After the fight, after Miguel Cotto dominated Sergio Martinez for nine rounds at Madison Square Garden, a man in a suit stood behind a podium to tell the gathered media that Martinez would not be attending the press conference because he had to go to the hospital for a precautionary check-up. Martinez, the man added, did want to pass along a message, though.
“The one thing he wanted me to tell you was there is no excuse,” the man said. “There was no problem with his knee. There was no problem with his hand. He got caught with a great punch in the first round and he never recovered. He wanted everybody to know this was Miguel Cotto’s night, this was Miguel Cotto’s victory. Miguel Cotto is a great champion.”
It was a classy move. Cotto had thoroughly defeated him, knocked him down three times in a stunning first round and kept up the punishment to such a degree over the next eight rounds that Martinez’s corner threw in the towel before the 10th. Cotto (39-4) had won every round on every judge’s scorecard.
Martinez (51-3-2) knew what many of us watching had seen. He looked slow and stiff and unbalanced and at times appeared to hobble. He had toppled over so easily, from punches that did not seem exceptionally powerful, and he had fought so poorly from beginning to end, that it was only natural to wonder whether he had ever really recovered from the injuries that had kept him out of the ring for more than a year. He’d had two surgeries on his right knee in two years, and he’d broken his left hand after each of his last two fights.
Just two years ago, Martinez was one of the five best pound-for-pound boxers in the world. He was a fearsome puncher who could beat his opponent to the punch with quick combinations or lie in wait before launching heavy counters. He wasn’t fast, but he was crafty and moved very well. He knew how to use the ring and his body to lure opponents into vulnerable positions. He’d mastered the art of timing an attack.
And so when the match-up with Cotto was first announced months ago, Martinez stood as a three-to-one betting favorite. At 159 lbs., he was the biggest opponent Cotto had ever had. There were questions as to whether Cotto, who usually fought in the 147-pound welterweight division, would maintain punching power as a middleweight.
From the start, Martinez did not seem to have strong legs under him. Seconds into the fight, he fell to the canvas after incidental body contact. The ref ruled it a slip. A minute later, Cotto hit him with a clean left hook that dropped Martinez.
The MSG crowd, heavy with Cotto supporters as always, went wild. The decibel level only increased over the following two minutes, as Cotto knocked Martinez down twice more, with a modest straight right and then a shot to the body.
“He was unstable and not responding,” Martinez’s trainer Pablo Sarmiento said after the fight. “He was hurt badly in the first round and he never got better. His knee was hurting bad.”
That much was clear. And perhaps Martinez, who is 39-years-old, recognized that much of the post-fight discussion would likely center around that knee, around whether the great middleweight champion had fought his last fight. And perhaps that’s why he was so adamant about declaring that this was Miguel Cotto’s night.
Because it was Cotto, as much as that knee, that made Martinez look old.
Cotto was too fast and too technically sound for Martinez. He moved beautifully, and his defense was precise. He attacked with combinations, then retreated faster than Martinez’s hands could reach him. He ducked Martinez’s hooks, and danced around the jabs. He cut off Martinez and trapped him against the ropes, delivering flurries to the body and hooks to the chin.
It was the finest Cotto had ever looked in the ring.
He gave much credit to his new trainer Freddie Roach, the legendary corner man with a keen eye for an opponent’s weaknesses and a brilliant mind for strategy.
The night was one for the front of the Cotto highlight reel, and so fitting it took place at Madison Square Garden, Cotto’s unofficial home arena. The most important moments of his career have come at the Garden. He won over New Yorkers with impressive wins at MSG over locals Pauli Malignaggi and Zab Judah. Then in late 2007, five months after the Judah fight, he beat Shane Mosely before a raucous crowd draped in Puerto Rican flags.
It was at the Garden where in 2011 he capped one of boxing’s great revenge stories by knocking out Antonio Margarito. Three years earlier Margarito had handed Cotto his first loss in a fight in which many suspect Margarito cheated by loading his gloves with plaster.
On Saturday night, Cotto marched to the ring in the darkness with no entrance music. The lights turned on when he reached the apron, and the crowd exploded, waving flags and chanting CO-TTO! CO-TTO!
The cheering never relented, rising with each knock down in the first round, and steadying through the following rounds. Cotto knocked Martinez down once more in the ninth. Martinez had shown no signs of turning the fight around. His trainer knew this better than anybody. Before the 10th, he told the referee to end the fight. This was Miguel Cotto’s night.
“Happiest day of my life,” said Cotto. “This is the biggest achievement of my professional career.”