Mayweather vs. Cotto: Oscar’s Blueprint
The jab is to modern boxing what world peace is to Miss Universe; to whit, you need to put it out there if you want to impress the judges…
If Fights Were Won on Paper…
The last time Floyd “Money” Mayweather stepped up to 154 lbs., he dropped the only card of his career, with judge Tom Kaczmarek scoring 115-113 for Oscar De La Hoya in their May 2007 encounter for the WBC light middleweight title. Oscar was, at the time, not to be found on any P4P list and was ranked fifth at 154 lbs. by Ring magazine. Currently, the same publication ranks Miguel Cotto, who will be the man in the other corner for Mayweather’s second foray up to light middleweight, as #1 in that division, and he is ranked #9 pound-for pound by Boxing.com
Mayweather was almost universally regarded as the world’s greatest boxer when his fight with De La Hoya was made, but Oscar had done little to recommend himself. Whilst he had looked spectacular against the always-willing Ricardo Mayorga almost a year earlier, in the three years prior to that he had lost a questionable decision to Shane Mosley, won a questionable decision against Felix Sturm, and been stopped by Bernard Hopkins. He was 2-2 and averaging a fight a year. In short, he was semi-retired.
Miguel Cotto, on the other hand, is an active champion and is 3-1 in his last four fights, all his wins coming by way of stoppage. His only loss came against the Ying to Mayweather’s Yang, his twisted mirror image, his only competitor for the pound-for-pound crown he wore for his fight with De La Hoya, the offensive machine to Mayweather’s defensive genius, Manny Pacquiao. In short—Cotto is not semi-retired.
The only card on which Mayweather has ever lost was at the weight where these two meet on Saturday night and with a certain kind of light illuminating a certain kind of paper, Cotto should be a tougher challenge for the ageing Mayweather than the ageing De La Hoya was for the younger Floyd. So what was it about Oscar that troubled Mayweather that night? And much more importantly, can Cotto recreate those woes?
Let’s take a look.
The Jab, The Feint, The Mystery
Mayweather’s first round against De La Hoya was a dream. Oscar shuffled forward bereft of any plan other than being big and somehow getting Floyd to march back to the ropes based upon his size. He fought square and jabless. Floyd on the other hand moved gracefully, jabbed with an uncharacteristic frequency, sometimes varying with an affective hook. Oscar didn’t land a significant punch and was quickly smothered on the one occasion he managed to get Floyd to the ropes. No problems were set for the pound-for-pound champ in that first. Mayweather controlled the center of the ring with his footwork and his left hand alone.
In the second, everything changed. It changed because De La Hoya started throwing his jab.
Oscar De La Hoya’s jab became a subject of some controversy when Emanuel Steward labeled it one of the very finest in history. I’m not sure that this statement can be justified, but when his jab is at its very best, as it was against Felix Trinidad or Miguel Gonzalez, it is an exceptional one. Over the next few rounds it would become the most significant weapon in De La Hoya’s bid to unseat the pound-for-pound #1. This, in many ways, was something of a surprise. Mayweather had opened jabbing forcefully and was De La Hoya’s technical superior. Generally “The Golden Boy” doesn’t do well jabbing with jabbers. Whitaker and Quartey are examples of top-class jabbers who have out-jabbed him, but more recently even Felix Sturm had arguably won that particular technical battle against De La Hoya.
Regardless, the first three punches Oscar threw in that second round were jabs and Mayweather, suddenly, was banished from the center of the ring. This is the first key ingredient in jabbing Mayweather. He needs to be taken to the ropes by more than just crowding and badgering. Mayweather respects and is alert to a jab that gains his attention. It’s the punch which most quickly reduces the deficit in hand speed he has over most opponents and will have over Miguel Cotto.
Secondly, it is a points gatherer. The jab is to modern boxing what world peace is to Miss Universe; to whit, you need to put it out there if you want to impress the judges. Taking control of the fight against Mayweather has proven so difficult for a succession of opponents that many of them have forgotten to fight whilst they are moving him back. The jab should be the weapon of choice.
