One era begins and another ends

The Miguel Cotto who battered Zab Judah for 11 rounds at Madison Square Garden three years ago was on everybody's top 10 list of boxing's best pound-for-pound fighters.

The Miguel Cotto who not only outpunched, but outboxed and outslicked Shane Mosley five months later at the same venue moved into a lot of people's top three. Including my own.

But the Miguel Cotto who was brutally beaten in a possibly tainted performance by Antonio Margarito in 2008 and the one who got crushed by a surging Manny Pacquiao last November? Well, I'm not sure where he fits in anymore.

When I ran into Cotto last week at Yankee Stadium, I looked into the eyes of an old fighter. The record book says he's only 29 -- two months younger, in fact, than Yuri Foreman, the junior middleweight champion whose title Cotto will be trying to win Saturday night at Yankee Stadium -- but his face tells a different story.

So, too, do his recent performances which, in boxing as in horse racing, are really the only reliable indicators of where a fighter has been and where he is going.

Cotto has now lost two of his past four bouts, and not just lost them, but been blown out in both of them. Margarito may well have been fighting with loaded gloves, a gambit he tried to pull later in his own fight with Mosley. At this moment, there is no better fighter in the world than Pacquiao and if losing to him is a disgrace, it is a disgrace shared by many.

But the body doesn't know from loaded gloves or caliber of opposition.

All Cotto's 29-year-old body knows is that it looks and feels older.

In Foreman, Cotto comes face to face with everything that has ever given him trouble in the ring -- size, speed, mobility, elusiveness.

Just to add to his problems, Cotto, who began his career as a lightweight, has never fought a man as big as the 5-foot-11, 154-pound Foreman. Foreman, a career-long junior middleweight, has never fought a man as small as the 5-6 Cotto.

True enough, Foreman is no puncher -- his 28-0 record includes only eight KOs. But neither was Paulie Malignaggi, who absorbed a brutal early beating from Cotto to not only go the distance, but wobble Cotto late in the fight.

Foreman does many of the same things Malignaggi does. He uses the ring well, dictates the pace and distance of the fight and scores with quick, if light punches. He ties his man up when he gets inside and can frustrate an overly aggressive opponent -- as Cotto can sometimes be -- into exhaustion and despair. He does all of it better than Malignaggi did. Coming off a decision over Daniel Santos to win his title on the undercard the night Cotto got demolished by Pacquiao, Foreman's career appears to be on the upswing.

Not too many people are saying that about Cotto anymore. Plus, in using Emanuel Steward to train for this one, Cotto is now on his third different trainer in the past four bouts. That kind of upheaval in the camp is never good for a fighter, even one in his prime. Which Cotto is decidedly not.

The Cotto who beat Judah and Mosley would have been an easy pick to beat Foreman. The Cotto I have seen lately, in the ring and on the field at Yankee Stadium last week, is a tough pick to make against anyone.

A ballpark fight like this one is always a spectacle and a special event even before the first bell rings. But this one, I believe, will have an added element that will make it truly memorable: the whiff of an upset.

Foreman by decision in a fight that makes it clear that we have already seen the best of Miguel Cotto, and it is three long years behind us.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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