturday on Showtime pay-per-view. (Photo by Tom Casino/Showtime)
There once was a time when an upcoming Ricardo Mayorga fight really excited yours truly. Mayorga's stunning knockout defeat of Vernon Forrest in 2003 was one of the things that turned me from a boxing fan to a boxing junkie. I was really captivated by his style and his presence. While Forrest was touted as arguably the world's best pound-for-pound and had just signed a huge deal with HBO, Mayorga was some Nicaraguan brawler, all but plucked off the streets to be fed to the rising superstar, some sort of cigarette-smoking sideshow. He would talk, he would make it exciting, and he would lose.
Things didn't quite work out that way. Forrest was a superior fighter in just about every single way, but Mayorga simply had his number. Vernon clearly wasn't quite mentally prepared for the firepower and machismo Mayorga was bringing to the table, and succumbed to his heavy-handed attack in the third round, when referee Marty Denkin waived off a pummeling. A dazed Forrest protested, but it was no use. Ricardo Mayorga was the new welterweight champion of the world, stunning everyone in and around boxing.
Their rematch six months later was a lot more competitive. Mayorga got out with another win, scoring a 12-round majority decision victory. But the reign of terror wouldn't last long. He was matched with Cory Spinks next, and after taking his trash talk to an all-time low by "promising to reunite Spinks with his dead mother," the St. Louis native took the crown with a majority decision win in Atlantic City.
Since that loss to Spinks, Mayorga has fallen back to reality. And reality is, he's an incredibly crude boxer with big power, a ferocious demeanor, a tasteless attitude when the cameras are rolling, and a knack for selling a fight. He beat Eric Mitchell in a bounce-back fight, then was decimated by Felix "Tito" Trinidad in October 2004. That fight is most famous for Mayorga dropping his hands and daring the powerful Trinidad to strike him, which he did, repeatedly. Mayorga laughed off the blows and taunted the Puerto Rican star, but eventually was beaten down in the eighth round.
He got back on the winning track and claimed an alphabet trinket at 154 pounds with a win over Italy's Michele Piccirillo, a dominant performance from Mayorga. That fight, and the belt he got from it, put Mayorga in line to serve as Oscar de la Hoya's comeback opponent in May 2006. The "Golden Boy" had been out of the ring following a September 2004 knockout loss to Bernard Hopkins in his failed bid to claim a legitimate championship at middleweight, and needed someone who could sell a fight, and also someone against whom Oscar would be favored. Mayorga fit the bill beautifully, and upped his trash talk game again, constantly questioning Oscar's sexuality (that old standby) and making remarks about his wife. Mayorga helped Oscar de la Hoya sell the fight wonderfully with his antics.
And then the bell rang, and Oscar thrashed Mayorga in six rounds. If there had been any remaining question about who Ricardo Mayorga was, Oscar made it very clear on that night. Mayorga is a superstar at the press conferences, the nastiest, meanest, foulest trash talker in the world. He can get people interested in seeing him fight, either to have him shut up, or to see him make good on his constant threats to kill his opponents and adopt their children and make love to their wives. Mayorga the character is a big deal.
But bell-to-bell, Mayorga the fighter has long since been figured out. He lacks any semblance of defense, relies on his chin which has been dented to the point that it's no longer special, and hopes to wing enough incredibly wild power shots to eventually knock someone out. An overweight Mayorga fought an overweight Fernando Vargas in what really amounted to a great novelty fight in November 2007 after losing to Oscar, and won that one. He then was knocked out with one second remaining in his September 2008 fight against Shane Mosley, having been on the other side of one of Mosley's all-time worst performances, keeping Mayorga in the fight. After an aborted attempt to fight Din Thomas in mixed martial arts, Mayorga returned to boxing in December 2010, beating veteran Michael "The Night Stalker" Walker, who was 1-6-1 in his last eight fights.
Mayorga, though, is an attraction. When he decides to be serious for a short period about his career, he always finds a fight. And now he's found another one. At a beaten-up 37 years of age, Saturday night might be Ricardo Mayorga's last chance to truly cash in on his notoriety.
Miguel Cotto is no stranger to big fights himself, but at 30, there are questions about how much he has left. Like Mayorga, he's taken a lot of punishment in his career, and lost a couple of fights in brutal fashion. The first came in 2008, when he was stopped in the 11th round of a truly grueling and time capsule-worthy war with Antonio Margarito. And then in November 2009, a very game Cotto was outmaneuvered and outslugged by Manny Pacquiao, this time stopped in the 12th round.
