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Friday, November 13, 2009

Miguel Cotto is the penultimate piece in Manny Pacquiao's remarkable jigsaw

How Ricky Hatton and Manny Pacquiao have grown apart – literally and figuratively – since they collided so dramatically in a Las Vegas ring six months ago.

Tomorrow night in the same space at the MGM Grand in which he demolished the Mancunian whirlwind inside two rounds in May, Pacquiao entertains the Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto in what the little Filippino marvel describes as "a once-in-a-lifetime fight".

If he wins this, his 55th bout in 14 years since fleeing his impoverished childhood in Santos City, he will be a fight closer to boxing immortality, a win away from being indisputably regarded as the most versatile and exciting boxer of his era, in any division. Victory – hardly a given – would deliver him his seventh title at different weights. It is the most moving fight story of our times.

And the final, defining win of his career, of course, would have to be over Floyd Mayweather Jr, the only man who could challenge Pacquiao for honour of pound-for-pound supreme boxer in the world. There would be nothing left to do, nowhere else to go, if he could pull that one off.

First, he has to get past Cotto, once touted as an opponent for Hatton. Cotto, beaten only once, by Antonio Margarito, whose denial his gloves were loaded has left many unconvinced, is a great all-round fighter in his own right. He is a natural welterweight, and he will see this WBO belt as his already against the smaller man. Cotto does not lack for confidence.

Mayweather, meanwhile, looks on with mannered indifference, keen not to give too much away. He will be hellishly difficult to negotiate with, whoever wins.

If we are looking for suspiciously neat comparisons, Mayweather's comeback bout, his first since knocking out Hatton in that MGM bearpit in December of 2008, was a stroll against Juan Manuel Márquez there last September, a points victory so comprehensive it bordered on embarrassing, whatever the disparity in their weights.

Márquez, of course, twice nearly beat Pacquiao – and, if the rumours hold true, will next year be in the opposite corner when Hatton makes an ill-advised comeback.

This is the circus of the fight game, an enthralling, interconnected puzzle.

Tomorrow night in Las Vegas, I expect Pacquiao to slot the second-last piece of his game into place, and wait for Mayweather to phone him and complete the picture.

Hatton the wrestler

We all know boxing is an illusion of sorts. Apart from rare instances, it is not really two men fighting in the accepted sense of a bar-room brawl, bruisingly to the end until one ends up in the horse trough and the other guy gets the girl.

But there is boxing and there is kidding yourself.

In the weird world that is the television sell, two extraordinary clips this week reminded us of the gap between Hatton and Pacquiao, in real fighting terms.

Hatton, waddling like a bloated duck, was paraded in snapshots of his WWE performance putting his choreographed finisher on a fellow wrestling thespian and clambering on to the turnbuckle to accept the cheers of the crowd somewhere in sports fantasyland.

If he's happy doing that gig, fair enough. It's only entertainment, and Ricky always was an entertainer. But Pacquiao's interpretation of the connection between showbiz and violence remains more rooted in fact.

Within moments of Hatton's wrestling cameo on Sky, Pacquiao, menacingly hard, was shown knocking out the slim version of Hatton with brutal finality in what ought to have been the Hitman's farewell fight. The juxtaposition (probably accidental) could not have been more vivid.

In the context of what remains of his boxing career, the footage of Hatton descending into painful sleep sent the clear message that the stories of his making a comeback against Márquez are surely the stuff of delusion – especially when set against his subsequent alarming weight gain.

The trade on Pacquiao-Cotto

Hoovering up opinions this week, fanhouse.com revealed support for both men among some of the most respected voices in the industry.Joe Calzaghe thinks Manny will be too quick; Cotto's fellow Puerto Rican, Hector Camacho, tips against the Pacman because he "has fought better guys"; the unbeaten light-heavyweight champion Chad Dawson says Pacquiao; Shane Mosley thinks Cotto's size will be too much; compatriot Felix Trinidad goes for Cotto in "the most dangerous fight of Pacquiao's career"; Winky Wright, the former light-middleweight champion, believes "with all of my heart" that Cotto will win.

The quirkiest but most interesting take came, unsurprisingly, from Bernard Hopkins, who observed, "[Pacquiao's] basketball and martial arts background give him that speed and agility. You can't tell where his shots are coming from. Unlike Rocky, Bruce Lee was a real dude and so is Manny."

I find that argument compelling. This fight is about movement, in a scaled down version of Haye-Valuev (actually, as in every fight), and the extravagance of Paquiao's in-and-out style will set Cotto a series of three-minute riddles he will struggle with.

