Cotto needed Steward's confidence
Bernard Hopkins once claimed that there are plenty of trainers in boxing, but few real teachers. Anyone, he said, is capable of reciting "jab, jab, cross" from a DVD. Few, though, know the nuances of the sport, those which take decades to discern. Fewer still know what to say in the heat of battle when their fighter is losing and needs to feel like a winner. That also takes years. There are a few of those trainers out there, and Emanuel Steward is one of them.
But after two bouts, and on the eve of training camp for a third, Miguel Cotto and the Hall of Fame trainer have parted ways. Some claim the issue was money. Others (including Cotto himself) insist it was a mere scheduling conflict. But it was Cotto's choice.
Surely a fighter of Cotto's pedigree and veteran status can overlook a change in trainer, especially one who has been in his corner for only two fights? The answer is that, despite the prospect of a career-high payday in his next fight -- a Dec. 3 rematch with Antonio Margarito at New York City's Madison Square Garden -- it could be the costliest mistake of Cotto's career.
Facing Margarito in their first match in 2008, Cotto, in addition to the taste of his own blood, swallowed defeat for the first time. His face pummeled, looking like he had fallen on broken glass, Cotto emerged a changed fighter -- near unanimously believed to be a lesser one. For the past three years, Cotto has refused a rematch with Margarito, denying a payday to a fighter whom he suspects beat him with illegal hand wraps, an act Margarito was charged with against Shane Mosley.
But there could be other reasons for Cotto's refusal to fight Margarito -- namely, mental ones -- and it's here that Steward could have played the biggest part. A trainer of Steward's caliber is capable of helping Cotto overcome any lingering mental demons, or correcting the technical mistakes that were made last time in the ring. Dubious history is less likely to repeat itself with a Hall of Fame trainer at your side.
Margarito will have the edge over Cotto in the build-up, and he will come at him with the same ferocity that he showed in their first bout. With Steward present, Cotto's corner might have been a sea of tranquility among the storm of punches. Better than most, Steward instills confidence in his fighters -- a commodity many believe Cotto has lacked and failed to regain since his defeat. Now? Steward's departure itself may create further doubt.
Cotto might still have been vanquished by the Mexican, but he stood a much better chance of exacting revenge with Steward in his camp than without him. The famed trainer comes at a price, but his experience, as Cotto will come to realize, is priceless.
Training, not trainer, is the thing
Antonio Margarito is a number of things: among them, a tall, strong welterweight/junior middleweight and a suspected cheater who is something of a boxing pariah. One thing he is not is unpredictable.
Margarito has one gear: forward. He does not fight well backing up, he does not cut off the ring, he does not have fleet footwork or fast hands. He is a straightforward puncher who, through methods fair or nefarious, grinds down and beats up his foes.
Prior to Margarito's first fight with Miguel Cotto, I thought this predictability would cause him to come up short. I thought that Cotto was in an altogether different class as a fighter and that this class would surely tell. And for the first six rounds of their contest, I was convinced I was going to be proved correct.
But my friend Bert Sugar had taken the opposite tack. He, unlike me, picked Margarito to win. For one thing, Margarito at that time appeared to be able to withstand an infinite amount of punishment. As Bert expressed it, in a classic Sugarism, "If lightning struck Margarito, Margarito would win." And then there was Cotto's big flaw: As Bert noted, Cotto had a tendency to retreat to the ropes and, when he did so, to bend forward at the waist -- a habit that would play right into the hands of an opponent with a fierce uppercut. Antonio Margarito had such an uppercut.
That fight highlighted one other flaw in Cotto's makeup: his stamina. Although Margarito's fists obviously deserve most of the credit for Cotto's fade in the second half of that contest, it was neither the first nor last occasion that the Puerto Rican had shown signs of fatigue late in bouts. Cotto had to get on his bicycle toward the end of a fight he had been winning comfortably against Lovemore N'dou in 2004; he allowed Shane Mosley to close strong in 2007; and he was hanging on for dear life against Joshua Clottey in 2009, escaping with a win largely because Clottey, as is sometimes his wont, seemed to regard throwing punches as an entirely voluntary component of professional prizefighting.
I bring up all this for a simple reason. For the first half of their first encounter, Cotto was outboxing Margarito with relative ease. He was able to do so long before he had Emanuel Steward in his corner. What ultimately finished him was not just Margarito, but his particular susceptibility to Margarito: his poor conditioning, relative to the very highest performers in the game, and a particular stylistic habit that caused him to lean into Margarito's power punches.
Cotto can utilize a game plan similar to the one he had for that fight, but he has to correct the failings that enabled Margarito to overcome him. He needs to greatly improve his conditioning, and he needs to correct those particular stylistic errors. If he makes those adjustments -- and he doesn't need Steward to do so -- Cotto can win the rematch and gain his revenge. If he doesn't, then he could have a dream team of Steward, Freddie Roach and a reincarnated Eddie Futch in his corner and it wouldn't be enough to prevent him from suffering another beating at Margarito's fists.
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