When Miguel Cotto last fought at New York's famed Madison Square Garden, the fighter who had adopted the arena as his home court was finally defeated on his own turf. Austin Trout, a young and tricky opponent, larger than Cotto and without the miles from years of tough fights, beat the Puerto Rican superstar by unanimous decision.
The loss was the first that Cotto had ever suffered at the Garden, coming in his eighth fight at the venue. The Garden was once a king among hosts for the sport of boxing, but with the way the sport has evolved (or devolved), and with New York taxes deterring many elite-level fighters from wanting to fight in the State, it has become more a novelty than a home for boxing in recent years.
The lone exception has been Cotto, who first fought at MSG in 2005, beating Muhammad Abdullaev. Wins in big fights over Paulie Malignaggi, Zab Judah, Shane Mosley, Joshua Clottey, and Antonio Margarito followed over the next six years, with a bounce-back win over Michael Jennings in 2009 thrown into that mix, as well.
Cotto, now 33 and past his prime, faces a stiff challenge indeed on Saturday night, when he moves up to the middleweight division for the first time to take on world champion Sergio Martinez. At 39, Martinez is himself no spring chicken, and his last two fights have revealed some chinks in his armor. He dominated against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr in September 2012, only to have to survive a harrowing 12th round, and had a lot of trouble last April against Martin Murray, escaping with a somewhat controversial win in Argentina.
Martinez (51-2-2, 38 KO) has ruled the 160-pound division since beating Kelly Pavlik in 2010, but a lot has changed in those four years. Most notably, Martinez is getting older, and injuries appear to be catching up with him. Cotto, in comparison to Sergio, is a young, fresh man for this matchup, and emboldened by new trainer Freddie Roach, he seemed to have rediscovered a vicious spark in his last fight, a win over Delvin Rodriguez in October 2013.
Cotto (38-4, 31 KO) won't be facing Delvin Rodriguez this time, but it remains to be seen what level Martinez is really at these days. He says he's physically refreshed after a long layoff, which has given his body time to heal, but even if that's true, there's also the question of ring rust. More likely than not, Roach is going to send Miguel out there to test the physical limits of Martinez as soon as they can, gauging whether or not his body and legs are what they once were. Freddie has studied Martinez quite a bit; after all, he was in the corner and devised the game plan that Chavez ignored for that big fight, nearly two years ago.
Roach has said many times before that fight, and since then, that he feels he has the game plan to beat Martinez, whom he describes as a "great athlete, but not a great fighter."
Obviously, all is easier said than done. Martinez has not gotten to where he's been or even where he is just on athleticism. A slick and quick southpaw, Sergio will have some height on Cotto, but Rodriguez did, too. Size won't really be the issue. Though Martinez has been at the weight for years now, he's always been fighting small as a middleweight, much as Cotto did at 154 pounds and will do again on Saturday. Their fight night weights might not even be much different.
So it comes down to style, first and foremost, as it always does, and then there are the questions of what Martinez has left. The X-factor could be the crowd, which will surely be at least an 85-15 sort of split in Cotto's favor. He's no longer quite the conquering hero he was in his heyday, but Miguel Cotto remains one of the most popular and visible names in boxing, and MSG has been his favored stomping grounds, as he's been able to draw incredible support from New York's large Puerto Rican population. Surely, they're going to turn out in droves once again, loudly cheering on their man as he looks to win a world title in a fourth weight class, a fighter potentially reborn as an offensive destroyer, the man that they came to love so long ago with his vicious body attack and icy demeanor.
The sad reality is that when Cotto does inevitably retire from the sport, Madison Square Garden is going to have some significant trouble finding a replacement and staying a relevant venue in the fight game. Unless someone like Felix Verdejo steps up to fill that void -- and that's entirely possible -- and is willing to give up some change to fight at MSG, we may be seeing the true dying days of the great arena as pertains to boxing. It's a shame, but it's just the way the boxing world works these days. Vegas is king for the big fights in the United States, and it's hard for anyone else to compete with that money.
It's even possible that this could be Cotto's final fight at the Garden. He's proclaimed interest in a potential rematch with Floyd Mayweather, and that certainly would not take place in New York. And a loss may send him into retirement.
He's 7-1 and has set records at his home away from home. Sergio Martinez will look to make him 7-2 and then move on to the next big fight that's out there, potentially with Gennady Golovkin. Cotto, of course, wants to make history, wants to prove he's still a top fighter, and wants to get back to his winning ways at MSG. It's a venue that deserves champions and championship fights, big-name fighters that the New York fans can call their own. Miguel Cotto may be the last of a dying breed, but he's back for at least one more ride on Saturday night.