By Fox Doucette
The great philosopher and musical genius W. Axl Rose once sang “Yesterday, there was so many things I was never told. Now that I’m startin’ to learn, I feel I’m growing old.” For Miguel Cotto (36-2, 29 KOs), who is 31 but in the minds of most boxing fans may as well be turning forty for all of the miles on his odometer, these lyrics are oddly appropriate. Nobody told the Puerto Rican that his opponent for his WBA title at welterweight back in 2008, Antonio Margarito (38-7, 27 KOs) could’ve been using loaded hand wraps in what would, for Margarito, be a fateful turning point in the arc of his career. Now that Cotto is getting his rematch seven pounds up the scale, people are wondering how much he has left in his tank.
Make no mistake about it. If you buy one pay-per-view this year, make it this one, because for fifty-five bucks you not only get an intriguing main event between two big punchers who deliver the goods every time they step into the ring, you also get a rematch of a Fight of the Year candidate at junior middleweight, a guaranteed war at welterweight, and a big underdog fighting for a title at lightweight. Without further ado, here’s everything you need to get you ready for a televised early Christmas present from the Sweet Science.
Pawel Wolak (29-1-1, 19 KOs) vs. Delvin Rodriguez (25-5-3, 14 KOs), jr. middleweights
Anyone who says “everything’s bigger in Texas” has never been in a subway tunnel in New York. It is in that spirit that, during the fourth round of their first fight at the Roseland Ballroom, Pawel Wolak suffered a hematoma that was less a “mouse” (as such things are known by the grizzled Burgess Meredith types that patrol boxing corners) and more a full-sized New York City sewer rat. With Wolak unable to see out of his right eye, what started out as a strong effort by the Polish fighter to keep his opponent on the back foot turned into a back-and-forth war that ended in a majority draw and left everyone who saw the fight begging for a rematch.
Well, the boxing gods listened. The last time the consensus Fight of the Year was not for a world title was in 2003, as Micky Ward’s third fight with Arturo Gatti, the third time in a row Ward had been involved in a Fight of the Year, took the crown. Since then we’ve had seven years and seven world titles, but that streak may very well end in 2011. All those boxing fans who argue that only fights between champions are worth paying big money for are strongly advised to turn on their TV when this card hits air for an object lesson in why that assertion could not be further from the truth. This is a Boxing After Dark main event masquerading as an undercard fight.
For Delvin Rodriguez, this is a chance to finally win a decision on television. Regular viewers of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights are plenty familiar with a guy who ought to take the ring nickname “The Hard-Luck Kid”. Rodriguez is 1-3-1 in his last five fights, the lone win coming against a game but overmatched Mike Arnaoutis in April of 2010. However, the Danbury, Connecticut native could make a fine case that he should have gone 5-0 in those fights. Isaac Hlatshwayo was the beneficiary of a split decision for the IBF crown at welterweight in 2009, Rafal Jackiewicz got some blatant home cooking in his native Poland, Ashley Theophane won a travesty of a majority decision on ESPN in 2010, and the first fight with Wolak saw Tom Schreck give Delvin the lone winning card in a majority draw.
Sometimes two guys just bring out the best in each other. Besides Ward-Gatti, a possible Wolak-Rodriguez trilogy, should the men be persuaded to fight again next year, has the potential to draw comparisons to the great boxing series of all time, the Morales-Barrera, Ali-Frazier, Vazquez-Marquez tier of all-time great competition. If you have access to ESPN3.com, Wolak-Rodriguez I is still up for viewing (search “FNF” and choose from the list). It’s a fine appetizer for a fight that may just be the best fight of the night on Saturday.