Pacquiao beat Hatton so conclusively because Ricky's chin was gone. The only doubts about Cotto's punch resistance are based on Margarito's wicked finishing of him in 2008 – although the Mexican's subsequent dismissal from the sport for loading his gloves against Mosley (who beat him up, nonetheless) provide mitigating evidence.

Chorley's Michael Jennings, who challenged Cotto at Madison Square Garden in February, says the welterweight champion's uncanny ability to make him miss by mere fractions of an inch ultimately led to his own defeat. Jennings, a fine boxer, could not lay a glove on Cotto and was frustrated and stopped. Jennings goes for Cotto, as does Kell Brook, our young boxer of the year.

Cotto is a terrific ring technician, aware of where he is in relation to his opponent as if hard-wired to some computer. But I've always thought he was a fraction slow – not ponderous, but, against a quicksilver puncher such as Pacquiao, slow enough to suffer. His best chance is to knock Pacquiao out, because the Pacman will make his life hell if he opens up a big lead.

I see Pacquiao bamboozling Cotto like Haye confounded Valuev – but with maybe a thousand more punches.

Haye: the real thing?

After a week to reflect, there is still much to admire about Haye's win over the Russian. He surprised all of us by sticking to a difficult strategy for every second of the 12 rounds. It was an amazing feat of concentration. He won't fight that way against John Ruiz (that will be a tear-up) or the Klitschkos, whom he will have to draw on to the punch, because they are most comfortable boxing off the back foot.

I think Haye stops Ruiz, outpoints or stops Wladimir and loses to Vitali on a late stoppage – unless he takes Vitali in two years time when he will be closer to 40. Then he has a much better chance.

Not sure if this is good or bad news for Haye: Ruiz is now a free agent, so there will be no Don King in the negotiations – or bigging up the fight. King's whirlwind gob is good for at least 100,000 pay-per-view hits.

Yet rumours, the grist of the boxing mill, persist that King will be in there somewhere in the talks, perhaps trying to muscle in on his one-time client Ruiz, maybe getting Valuev a rematch in Germany before Haye gets his hands on the Klitschkos.

Interesting times ahead.

Ring siblings

It is a hundred years since the Americans Monte and Abe Attell became the first brothers to simultaneously hold world boxing titles, and there haven't been many since.

Usually, one sibling has outshone the other by some wattage: Jake over Joey LaMotta, Aaron over Stephan Pryor, Muhammad Ali over Rahman, and Meldrick over Myron and Eldrick Taylor, for instance. Others have vied equally for the spotlight: Leon and Michael Spinks, and Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.

In the UK in recent years we have had Clinton, Duke and Lee McKenzie.

Matthew Hatton, though, has always trailed some way behind Ricky, the most popular fighter from these islands since Frank Bruno and Nigel Benn.

If the younger Hatton beats the IBO welterweight champion Lovemore N'Dou at the Fenton Manor Sports Complex in Stoke tonight he will have at least added a version of the championship to go with those of his brother, in whose shadow he has boxed all his career.

Ricky is still mulling over a comeback but the likelihood of his being champion again alongside Matthew must be marginal. N'Dou, a seasoned South African campaigner based in Australia, is a tricky opponent with a decent if unspectacular record.

Hatton is on four-fight winning streak and has looked sound beating quality opponents such as Ben Tackie (who lost to Ricky six years ago) and Ted Bami, in an eliminator for this title shot.

"I'm a firm believer that fights are won in the gym," Hatton said on his brother's online TV channel. "I've given myself a 10-week training camp for this fight. Everyone will be shocked how comfortably I will deal with Lovemore."

N'Dou has won 47 of 59 fights in 16 years and was unlucky to lose to Ricky Hatton victim Paul Malignaggi last year when he challenged him for the IBF version of the light-welterweight title.

"I know his boxing," he told Hatton TV, "but I believe it's not enough. I'm in a different class. I'm the champion here. My title is going back to Australia, back to South Africa."

N'Dou is smaller, but Hatton is not a big hitter. It could be close, with the challenger, 10 years younger than the 38-year-old N'Dou, fresh enough to outlast him and join an elite club.

British boxing is awash with good fighting brothers at the moment – the Mitchells, Smiths, Walshes and Murrays spring immediately to mind. The Attells could soon have company in the record books.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2009/nov/13/manny-pacquiao-miguel-cotto

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