Finally, Mayweather is a punch-picker extraordinaire. Those wishing to undermine him deride this skill as only being the type of hit-and-run tactics that saw him booed and in tears after the Carlos Baldomir fight. This is not the case. Mayweather picks the right punch. That’s a gift. But it takes time, in the fight, to perfect. He likes to measure his man. He likes to come to understand him. He likes to find the chinks in his armor that he can exploit. He’s a very specific fighter. The jab is the most general punch to deal with but the one that can be thrown with the most variety.
Mayweather couldn‘t match that jab. This meant that he was firmly on the backfoot. Mayweather punches from the backfoot as well as anyone in boxing, but a breach of the laws of physics are something that even Money can’t buy. There is an excellent demonstration of this just twenty seconds into that second round when De La Hoya decided he would lead with the right. It missed by an Irish country mile. What was interesting was that Mayweather also missed with his counter. He had scored with a near identical punch at around the same time in round one. The reason Floyd was now missing was that he was now leaning away, trying to slip Oscar’s jabs as opposed to in behind his own jabs. Even the most graceful of fighters needs a moment to make that adjustment and punch.
And that’s it. In one strategically shift the fight was changed and Oscar was in charge. Fighting Mayweather cannot be about strategy alone however. Rather, a strategically quilt needs to be sewn together from a series of specific tactics. Mayweather’s adaptability, intrinsic ability and exceptional technical acumen needs to be offset by specific detail rather than any grand plan. “I’ll do my thing and let him worry about me” will get you beaten, but “use good head movement, move forward behind a jab, try to pin him on the ropes” will get you just as beaten, even if it is by a smaller margin.
As a speedster and technician whose job it is to avoid being landed on first, Mayweather now had a full plate in front of him. Furthermore he is engaged at a higher level by virtue of the fact that he has been set a specific problem. What Oscar has to do now is set him another one.
Not a great feinter, De La Hoya tries his luck after their brief tussle right behind their both missing power punches only thirty-five seconds into round two. Mayweather’s reaction is fulsome. He darts back with head and body and momentarily gives up the support of his leading foot. When Juan Manuel Marquez fought Mayweather what meager success he had was born of feinting, feinting Mayweather out of position then chasing him with a long right hand. This is a punch that a less experienced fighter wouldn’t chuck at Money if he boxed him for forty rounds, but Marquez knew that once he had feinted Mayweather out of position and into a lean or a slip for a nonexistent punch he became, momentarily, just like any other fighter. For Oscar, it is worth more than it would be worth to Marquez because it is a second layer in his controlling offence. It is not something that scores De La Hoya any points, but it leads Mayweather a little further down the garden path, it’s a secondary way to take control of distance and timing, Mayweather territory.
Mayweather’s immediate reaction is fascinating. He backs up whilst throwing out a tentative, nothing jab. He’s fully engaged, jabbing with a great jabber, trying to deliver on pure backfoot tactics against a larger opponent who is jabbing at him when he is trying to counter. He’s certainly not being dominated and he rolls most of Oscar’s best punches, but he’s gone from fighting his dream fight in the first round to the best fight De La Hoya could have hoped for in the second.
Then, the mystery. Halfway through the fight, Oscar abandoned his jab. Theories as to why crammed internet message boards for days afterwards, not least due to the man’s own feeble “it wasn’t to be the night of the jab” explanation. This vacuum of information has led to rife speculation, most commonly that Floyd countered the jab out of Oscar’s arsenal through the fifth. This did not happen. In fact, Oscar was countered more in that second round than he was in fifth, a round in which only one of his six jabs were countered. My best guess, partially confirmed by remarks made after the fight by De La Hoya cornerman Freddie Roach, was that he had become tired, had lost a step and that he just found himself too far behind the fleet-footed Floyd to get set and jab at him. Mayweather’s resulting takeover was rapid, near complete, and enough to get him the split decision on the cards.
None of this is to suggest that a world-class jab stuck to a twelve-round fighter is enough to beat a fighter like Mayweather. As we’ve seen, even to steal four of the first six rounds, it takes more. But a fighter who has those things, and the imagination, physicality or dynamism to provide more individual but intertwined challenges might be able to do it. He might derail the greatest physical talent since Roy Jones and in the seemingly perennially building Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, the richest boxing match in history.
So what about the $100 million question?
Can Miguel Do That?