Mike Jones (25-0, 19 KOs) vs. Sebastian Andres Lujan (38-5-2, 24 KOs), welterweights
Speaking of guys who had great fights on ESPN, Sebastian Lujan’s brutal, sadistic beatdown of Mark Jason Melligen on FNF in July stands out for making the argument that a Knockout of the Year need not be one of those one-punch nuclear explosions like the one Kendall Holt dropped on the chin of Julio Diaz back in May. Knockdowns in each of the sixth, seventh, and eighth rounds before the coup de grace was delivered in the ninth had less in common with, say, Tyson-Berbick and more in common with Ali-Terrell, in which the artist formerly known as Cassius Clay administered fifteen rounds of punishment while seemingly intentionally refusing to close the show so that he could continue to beat up his battered opponent—had that fight happened in 2011 it would surely have been stopped. Lujan-Melligen is another fight that can be watched online; viewers looking for a sign of what to expect can check that fight out for themselves.
Meanwhile, Mike Jones is a giant question mark in this fight; on the one hand, he has had 25 fights against increasingly solid competition as he has grown and developed as a fighter. On the other hand, as steps up in class go, this is going from the peasantry to fighting a guy who has twice fought for a world title. Jones is ranked in the top five by the alphabet soup organizations and fifth by The Boxing Tribune at welterweight behind the true stars (Pacquiao, Mayweather, Ortiz, and Berto) in the division. Does that best-of-the-rest ranking mean glory for Jones and a stepping stone to a potential title shot? Jones has been discussed as a potential opponent for Manny Pacquiao down the road, and how this fight goes Saturday night could let fans know whether “down the road” means the next exit or two states over.
The wild card in this fight is Lujan’s willingness to absorb punishment. Like a young Mike Tyson, Lujan is more than willing to walk right through his opponent’s jab in order to try and impose his will. The question is whether Jones has enough power to crack the hard head of the Argentine fighter the way Marco Antonio Avendano and Antonio Margarito were able to do in Lujan’s two knockout losses. If not, the prospect may be in for a long night and if his own defense is not sound he may be in for a lot more than a long night; it may prove to be the sort of beautiful beatdown that makes Sebastian Andres Lujan so much fun to watch.
Brandon Rios (28-0-1, 21 KOs) vs. John Murray (31-1, 18 KOs), WBA lightweight title
It is not an overstatement of the point to suggest that Brandon Rios is the best 135-pound fighter not named Juan Manuel Marquez. In the absence of a fight between Rios and Robert Guerrero (the other candidate for the aforementioned distinction), the Oxnard, California-based undefeated WBA champion must make his case by virtue of the way he defeats his other opponents.
An illustration of this “I’ll beat my guys better than you beat yours” approach to settling fan arguments was on display in Rios’ last fight, as he destroyed Urbano Antillon in three rounds to defend his belt for the first time after winning it in similarly ultra-violent fashion against Miguel Acosta in February. Rios has won by either knockout or disqualification in ten consecutive fights; the last man to take Rios the distance, Manuel Perez, was also responsible for the sole blemish on the champion’s record, a ten-round majority draw in October of 2008. Whether nearly tasting defeat convinced Brandon Rios that he needs to be more aggressive or whether he simply grew into himself (Rios is still only 25 years old) and found his strength can be debated, but the results cannot. Brandon Rios hits you like a car, and on paper this fight appears to be a mismatch.
But, to steal a line from Kenny Mayne, “Boxing matches are not fought on paper, they’re fought inside television sets.” John Murray is the classic example of the British boxer long on heart and short on skill. Before getting starched by Kevin Mitchell back on July 16th, Murray had held regional European belts, first via the British Boxing Board of Control and later via the EBU, for three years. Coming off a knockout loss to fight one of the very best lightweights in the world and a legitimate potential pound-for-pound top ten guy in Brandon Rios seems an odd career move. Chris Arreola once said (of his loss to Vitali Klitschko) that “my trainer told me you never turn down a title fight” and that is the only logic that can possibly explain Murray’s willingness to step into the ring with a guy who has knocked out ten guys in a row including two world title challengers.