In both losses, you could argue that Cotto gave up -- not that he "quit" or was some kind of punk about it, but that he reached a wall and decided that enough was enough. Against Margarito, he wilted and took knees until his corner threw in the towel. Against Pacquiao, though he kept trying to fight going backwards, he was in fact on his bicycle and by the time referee Kenny Bayless stepped in, he seemed like that was exactly what he wanted. In both fights, he had been bloodied and battered, and had given his all. There is no shame in either of Miguel Cotto's losses, but the signs of an overall fatigued fighter were evident.
Cotto has also not fought for nearly a year. In his last fight, the popular Cotto was the star attraction in Bob Arum bringing boxing back to Yankee Stadium for the first time in three decades. In the main event on HBO, Cotto stopped an injured and gutsy Yuri Foreman in the ninth round of his first fight at junior middleweight. Having done all he could at 140 and 147 pounds, the relatively diminutive Cotto took out a clearly bigger man, but one without much pop, or even much speed for that matter. Foreman, a respectable fighter, just didn't have the boxing skills of Cotto, and no amount of height advantage was going to help him overcome the challenge.
It was also Cotto's first fight under trainer Emanuel Steward, and the jury is still out on the somewhat odd pairing. There simply wasn't enough of a proper fight that night for us to gauge how the two were meshing, what with Foreman's bad knee injury. The job was done, and then Cotto passed up a chance to fight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. late in the year due to shoulder surgery.
What we have, at the end of the day, is an undersized junior middleweight facing a mostly washed-up, one-dimensional street fighter. Mayorga used to be all fireworks. Nowadays, he's a lot of waiting and some fireworks. Cotto used to be a dominant body puncher. Nowadays, he seems to be a bit more tentative than he used to be, a bit less fearless. And a bit less vicious. The last time we saw the Miguel Cotto of old, it was because he was matched against, who posed zero threat to him. Against Joshua Clottey and Pacquiao, Cotto was good but not quite himself. And the Foreman fight offered no answers because of its bizarre nature.
The size difference may be a huge factor. When this fight was signed, my instinct was that Cotto's vast superiority to Mayorga would make the fight all but a sham, a relatively easy payday so long as Cotto didn't do anything stupid like abandon defense or stick his chin out for the rugged Mayorga to blast. But seeing the two together, it's quite clear that Miguel Cotto is absolutely not a junior middleweight, and Ricardo Mayorga, though short for the weight, carries it a lot better than does Cotto. Miguel was a small welterweight, at 5'7" with 67-inch reach. For all the talk of Pacquiao being a Mighty Mouse marvel at 147 pounds, Cotto is really no bigger than the Filipino icon, and that looked to be the genuine case when they fought. Mayorga, at 5'9" with a 70" reach, is broad in the shoulders, sort of the proverbial brick shithouse at the weight. Cotto fought the 5'9" Shane Mosley and defeated him, and Mosley even has a 74" reach, but Mosley is leaner in his upper body than Mayorga.
Cotto has seen all stripes of fighter in his celebrated career. Pacquiao, Mosley, Margarito, Clottey, Malignaggi, Ricardo Torres, and many more. He has faced the best consistently in his career, and done a pretty good job, I'd say. But Mayorga presents a new challenge, even faded as he is. Cotto has always been tough, but has never had the sturdiest chin or the best ability to take punches, and when we have seen him truly hurt in recent fights, he has not responded particularly well.
The reality facing Miguel Cotto this Saturday night is that although Mayorga is no more or no less than what he is, and he's not hard to gameplan for or figure out, he cannot get hit with power shots. Mayorga still has very heavy hands and when one of his right hand bombs lands, the opponent feels it for sure. Cotto is at a physical strength disadvantage, and I'm guessing in a big way. If he can't hurt Mayorga, he could find himself doing all he can just to keep Ricardo off of him.
How does he hurt Mayorga? To the body. Hard, fast, repeated shots to the body. Cotto will have a huge advantage in speed and smarts. He's simply a better boxer than Mayorga, and that's not even close. Mayorga can almost surely only win this fight because of his power. Is Cotto going to be aware of that, or too aware of it? Again, he's been a bit tentative in recent fights. If he comes in too worried about Mayorga's power, he might miss his own offensive opportunities, and Ricardo presents a lot of them. And it could give him some deer in the headlights moments, and those could be lights out.
I am a huge fan of both of these guys as fighters. They have both been personal favorites of mine for years, and I find this fight really interesting as a style clash. It's going to come down to what version of Miguel Cotto shows up. If he's on his game, I think he beats Mayorga pretty handily, and if he does attack the body, could stop him in the mid-to-late rounds. Mayorga looks in shape, but you never know how hard he's had to work to get down to where he is now, and what toll that may have taken on him. When there's a 37-year-old, battle-scarred guy in front of you, I say go at him. But if Mayorga knocks out Miguel Cotto, it won't be an upset on the level of his first fight with Forrest. It will just be the cold, hard truth that Miguel Cotto is too small for the junior middleweight division. Cotto UD-12
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Showtime will have three televised fights on the pay-per-view undercard, so let's take a brief look at those.