When Mayweather moved up to 154 lbs five years ago to the day upon which he will meet Miguel Cotto, he had fought just a single legitimate welterweight, the clueless Baldomir. Mayweather did not yet look like a legitimate welterweight himself, never mind a junior middle. At the time, I considered Mayweather’s voyage up to 154 lbs. not dissimilar to Oscar’s own journey into the middleweights. I picked the smaller man to win, but not without trepidation, trepidation that was justified. Had Oscar remembered his jab in round one instead of round two, the fight likely would have been drawn.
Now, Mayweather is a bull at 147 lbs. He’s gained the thickness through the chest and arms of a more mature man and fighter, and because he’s done so gradually—and naturally—he’s done it without compromising that speed in any meaningful way. Mayweather, of course, came to the ring as a light middle when he met Victor Ortiz in his last fight, weighing, on fight night, 150 lbs. Ortiz weighed an astounding 164, having gained 17 lbs. between weigh-in and bell. Yet Mayweather handled one of the most colossal “welterweights” ever to fight for a title with consummate ease. Twice in the opening round Ortiz pushed up to him and twice Mayweather shared honors as the two momentarily tested each other’s strength. If ever there was a fight where Mayweather, on paper, needed to keep mobile and avoid clinches, this was surely it, but there he was, contesting the clinches with the younger, supposedly stronger man. Furthermore, he had no issues matching strength with Mosley for spells, who in turn bullied Margarito who in turn bullied Cotto. I do not think that Cotto will show a meaningful advantage in strength in this fight.
I do think that he will get the chance to prove me wrong, however. I suspect there will be clinches to contest. Mayweather arguably hasn’t turned in the type of moving performance some are predicting since his last outing at light middleweight. Some feel his legs are going, others feel his confidence is increasing in the more aggressive strategy we have seen against Mosley and Ortiz. What is beyond argument is that nobody up until this point has been able to force him to move when he hasn’t wanted to do so. This pattern will continue on Saturday night in my opinion. Just as I do not consider Cotto the stronger man in any meaningful way, nor do I consider him the puncher in the fight. Whilst Mayweather’s KO percentage has receded as he himself has marched forwards through the divisions, he did stop Ortiz via knockout in his last fight. This was a two-punch KO over a man weighing in over the middleweight limit. Whilst it was undeniably controversial that Mayweather threw those punches, he did, and he landed them, and the resulting stoppage was a result of those punches. It is true that Mayweather did not engineer this opening for himself, and it is true that the punches you don’t see coming are the ones which hurt you, but it is also true that Cotto doesn’t have a knockout—an old-fashioned, knocked down for the ten-count knockout—since his 2005 stoppage of Ricardo Torres. Cotto breaks fighters down. He does this with the type of pressure and activity that also tends to bring favorable scorecards, but it does not make him the harder puncher. Whilst his left hook to the body remains one of boxing’s better punches, and almost any opponent might find himself in trouble should Cotto land it flush, I believe this is representative of little more than a puncher’s chance for him-negligible against a genuinely brilliant defense.
Whilst a small size advantage may exist for Cotto, he is certainly no bigger than Ortiz. In fact, Ortiz is the taller of the two. Like Cotto he jammed his frame into the 135 lb. division as a younger man and like Cotto he now comes to the ring weighing over 160 lbs. Cotto will be no heavier for his fight with Mayweather than Ortiz was for his.
So for me, Cotto’s chances do not lie in his supposed superiority in strength or his nonexistent advantage in power or his tiny size advantage, rather they lie in his ability to recreate the tentative blueprint laid down by Oscar De La Hoya in those first six rounds of Mayweather‘s only other 154 lb. outing, a blueprint that went acknowledged by one of the three scoring officials.
As we’ve seen, on paper Cotto represents what is arguably a more serious challenge, but does he have the individual tools to pull off the upset and the wherewithal to weave the tactical tapestry that can deliver strategic superiority? For the beginnings of an answer we have to return to Cotto’s brief association with Emanuel Steward, the man so impressed by the De La Hoya jab.