All that said, however, this fight should be tremendous fun while it lasts, and the ending has legitimate Knockout of the Year potential if Brandon Rios can land a clean, flush shot with the power that he has in his fists. And if Murray pulls the upset? Twenty bucks on the underdog could net you a good-sized chunk of change, although it might be better odds to just buy a lottery ticket.
Miguel Angel Cotto (36-2, 29 KOs) vs. Antonio Margarito (38-7, 27 KOs), WBA Super jr. middleweight title
Repeat after me: “Styles make fights.” Take a guy whose greatest strength is his opponent’s greatest weakness, add questions about how much both guys have left in the tank, add in a dash of psychological question marks, stir, bake in a boxing ring for 12 rounds, and you have the recipe for a classic fight, a main event that is actually worth the price paid for the pay-per-view card.
Antonio Margarito has had more run-ins with authorities in boxing commission than your cousin with the drunk driving problem and the tendency to run his mouth has had with the police (c’mon, everybody’s got one.) His adventures getting re-licensed in California led Margarito to seek the friendly confines and weak commission of Texas for his fight with Manny Pacquiao last November. His surgically repaired right eye nearly led to this fight being called off before the New York State Athletic Commission either got their palms greased or concluded that Margarito was clear to fight on his own merits (depending on which conspiracy theories you subscribe to.)
The re-licensing itself was a result of the Mexican fighter earning the nickname of Margacheato due to his use of plaster in his hand wraps against Shane Mosley and possibly against Cotto in their first fight. Considering the amount of damage done compared to the amount of punches thrown, Margarito either developed a truly mind-bending amount of power in his fists out of all proportion to his previous performances or he gave new meaning to the term “plastered his opponent” in the ring. Ironically, the fight in which Margarito got caught with the loaded wraps was also the only time in his career that he has been stopped, as Shane Mosley closed the show in the ninth round of a fight that Sugar Shane was winning easily on all three judges’ cards.
The argument can be made that Miguel Cotto has not been the same since getting starched in his first pro loss back in 2008. Psychologically there have been questions as to whether the Puerto Rican still truly has the mentality of a fighter; Teddy Atlas in particular has pointed this out nearly every time that Cotto’s name has come up in a conversation to which he has been a party. On the other hand, the only other guy to beat Cotto since that day in 2008 has been Manny Pacquiao, although Cotto himself admitted that he wanted to quit after the 11th round before suffering his ultimate fate of a KO loss in the 12th. How you believe this main event will go is dependent on whether you think Antonio Margarito has more in common with Pacquiao (to whom Margarito lost but the fight went the distance) or with the likes of Josh Clottey and Yuri Foreman and Ricardo Mayorga.
Style-wise, this is a worst-case scenario for Cotto, who has shown a strong disinclination for fighting on the back foot. Margarito exploited this to devastating effect in the first fight. Whether his wraps were loaded or his gloves had horseshoes in them or not, the fact remains that Antonio Margarito imposed himself on Cotto in exactly the same way that the pressure-fighting Pacquiao did. In the process, Miguel Cotto’s greatest weakness was laid bare for all to see, and if Cotto indeed has as his Achilles heel guys who are willing to press the action and keep him on the back foot, the Puerto Rican may be in for a very, very long night indeed.
The best fights are often those where coming in you can make a very good case for either fighter. Miguel Cotto is the much more skilled of the two men who will step into that ring at Madison Square Garden. But styles make fights, and if ever a fighter could be molded from clay by the gods with the sole purpose of making Miguel Cotto’s life a living hell, Antonio Margarito is that fighter. This has all the makings of the perfect capper to a brilliant night of competitive boxing. It’s hard to imagine fans not finding something in this card to get their money’s worth.
Fox Doucette covers Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune. His weekly column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. He’s predicting wins for Wolak by decision, Lujan by knockout, Rios by mismatch, and Margarito by KO in the 9th round. Fan mail, hate mail, and “wow, you weren’t even close” on Sunday can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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