Lightweights, 12 Rounds: Miguel Vazquez (27-3, 12 KO) v. Leonardo Zappavigna (25-0, 17 KO)
A lot of Aussie fans are very excited about "Lenny Zappa," and it's hard to blame them. He fights with reckless abandon and goes for knockouts. He has spent the bulk of his career fighting in his home country against inferior competition, but the 23-year-old brawler has shown no fear of fighting abroad and making a name for himself. In his last fight, he stopped right hand bomber Ji Hoon Kim in 1:41, seven months after making his American TV debut against Fernando Angulo and struggling pretty mightily en route to a debated decision victory. I really can't get the Angulo fight out of my head when thinking of Zappa's long-term prospects, which means I don't think he's a future superstar or anything. But he could definitely have a career a lot like countryman Michael Katsidis. Vazquez is 24, but with a lot more useful experience and knowledge than his age might indicate. He beat Breidis Prescott on Friday Night Fights in July 2009, then beat Kim a year later to pick up an alphabet belt. In his last fight, he beat veteran fringe contender Ricardo Dominguez. Vazquez really doesn't have a lot of power, but he's a clever fighter and has overcome big punchers in two of his last three fights. Zappavigna has more action star upside, and he won't go away if he loses here. I don't like his chances in this fight, to be perfectly honest. I just think Vazquez is a more advanced, more developed fighter.
This one is going to depend on what kind of shape Foreman is in. He's been on the shelf since his June 2010 loss to Cotto, recovering from surgery on his right knee. He says he'd had the injury since he was 15 years old, so I guess you can chalk that up to bad luck that it cropped up on him bad given that he's had it half his life. Foreman is a decent fighter and seems like a great guy. But he's also a media creation. You can't get around the fact that someone with his level of talent would never have been the B-side headline of a fight at Yankee Stadium if it weren't for his backstory, which is interesting and all, but doesn't cover for his limitations in the ring. He has no power, isn't particularly quick, isn't really that good defensively, and doesn't really do much of anything well. He's intelligent and has been able to beat fighters who also weren't all that good. But on the world class level, I think he'll fall short every time. He's just not good enough to beat top-tier guys. Good news for him is that Wolak is not a top-tier guy, either, and Foreman has beaten guys on his level plenty already. There's not much that separates Wolak from your garden variety fringe contenders. He's rugged and can take some shots. His only loss came in 2008 to Ishe Smith, but his best wins are over C-minus type fighters. He likes to come forward and engage in a scrap, though, and that could be worrisome for Foreman, who has shown great discomfort when getting hit in past fights. All in all, I think you have to give Yuri plenty of credit for not fighting a patsy in his comeback. Even before Cotto, I would have considered Wolak a credible threat to Foreman, and with the rust on him, I think he's definitely got a shot. On paper, it seems like a bit of a risk for the promoters at Top Rank, but realistically I don't think Foreman's natural fanbase is very substantial, and they've probably gotten all the mileage they're going to get out of marketing the fighting rabbi. I get the feeling Foreman is going to have a horrible time winning this fight.
Heavyweights, 4 Rounds: Tom Zbikowski (1-0) v. Richard Bryant (1-2, 1 KO)
Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski is getting back in the ring for the first time since 2006, and facing -- for now, these fights change a lot -- a 35-year-old from London, Kentucky, who was stopped in 57 seconds in his last fight. This fight made the broadcast because Christy Martin pulled out of her bout, and I keep going back and forth on whether or not I consider it an upgrade to the broadcast. I do know for a scientific fact that Matt Korobov (13-0, 8 KO) is scheduled to fight on Saturday, and I feel it's a real shame that Top Rank isn't putting him on the bill instead, since he's an actual boxer who will still be fighting in a year. Even as cold as Korobov leaves me, I'd rather see him fight the shell of Michael Walker (19-6-2, 12 KO) than see this Zbikowski exhibition nonsense. It's nice that he has a passion for boxing and all that, but so do a lot of guys, and their first two pro fights aren't at Madison Square Garden and the MGM Grand. Just rubs me the wrong way, and I find it silly, since Tom Zbikowski is hardly some big star who is going to give them a bunch of $50 pay-per-view buys that they wouldn't have had without him on the TV portion of the show. But whatever.