Steward claimed that his main input for Cotto’s post-Paquiao comeback fight with Foreman was mental, but he also listed technical changes the two worked together to make. The most important of these, according to Steward, was Cotto’s balance. The great trainer’s main complaint was the depth of Cotto’s stance, his legs too spread to allow proper balance while moving his head and upper body. He also claimed that Cotto’s positioning in terms of his elbows and head, which was “down too far” had to be corrected. Cotto’s stance has indeed been narrowed and in terms of the traditional “in out” attack he used against Margarito, this has served him well. Cotto showed a good marriage of elements of the pre- and post- Steward stances against Margarito, fighting early in attacking spurts using what Steward had taught him to stay on balance and mobile before widening his stance and sitting down on more punches as he tired later in the fight. This interested me because I remembered Genaro Hernandez talking about how he would fight a rematch with Mayweather after their 1998 super featherweight WBC title confrontation. Genaro felt he had fought the wrong fight that night, that if he were to fight him again, “I’d be the counterpuncher. I’d make him come to me.”
This, of course, is easier said than done, but I do think that Cotto shows some interesting form in his footwork versus Margarito. For all that his “bounce” will be made redundant by Mayweather’s accuracy and timing, Cotto at the very least can try to fight a guerrilla war of his own, trying to mix his swarming and stalking attack with this foraging style.
In many ways however, this adjustment is an admission of defeat. Joe Louis did not fight in this manner. Nor did Carlos Zarate. These men knew they had the ability and toughness to impose this style on their opponents and it allowed them to cash in on the considerable benefits of executing one of the more terrifying approaches in boxing. For a boxer, being consistently stalked is a huge physical and mental burden. Cotto was this kind of destroyer at 140 lbs. and it wasn’t until his step up in class against Shane Mosley that Cotto was suddenly being applauded for his apparent multiplicity of dimensions. What we now know is that the supposed depth of Cotto’s style was hiding an uncomfortable truth: Cotto is not a twelve-round fighter. Not when he fights at pace.
The last two rounds are notoriously hard for Miguel. Against Mosley he ran, or something like it. Against Margarito (the first time) and Pacquiao he was crushed late and against the static Clottey he fought with a very careful economy against an opponent there to be dominated by workrate. This is a frightening prospect when matched against Mayweather’s stamina. I have never seen Money even winded after a fight.
This makes it all the more imperative for Cotto to control the pace at which the fight is being fought at, and for this he needs the jab. Cotto’s jab is an interesting one. Technically it is proficient but its impact has been stymied overall since he gave up his pure stalking style. In the seventh of his second fight with Margarito, Cotto hit trouble for the first time, finding himself on the receiving end of some rough handling before sucking up a big uppercut. Cotto stayed close and traded. Then he got on his bike and brought Margarito on. He threw up a static guard, received the punches Margarito dealt then moved. Finally, he went to the jab, landing two punches on the retreat with the narrower Steward stance before moving off. His punches lacked zip and he looked tired for the first time. In short, he worked through every strategy for keeping Margarito at bay possible before he went to the jab and then he didn’t commit. This has been a recurring them in his fights with Margarito. Cotto has never shown the jab to take control of ring-center and he has never shown the jab to ward Margarito off. These are two of the main ports in boxing’s busiest shipping lane.
I don’t think Cotto has adjusted his jab to suit his more fractured style.
All through 2007 Cotto, the destructive stalker, was a name that could be heard whenever the subject of Mayweather’s hallowed 0 was broached. I understand why, but I never agreed. Now that fighter is gone. If he could somehow be recalled, he might represent Cotto’s best chance against Mayweather, his best chance for taking some measure of control. But even if he did this, he doesn’t have De La Hoya’s second layer of subtlety on offense. He doesn’t have the skill to feint Mayweather out of position, nor the dynamism of foot to take up that slack.
Cotto, even at his very best, would be solved. As it is, as well as being faster, more skilled, a better puncher, technically, mentally and athletically superior, Mayweather is also the fresher man. Already a veteran of two serious beatings, Cotto is in for another one. By the sixth I expect the Puerto Rican to be planless, much as De La Hoya appeared in the first round of his battle with Floyd. By the eighth I think his propensity for marking up will have been highlighted by an aggressive Mayweather, rumors of a minor wrist injury notwithstanding. Undoubtedly tough, I do not think that Cotto has, for want of a better phrase, elite heart. I think he will be waving a white flag of strategic surrender later in the fight as Mayweather ups the pressure. I think the attention of both his own corner and the referee will be firmly on Cotto’s condition as the fight draws to a close.
It’s impossible to tell with Mayweather, but if he pushes for the stoppage I believe he can get it.
Oscar’s scant blueprint will remain unfulfilled.